One activist’s prescription for mental health
I used this Fourth of July as an occasion for reflection on the state of the union. Like most of you, my take is grim indeed. But, other than swallowing mega-doses of tranquilizers or hibernating until the coast is clear, what options have we got for getting through this dark period?
When I sat down and started jotting down all the things I do these days to achieve a workable level of mental health, I was amazed by how many there were. It showed me how hard we have to work at counteracting the truly bad vibes out there in our every day life, even if we’re simply minding our own business. If we are activists, we have additional motivation to protect ourselves from the strong current of negative energy that can leave us depleted and feeling powerless, deflecting us from our mission.
My Mental Health Tool Kit is comprised of four categories – Body, Mind, combination Mind and Body, and Social. Some examples:
Body: Outdoor activities, gardening, exercise, swimming, and walking with my dog, Emma;
Mind: Assembling furniture, problem solving, computer word puzzles and games, thinking, writing, reading, and solitude;
Mind/Body: Meditation, EFT, Feldenkrais, yoga, massage, and kinesiology;
Social: food, humor/laughter, card games and puzzles, stimulating conversation, friends, family, home, and Shabbat (Sabbath) and holiday celebration.
I like word games because they allow me to keep those synapses firing. These games and puzzles appeal to my mildly competitive streak. I like the concept of tinkering with something that is scrambled or hidden and creating meaning and order. Subconsciously, I’m sure that if I can fix those jumbles of letters into neatly arranged words, somehow I’ll be able to sort out our election mess. For a brief time each day, I’m completely engrossed and leave behind my general frustration with the state of the nation. I know I’ve gone overboard when I answer repeated appeals with “Just give me three more minutes!” At that point, I remove myself from the computer and turn to other matters.
The more stressful life is, the more I need a fix. Being a mom means I’m a multi-tasker. So, I’ve adapted a mix-and-match approach to maximize effort and effectiveness in the quest for mental health. One of the best ways I’ve found to banish negativity is by spending time with family and friends. I aim for frequent socializing. It also takes me out of my head, where I can get stuck if I don’t watch out. Laughter is great for mental health. A study found that as children, we laugh dozens of times every day. But, by the time we become adults, laughter recedes to a few times a day at best. I seek out opportunities to laugh, either in conversation with friends and family, or by seeing humorous movies. This week, I watched Dan in Real Life with my husband, Rafi, thus earning 2 points for family and laughter. Recently, I went to Ravinia for a picnic and outdoor concert of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. Four points for music, friends, outdoors activity, and food I played ping pong with Ariella on the deck yesterday. In between volleys, I weeded (we’re between landscaping services, so it was much needed). This irritated Ariella and made us laugh, so I scored five points – sport activity, family, laughter, outdoors, and gardening. That was a great combo! Actually, devising the best ways to utilize these tools is fun in itself. It can bring out creativity in wild and wacky ways.
Today is the 4th of July. Most people will be out picnicking and watching fireworks tonight. I will be at home with my family and some friends, having a festive Sabbath meal – recharging my batteries so that I will be refreshed in the coming days. Count ‘em up: family and friends, Sabbath celebration, music (singing), food, pleasant home environment. That’s five. During the rest of the 25 hours of the Sabbath – away from telephone, TV, cars, computers, or bills – we will read, stroll, converse, spend relaxed quality time together, and maybe even squeeze in a nap. That brings us up to nine! So, what may appear at first glance to be a major inconvenience is, instead, a multi-faceted lifesaver, a chance for me and mine to slow things down and interact with one another. I am ever grateful of this wonderful weekly opportunity to get some distance and perspective that the pace of modern life does not allow. I really don’t think I could live without it.
Before we go back to the rat race
It is not healthy for our psyches to surround ourselves with bad news, 24/7. Studies have shown that children exposed to excessive TV become anesthetised to suffering and violence, both on the Boob Tube and beyond it. I reversed a life-long habit a year or so ago by banning the clock radio from my bedroom. For too many years, each morning I was awoken by NPR and (bad) news reports. I found it very jarring to wake up this way. Likewise, I try not to read disturbing material before bed. The negative vibes invade my sleep, giving me nightmares and leaving me restless and unrefreshed the next day.
While we cannot protect ourselves from much of the violence that surrounds us, taking in too much of it desensitizes us. I have tried to make my bedroom a virtual oasis from the outside world. No more all-nighters for me. I’m just too old for it. Our bed has a memory foam mattress pad and pillow (thank you, NASA!); we have jersey sheets that simulate sleeping in a well-worn, favorite t-shirt cocoon. This week, I added a wonderfully soft and cozy blanket to our peaceful and very pleasant sleeping environment. I spent many years as an intermittent insomniac. Interestingly, when I tossed the clock radio out and started instituting these home improvements, I noticed that my sleep became much deeper, less interrupted, and more satisfying. And all of this during a time when the news out there is actually worsening. If that isn’t an advertisement for taking good care of yourself, I don’t know what is!
So, to all of you out there, I say, simply: take good care of yourselves. This op-ed is just one person’s method, as a sort of jumping off point. Feel free to tweak as needed to reflect your own tastes and interests. Let me know how it’s going. We’re all in this together!