Water Bears Should Be a Model for Mental Health

Often when we talk about mental health, the conversation seems to veer toward mental illness. The main way many of us know how to talk about mental health is by talking about what it is not. The focus lies so deeply on mental illnesses that we often define our mental state in terms of mental illness: “not depressed”  or “not anxious.” Consequently, everyday emotions seem less important than the problems of those who have depression, anxiety, or PTSD, and you forget that you are worthy of taking care of your mental health. We shouldn’t just define mental health in terms of mental illness, but rather, in terms of self-care. You can take care of your physical health in many ways, including working out, eating well, resting, or being in nature, and you can do the same with your mental health: provide your body the fuel it needs to function at its best.

Mental health is complicated to define because different behaviors may be a sign of crisis in different people. We all hold up the pretense to be eternally happy like we’re winning at life and on top of this world. I do it, too! When people ask me how I’m doing, I instantly reply, “Great!” even if I’m having a bad day. As long as you’re taking care of yourself, you are winning at life. And over the next few weeks, I’m going to help you by providing my experiences, sharing the methods I use to improve my mental health, and reminding you that you are worthy of taking care of your mental health.

In truth, however, it is not possible to be completely happy all the time. In fact, it can even be detrimental to your mental health. Mental health is complicated and hard to navigate. It’s not easy to know whether you’re on a good path, how to better your mental health, or how to reach out for help. Let me try to make you a map to the windy labyrinth of mental health.

In our highly technologized world, it is hard for us to take a moment to ourselves and with our bodies. Being able to recognize our feelings, how our bodies react to those feelings and how we deal with those feelings is a sign of a good mental health. This is hard to do because we are so busy scrolling through our Etsy cart or sending our friends relatable memes. Thankfully, there are apps that can help us check in with ourselves. I use Moodpath. It reminds me to check in with my body, mind, and emotions three times a day by asking me a series of mental health-related questions and to fill in my mood and events that have recently occurred. This allows me to take a quick second for myself. If apps are not for you, you can do a simple exercise where you close your eyes just for a second and do a quick body scan. Notice all the points of tension in your body and how you feel. Checking in with yourself and relating to your emotions is a way to make sure you are doing well.

No emotion is eternal. When we feel sad, we push our feelings away to force ourselves to be happy. An essential aspect of maintaining good mental health is to remember that nothing is permanent, which may seem impossible. It’s not impossible, but it is hard. Over the next few weeks, I will be introducing you to different kinds of therapy. The first is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT teaches that the integral part of letting yourself feel is to differentiate facts from feelings. A fact is something that happened, that for which have physical evidence. A feeling is an indicator that one of your needs is not being met. Deciphering whether your experience is a feeling (she hates me because she left me on read) versus a fact (she is busy right now and can’t text me back) helps us to analyze our situation and understand that, while we may feel icky right now, our feelings will change and they are not deeply rooted in a fact. 

The most resilient animals on Earth are water bears, a microscopic tardigrade that can survive in the hottest volcanoes, coldest glaciers and even space! When I think about mental health, I often think about water bears, not only because I find them incredibly adorable, but also because they display resilience, an important part of maintaining good mental health. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is another type of therapy. According to DBT, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity. It means “bouncing back.” It’s not about “survival,” it’s about adaptation. Now, I don’t expect you to be able to physically adapt to the depths of a roaring volcano, but I am confident that with the right tools, you will be able to adapt to any situation that is thrown at you, whether that means picking yourself up, letting yourself cry or asking for help. Resilience is used most in times where you are having a bad mental health moment, however, it indicates that you have the skills to improve your mental health. Taking care of your mental health means developing skills to use when you do have moments of sadness or anger or frustration. Resilience does not mean to just keep going, it means to adapt to your situation and take care of yourself while relying on your resources.

An important aspect of relying on your resources is to ask for help. Asking for help is hard because some believe it shows weakness, but it is the best indicator of a healthy person. It shows strength to admit that you are not able to do everything and it shows courage to ask for help. You should ask for help when you first feel you need to outsource your emotions. Asking for help can be talking to a friend, your parents, a professor, or C.A.P.S. Ask for help. You are worth it. You are worth being healthy. You are worth taking care of yourself. 

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