One of the most frequent questions I get asked by my clients is “Am I normal?” This question generally elicits from me a shrug and the rejoinder—what is normal? I’m not trying to let them down easy, or avoid the question. It is really increasingly absurd to determine “normal” in a culture that embraces all kinds of extremes that used to be considered very abnormal. For example, it never used to be normal to sit and stare at a screen for hours on end every day, nor to ignore people around you in favor of a tinier screen in front of our noses. It was never normal to talk on a phone while completing transactions with other humans, such as buying groceries, driving a car, etc. Yet, we do this every day now, and, given our lack of reactivity to the ones doing what used to be considered very rude (i.e. “abnormal”), I would conjecture that this is now “normal” behavior.
Now, I’m not making the case that anything now goes. Just that “normal” is no longer a useful construct in my book. I prefer to talk and think in terms of “mental wellness,” and particularly, “optimal mental wellness.” Optimal mental wellness, by my definition, is when we feel and behave our best, most of the time. It is when our minds and our bodies are in balance and we feel generally happy and purposeful in our lives.
Over the years, I have developed a model for Optimal Mental Wellness that I used in my practice initially to determine whether someone was in a good place in their life to start in-depth trauma work, but, lately, have generalized my model to form the foundation of Optimal Mental Wellness for everyone at any point in their lives. There are three pillars in the model of Optimal Mental Wellness that, together, form a triad of stability that, when secure, will set a person up for success in their careers, love lives, and personal growth. When any one pillar is shaky, we experience stress more acutely, are more prone to physical illnesses, and suffer from mental imbalance symptoms (e.g. anxiety, depression, mood swings).
The three pillars are: physical/self-care—how are we taking care of our physical bodies and brains; relationships—with ourselves, others, our career, our spirituality, our intimate partner; and vision—where are we going.
Taking care of our physical bodies and our brains is more than just exercise, although that is an important element. We also need to consider the foods we’re feeding our bodies and brains. The right fuel sets us up to be our best, while other things we call food (e.g. sugar, alcohol, caffeine, trans-fats, and high fructose corn syrup), cause inflammation in our bodies and brains and set us up for failure. Taking care of our physical needs also involve getting sufficient hydration, which is often neglected, and eliminating regularly.
Sleep is a critical component as well. I’ll never forget the story I heard at a training on insomnia of the man who came into an emergency room suicidal, depressed, and hallucinating. He was textbook perfect for psychotropic medications, when, it turned out, all he needed was adequate sleep. He’d not slept in days due to a bad case of insomnia. Once his insomnia was corrected, all his symptoms disappeared. We often neglect our sleep in this time pressured culture we live in, and it is to our detriment. Lack of sleep shortens our lives, shrinks our brains, and increases anxiety, depression, and irritability.
Self-care, in my book, also includes mindfulness practices, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises. There is no shortage of research extolling the benefits of daily mindfulness practice.
Our relationships with ourselves and others either support and empower us to take on new challenges, strive to be our very best, and allow us to be vulnerable, opening ourselves to true connection and intimacy—or—they can shut us down, drain us of energy, creativity, motivation, and self-confidence. When our relationship pillar is in good shape, meaning we have healthy and connected relationships with important others as well as ourselves, then we are significantly more protected against disease, stress, pain, and mental imbalance.
There is research that supports the finding that when we have a loved one present during a painful procedure, we experience significantly less physical pain, than if they are absent. The same is true in the opposite—if our loved one is someone we are in conflict with, we will experience significantly more physical pain with them present, than when they are absent. Emotional pain can hurt just as much as physical pain. As a client once said to me—“when I’m right with my wife, than I’m on top of the world, I can do anything, conquer all.”
The vision pillar is the one I get the most questioning looks about. The other two, people generally nod, as if they are self-evident—of course we need to take care of ourselves, and of course our relationships are important—but why do we need a vision? I believe that lack of vision, or purpose in life is an emergent mental health concern that may well underlie many mental health issues that have seen skyrocketing rates in the last decade—such as depression and anxiety.
The vision we need for ourselves is much more mundane than the age-old philosopher’s question—what is the meaning of life? We need to know “what is the meaning of MY life?” Without purpose, our lives lack meaning, direction, and spark.
With a vision, we are energized, hopeful, motivated, and inspired.
The vision component is unique to each of us, and need not be lofty “I must save the world” heroics. For some of us, our vision is to be the best mom, dad, barista, manager, tech specialist, project manager, or simply human we can be. However, I will say that, the more specific and concrete you get with your vision, the more likely it is that you will achieve that vision, and more.
A fascinating longitudinal study tracked a group of high school students over ten years to see how well they achieved their goals. Of the original group of high school seniors, the ones who reported that they not only had goals, but had written them down, had three times the net worth of the remaining class combined. That is the power of a clear vision.
The three pillars are much like a three legged stool, they are most stable when all three are solid, maintained, and grounded. However, life throws us curveballs now and again—divorce, illness, injury, deadlines at work—and make it difficult for us to maintain absolute solidity in one of our pillars. We can sustain some crumbling so long as we attend to the remaining pillars and rebuild the one that took the hit as soon as is possible.
For example, when going through a divorce or death of a loved one, it is essential to be religious about your self-care, and vision for yourself, in order to maintain stability. Having other important relationships remain intact during your time of grief and loss will also be protective.
In the case of injury or illness, when self-care is compromised, it is essential to have healthy and helpful people in your life to help support and sustain you. Maintaining the aspects of your self-care that you can is also protective. For example, research subjects undergoing chemotherapy who practiced meditation daily reported that while their pain was still there, it “no longer hurt.”
Sometimes, we suffer a trauma to our physical and/or spiritual selves that wipes out our vision for our life, ourselves. A life-threatening illness can do this, an accident, or an assault. We will know that we’ve lost our vision, because we will feel unmoored, ungrounded, and have lost our faith and trust in ourselves. During our time of healing and recovery of our vision, it is essential to continue our self-care and allow others to love us, even if we feel unworthy, in order to regain our vision.
How can I achieve Optimal Mental Wellness?
To achieve Optimal Mental Wellness, start by taking an assessment of how your pillars are currently looking. Is there ivy growing on them? Or worse, mold? Are they crumbling in parts? Are one or two of them in fairly good shape, but the third is non-existent? Whatever your starting point, don’t berate yourself for not maintaining your pillars better than you did and, also avoid berating yourself for a less than perfect performance on getting your pillars in good shape. Nothing can stall motivation more quickly than fighting with yourself. As Salvador Minuchin said, “in a power struggle with yourself, there will be a loser, and it will be you.”
Instead, take a neutral stance, and calmly assess the good, the bad, and the ugly of the situation. Just like if you were looking over the needed repairs for your house….I need to patch that, paint that, replace that…and create an action plan that you can break down into small, manageable chunks, to correct the deficits in each pillar.
For example, with your physical, if you’re not eating well, exercising, or sleeping sufficiently, pick one to work on first. This avoids overwhelm and quitting.
You will also need to assess what you can and can’t change for each of your pillars. For example, while we can pick our friends, we can’t pick our family of origin. Many of us do not have healthy relationships with certain or even all members of our family of origin. If this is the case for you, it may not be possible to have complete solidity in the relationship pillar. However, you can shore up that pillar by ensuring that your relationships with yourself, your friends, intimate partner, your career, and your spirituality are as healthy as possible. And, you can set boundaries with family members and important others who are not healthy, to decrease the toxic effects of those relationships on you.
For many of us, finding a good therapist or coach is extremely helpful in mapping out and manifesting an Optimal Mental Wellness Plan. Taking a class, such as Starting from the Source, with Vibrant Life Source, could also be extremely helpful in creating your own Optimal Mental Wellness.
In the meantime, starting with one little change can create all the difference. Starting today, commit to yourself to bring more attention to your breath, and commit yourself to deepening your breath at any and all opportunities.
You will be well on your path to Optimal Mental Wellness if you do.