My car has one hundred seventeen thousand miles on it after just three and a half years. It has taken me back and forth from here to Atlanta more times than I can remember, to the beach, to the mountains I love to hike, and across the country in a seven thousand mile trip four falls ago. It runs well, just like new as a matter of fact. I have pushed it, driven it fast and asked it to work hard for me.
What keeps it running that way? I am a fanatic about taking it in for regular service. Tire rotation, oil and filter changes, cabin air filter changes, alignments, and battery checks. I also pay attention to what goes into it, giving it good fuel to run on and high-quality oil to protect its parts from abnormal wear and tear.
What would happen to my car and its performance if I neglected routine maintenance, filled it with cheap gas and oil and never had things aligned and replaced as needed? Would it keep running so smoothly? Would it be reliable enough to take out on the highway for a cross-country trip?
In this fast-paced world, we drive ourselves like I drive my car. We push ourselves to do more with less, compromise our recovery and rest times, and overextend ourselves. We fill our schedules. We have lots to do. We try to divide our time among our families, jobs, hobbies, church, travel, entertainment, sports and holidays. We use our phones and other tech gear to keep up with everything around us, all the time. We pay more attention to outside stimuli and less and less to our own wellbeing. Some of us already have a mental illness that we try to manage. Others of us may be prone to develop one or have a strong family history.
Ignoring our mental health is risky business.
What can we do to promote good health, both physical and mental?
If you have any kind of mental or physical illnesses, see your health care provider regularly. Your doctor cannot adequately treat you if he does not know your most recent signs and symptoms.
Take medications as prescribed. This means take your own medication as ordered by your doctor, do not share your medications with others, and never take medications that are given to you by someone else, are not labeled, or are not meant for you.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
Avoid use of illicit drugs.
Watch your diet and weight. Try to control the types of foods you eat: the portion sizes and limit processed foods and sugar. Maintain your weight as close to normal for your height as practical.
Get enough sleep. Seven or eight hours are usually enough for most people. If you want to make one simple change that will affect your overall physical and mental health for the better, go to bed an hour earlier and get those zzzs.
Take frequent breaks. This means small breaks in the course of your busy day as well as longer breaks like vacations that take you completely away from your stressful daily environment. One tip for you: no one is going to freely give you this time in the real world. You simply must decide when you are going to break, how you’ll do it and schedule the time to get away.
Develop a hobby that you enjoy, and then spend enough time on it to develop a true love for the activity. Bike, read, paint, draw, play music, watch movies, build birdhouses. Anything that takes you away from stress and focuses you on something pleasant and satisfying is good for your mental health.
Work on developing or strengthening your “real” relationships with family and friends. We have gotten so caught up in our virtual and online personas and friendships in the last few years that many of us have completely forgotten about the power of a smile, a touch, or a laugh. Being with others in a real-time situation does wonders for mood, communication skills and bonding with the ones we really care about.
Finally, turn off the excess stimuli from the wider world every once in a while. In other words, unplug. Have a quiet cup of coffee and read a real newspaper. Take a walk in the woods. Nap. You’ll be surprised at how much you see and hear when your attention is off the screen and on the reality around you.
Ignoring your mental health is risky business.
Take the time and make the effort to do the things that keep you healthy and happy.
Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.
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