7 Small Steps You Can Take to Fine-Tune Your Mental Health

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If you live with a mental illness, taking these seven small steps will help you fine-tune your mental health so you can heal and thrive.

1. See a therapist.

The first and perhaps most important way to fine-tune your mental health when you are facing any kind of mental illness or trauma or even just feel like you are “stuck” is to find a way to get into one-on-one therapy, even if you must pay for it out of pocket. Studies have shown therapy is so effective that therapy alone produces better results than medication alone. I’m not saying anyone should go off their medications and go into therapy, but look at using both together. Remember, it is the strong people who reach out and ask for help, not the weak ones.

Some clergy members are trained therapists and will work with you for a reduced rate or even free, though it may be better to go to a regular, trained professional. I had an experience where I shared some problems with a member of the clergy at my church and found myself the target of a sermon on “How not to talk about your problems.” But that was a rare occurrence. Mostly I have found clergy members to be very helpful and supportive.

The cost of therapy can be prohibitive, but if you think you may need it, prioritize it. Ask the therapist if they work on a sliding scale. Look for books you can read like Reneau Z. Peurifoy’s “Anxiety, Phobias and Panic” which can help you go through some of the same processes you would go through with a therapist. I had a therapist who considered this book to be the bible of rebuilding a damaged psyche. You may be able to find more books on therapy (always check the date though, you don’t want anything that is too old to be relevant).

Another great way to get therapy is online or over the phone. In Canada, there is a phone and online counseling service called Wellness Together Canada which is free. If none of these suggestions help, call up your nearest nonprofit that specializes in people with the issues you want to address. They will likely have targeted support and information sessions. Where I live there is a Schizophrenia Society branch office, many supports for LGBTQ2S+ people, and organizations for bipolar and depression. You are not alone.

2. Join support groups where you can work on any other issues you may have.

Most people know about the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, but these same steps are used in numerous recovery groups, starting with Alanon, which is a 12-step group for families and loved ones of alcoholics. When I was unemployed and first living on my own, I went to mental health support groups at my local University Hospital during the day, along with psychiatrist and psychologist appointments, and went to various 12-step groups at night.

One of the most important things about seeking support is to connect with people. Once you feel stronger from going to groups for a while, consider other types of social groups. I didn’t join a club, but I would go to the pool early in the morning for a swim when I was new to the neighborhood I am in now and made several friends. You could do the same with a cooking class or a badminton club. Just try not to focus on anything that may have an addictive component, like going to a bar to play pool even if you don’t drink or getting together with friends to play poker. Above all though, it is important that you draw your own boundaries. What works for others may not work for you and vice versa. My dad used to get a lot of pleasure out of crib tournaments that gave cash prizes and nothing negative ever came of it.

3. Get enough sleep.

To keep yourself mentally healthy, sleep is essential. In my situation, I have a hard time falling asleep and a hard time waking up in the morning. I have tried to use caffeine to help me break out of this cycle. I use a coffee press and freshly ground coffee to make one or two strong cups of coffee in the morning and then I set a firm deadline of 6 pm to stop all caffeine. I always keep decaf tea and decaf coffee (both drip and instant) in the house, but it can be even better if you drink something that slows you down a bit like milk with a banana or two, or anything that soothes you.

I used to like drinking chamomile tea in the evenings. It is also important to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. My favorite way to wake up when I’m not working early is to take a long walk, maybe buy some bagels and walk home for a special breakfast. Fresh air and exercise work wonders for waking me up. I also find if I get some strenuous exercise during the day, say taking a bike ride or going for a swim or long walk, I fall asleep sooner at night and I need less sleep. In icy or rainy conditions, consider walking in a shopping mall. You can even investigate groups for mall walkers but personally, I prefer to walk outside all year.

4. Eat healthy and exercise.

To keep your mental health going, keep a healthy diet. The best advice a doctor gave me for losing weight was to divide up my plate into half green vegetables, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter carbs. He then said to get 30 minutes of cardio — emphasizing I needed to get my heart moving, three times a week. And above all, eat breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal. As of last week, I am down 45 pounds from my heaviest using these simple principles. I feel better, I have been told I look better, and I can do more with my day before I get too tired to function.

Proper diets aren’t that difficult. I have a friend who goes through all the flyers he gets from grocery stores, looking for deals and coupons. When meat goes on sale, he buys enough for three or four people to each put a bunch in their freezer. The last time we did this, months ago, I paid him $20, and I got so much meat still have plenty of pork chops in my freezer for when I have time to cook. When I want fresh produce or other fresh items, I take a recyclable bag and walk to the grocery store that has the best prices. This way I get exercise, save money, and eat better. Fine-tuning your mental health is all about finding ways to balance out things that are good for you. Exercise, eat better, get outside, lose weight, manage sleep better.

5. Volunteer.

Even if you go to therapy and take long walks, you are going to find that you have extra time on your hands. Too much time on your hands can make you lonely and set you back mentally and physically. No one feels 100% if they are simply taking pills and going to doctor visits.

In a way, having this extra time can be a blessing. When you have time on your hands, you can make a dream come true. One year I was living alone, unemployed, lonely, and not eating that well. I had always dreamed of volunteering as a camp counselor, spending the summer in a dreamy camp with young people my age and some amazing kids, feeling part of something worthwhile, and escaping the crowds, pollution, and noise of the city for a while. My dream came true when I went to a church gathering and a camp director got up in front of everyone and asked for volunteers. I went and I had the best time of my life; I met some amazing people, and the food was incredible. I didn’t make any money, but I didn’t spend any either. It was the best vacation I could have asked for, there were horses, a swimming pool, all kinds of fun activities. And when it came time later to look for a job, I didn’t have a big, gaping hole in my resume.

Another time I volunteered to work with seniors in a nursing home. I got to meet men I would have been proud to call my grandfather, and they were not only extremely kind and grateful for the company, but they also told me so many interesting stories about their lived experiences. I took what I learned in that volunteer position and turned it into a teaching position at another hospital a few years later.

Look into an agency in your area that helps people find volunteer jobs. Where I live it is called the volunteer network, and you can go to them and just about pick any job you want, for fun, for learning, to meet others, or even just to get some work experience.

6. Shower every day.

One of the best things you can do to keep your mental health finely tuned is to have one shower a day. Taking a bath is nice when you have a lot of time, but it is so important not to let hygiene become a chore. Taking a bath requires cleaning out the tub, contorting yourself to get yourself clean, and often spending a lot of time soaking. If you take one shower a day you will be in and out in minutes and you will feel better all day.

There are times when a bath can be very helpful, though. I find that sometimes when I am having trouble sleeping if I take a hot bath, often with Epsom salts added, I fall asleep faster. Try it once or twice, it may work for you, it may not. But establish a routine. Get up, take meds, brush your teeth, jump in the shower, wash your hair, then your body. Get out and dry off, deodorize, dress, eat breakfast, take a walk, and then you have a whole day ahead that you are much better equipped to face because you are clean, well-rested, fed, and feeling your best.

7. Keep your living space clean and organized.

One essential way to fine-tune your mental health along with the above methods is to keep your living space tidy. I have a problem with a DVD collection that I never use. Sometimes you must make difficult choices. I have space to store my DVDs, but I must face that I will never use them, so they are going to have to go.

I keep a broom, mop, paper towels, a mini vacuum, and rags handy all the time and I make sure I empty garbage bins when they are close to full. I try hard not to let messes sit any longer than I do. It is so important to have a clean floor, to tackle clutter whenever it pops up, and to keep dust, dirt, and everything else off furniture.

You can do all the other six things and if you have a messy house, you will still likely feel down, not be able to invite friends over and you risk things like cockroaches, mice, fruit flies, and other nuisances. You can even risk getting an eviction notice if you live in a rental unit. So please, pick up even small bits of paper or garbage, always keep your dishes clean and have a space to eat, a space to read, and a space to lie down in that isn’t cluttered or filled up.

One of the greatest things about most of these fine-tuning tips is that they don’t cost much at all. Going for a walk is free; reading a book on therapy from the library is free. Talking to others and establishing friendships is free unless they encourage you to take up new hobbies, which isn’t always a negative thing. Keeping your house tidy barely costs anything. A shower costs a little water, shampoo, and soap.

Once you have applied these tips, I hope you will be able to manage your money a little better. If this happens, I urge you to save a little for the future, a little more for emergencies, some for fun, and maybe even save a little for a therapist if you weren’t able to afford one. You will thank yourself; I promise.

What are some small steps you take to improve your mental health?

Share your suggestions in the comments.

Photo by MART PRODUCTION

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Leif Gregersen is an author of fiction and non-fiction, and has published 12 books, of which 4 are poetry collections, 3 are short story collections, 2 are short novels, and 2 are memoirs of his life experience with mental illness.

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