Some Practical Thoughts On Mental Health

Fall of 2016, I’m working as full-time employee in sales and part time as an entrepreneur. Naturally, as a salesman and speaker, my voice became my livelihood. Fortunately for me, I started to get the hang of it! At work, I was making a significant contribution to my team. As a speaker, I was being recognized as one of Toronto’s up-and-coming talents. Unfortunately, however, any threat to your livelihood, can be debilitating. And for me, the threat was real.

In October of 2016, I developed severe pain in my throat. Not being one to complain, I worked through an entire week of sales paying the throbbing in my throat little attention.

Huge mistake.

I woke up Saturday morning, my throat was raw and my voice, gone. Now this wouldn’t have been a problem at all if I was sick! But I wasn’t. I felt normal, except an excruciating pain whenever I spoke.

Days went by, nothing changed. I called in sick to work, my recovery didn’t progress. Finally, I’m sitting in the emergency room at Sunnybrook hospital. The doctor walks and checks my paperwork.

“Your throat?”

I nodded yes.

“Does it hurt?”

I nodded as a tear rolled down my cheek.

“Okay, let’s take a look.”

As the doctor walked away to get the long tube she would soon be pushing up my nose and down my throat, the tears flowed. I couldn’t control myself. All of the hard work that I’d been putting in to progress as a speaker, all of the hours I had been rehearsing, the career that I was building and the dreams I was dreaming, was it all for nothing?

I was devastated.

I felt defeated and wondered if I was going down the wrong path. I asked myself all the questions we ask ourselves when hit with obstacles… Is this even worth it? Was I making a difference? Why me?

Just when I felt that I had found my calling, my voice abandoned me…

The diagnosis was simple, I had extreme inflammation and irritation in my throat. The doctors order was a minimum of a week with no speaking, although it should be closer to 2-3. The following months felt like high school all over again. I felt the cloud of negativity slowly moving in and weighing down on me. One of my greatest assets was at risk. Moreover, some of the simplest of tasks, those we take for granted everyday, became a chore. I no longer wanted to talk to my parents or girlfriend and I started hating my job.

My focus shifted from my goals, dreams, and hopes only a few weeks prior, to everything that was wrong, unfair, and challenging about my life. I felt depressed, but this time, I knew how to handle it. 

Even though It’s been over a year since my throat injury and I still experience irritation every time I speak, I credit the successful rebound of my mental health, from Crisis mode to healthy, because of the lessons I’ve learn in the last four years living depression free. With that, I want to share some practical thoughts on mental health. It may not be the most popular, but it’s effective, and I’d like you to consider sharing this with someone who may need it.

Mental health, like physical health, has a spectrum 

Personally, my first step to identifying whether or not I, or someone I know, needs support and it’s urgency is to see where we fall on this spectrum. As much as it would be nice to think that everyone could be healthy all the time, it’s important to consider that stress does not discriminate. Regardless of your background, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic conditions, everyone experiences stress, and therefore it would be naive to believe that you or I, would never have challenges with our mental health.

Mental Health Spectrum.png
Source: Jack.org

This is where it’s practical to distinguish the difference between mental illness and mental health. Does everyone have a mental illness? No. Does everyone have mental health? Yes.

Where you, your friends, or family, are currently positioned on this spectrum depends on the stress (not all is created equal), the duration of those stressors, and the strategies you’re using to cope and what you choose to focus on. For example, small stressors, that happen over a week, tackled with the right strategies, will result in your ability to remain within yellow if not green. Comparatively, overwhelming stressors, over a long period of time, left unchecked without the proper strategies will have you struggling if not experiencing a crisis.

I’d like to challenge you to do an inventory of where you’re currently positioned on the spectrum. Our minds, emotions, and behaviours vary over time and even though you were feeling great yesterday doesn’t guarantee exuberant happiness next week. Use this spectrum as a tool. Check in with yourself frequently, as I do, to measure every few weeks or months (at the least) how you’re feeling and if there is any need to reach out for help.

The law of impermanence

Although I still feel irritation in my throat when I speak, it’s nothing compared to the original pain I experienced in October of 2016. As I began to cope with the idea of speaking through pain and what an incredible injustice I’d received, I took a tip right out of the Buddhist playbook.

Buddhist philosophy states,

“Fluctuations are an inherent fabric of life. Because nothing is permanent, attachment to the ups leads to inevitable suffering. Conversely, aversion to the downs is illogical because those too shall pass.”

Given the practical nature of this post, it’s only too fitting to realize that it would have been illogical for me to expect that the excruciating pain would last forever. Life, like nature, is cyclical. After day we get night. After fall we experience winter. If life is like nature, why would I have expected anything less than the occasional struggle? And in that struggle, why would I expect anything other than for it to soon pass?

When I first hurt my throat, I thought that was the end. I’d never be able to speak again, I’ll never make a difference, it was completely disempowering. But the truth is, it’s not our circumstances that are disempowering, it’s our mindsets. Every time we’re hit with obstacles and challenge, we focus immediately on the permanence of that problem.

It’s so easy for us to blow things out of proportion, to get lost in the story we tell ourselves, and to think that our entire life hinges on one thing we’ll barely remember 5-10 years later. That seemingly all-important thing could be anything causing you stress from a bad grade, getting into college, a relationship, divorce, even getting fired.

What matters is not trying to avoid the stress, or avoid the obstacles, what matters is how we perceive the struggle.  Can we really be that attached to comfort and constant progression that every regression and difficulty will knock us me course?

Well it shouldn’t, and it no longer does for me.

If you’re currently experiencing the summer, where everything is going right, and you’re feeling incredible mental health, congratulations! Keep it up and squeeze every last drop out of it. Just know…

Winter is coming

And guess what, when the winter comes and the stress follows, it’s okay, that too shall pass. If you never experienced the down’s of life, you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the ups.

Just ensure, that when the winter does come, you’re prepared.

The only practical approach is a proactive approach

The tools and strategies we need to use in order to move ourselves from right to left, from crisis to healthy on the mental health spectrum, are often well known. Therefore in order for us to ensure our mental health we need to focus on making common sense, common practice. Intentionality, or proactivity, is often the difference between health and crisis.

Below is a brief list of practices that can be used in order to be proactive about mental health and resiliency under stress:

  1. Exercise 3-4x per week (yoga, sports, weight training, cycling, running, martial arts, etc)
  2. Express yourself through your art (dance, painting, music, etc)
  3. Reduce or eliminate refined and processed foods
  4. Eat real foods, mostly plants, not too much 
  5. Practice Sleep hygiene and create a consistent sleep schedule  (7-9 hours of sleep a night)
  6. A daily practice of mindfulness – Gratitude journal, meditation, deep breathing, etc
  7. Having clear goals and priorities resulting in a sense of direction
  8. Develop relationships and communities that you can be open and transparent with your emotions
  9. Work with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist, for professional support (if necessary)
  10. Have regular self-check in’s to determine where you stand on the mental health spectrum

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Everyone is an individual, and what works for one person will not necessarily work for the next. Now, I have highlighted numbers 1, 4, 5, and 7. This is intentional because they are the big levers you can pull in order to establish long-term and reliable mental health. 

When I’m slipping on the spectrum, or simply getting stressed, this is the first place I look. I’ll ask myself, am I moving enough? Am I eating and sleeping right? Are my goals giving me a clear sense of direction and clarity about my life? If any of those four are off, I’ll likely be moving in the wrong direction.

As an example, in 2011 when I experienced a crisis in my own mental health, none of these four levers were in place. I had quit all my sports and wasn’t exercising. I was craving and demanded sugar daily (multiple chocolate chip pancakes and a dozen chocolate granola bars, in fact). I stayed up past midnight for weeks and wondered why I couldn’t wake up in time for school. And I had no goals or sense of direction.

Furthermore, I spend a lot of time today thinking about and working with teen mental health through my public speaking. When parents come to me asking for advice for their teens, I virtually always start with these four levers. Are they exercising and how often? How much sugar do they consume and what does their overall diet look like? How many hours a night do they sleep and is it consistent? And finally, do they have a sense of direction? Do they have goals? Are they inspired?

This approach is not only extremely effective for working with teens, they can also be used effectively with individuals of all ages. What I hope you’re saying to yourself at this point is that this is all very common sense. Because, than you’d be right. If that’s the case, congratulations. Now it’s your responsibility to ensure that what is common sense to you, becomes a proactive common practice for you, your family, and your community.

I strongly believe that in the vast majority of cases, your mental health is in your hands. How you deal with stress, your philosophy on obstacles, setbacks, and roadblocks, and finally your daily habits, are at your control.

This is practical and rational.

And as much as mental health is an extremely sensitive topic, these are my beliefs. These are the beliefs that were developed out of necessity, through my own struggles with depression, anxiety, and crisis. My hope, is that they serve you as they have for me in sickness and in health.

Please share this with someone who needs it. One idea could be all they need to unlock a new mindset and point them in a new, empowering direction. The power of change is in your hands!

Mental health jack.org pic

Ps. If supporting mental health is important to you, I’m currently raising money for Canada’s largest youth led summit on mental health. We need your support! Please donate here or share this link with someone that would like to support mental health in Canada.

Till next time, stay on the offensive. Aggressively pursue a better version of yourself. And remember what Jim Rohn said, “You cannot change the destination of your life overnight but you can change the direction.”

-J

Out.

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