As a teacher and a parent of four children, one of whom has bipolar disorder, some days I find myself staring at my computer screen, my mind frozen. What was I doing? Which of these 17 extremely urgent open internet browser tabs should I tackle first? Do I even dare check my email in-box? How long before I have to get dinner on the table? In the midst of my frozen panicked state, my Outlook calendar pings me to remind me it’s “Mindful Monday,” and I’m going to be late for the mindfulness workshop (again).
Confession: I am starting to feel stressed out by the relentless calls for “mindfulness” in my life. Yet we all need something — whatever we want to call it — to keep ourselves focused, productive, and, yes, happy, in our roles as parents. I don’t think there’s one right answer or one simple intervention for better mental health. But here are five things that I have found keep me grounded and give my life meaning and purpose.
1. Write the Good Things Down
I’ll admit my bias here: As a writer and college writing instructor, I am pretty passionate about journaling. But the positive mental health effects of regular reflective writing activities are well documented. For example, a 2018 study of online positive affect journaling reported that participants who suffered from depression and anxiety experienced a statistically significant reduction in negative symptoms and also demonstrated improved resilience (Smyth et al).
I’ve experienced these positive effects firsthand in guided writing workshops that use writing to heal and promote mental, physical and spiritual wellness. Now, I share reflective writing practices with my students in the classroom through daily writing exercises designed to focus on their strengths — and I write along with them. You can also take a few minutes each day at home or at work to “write the good things down.”
2. Do Something You Enjoy Every Day
For me, that something is yoga. When I look at my calendar each week, it seems like taking an hour every day to stretch and flow will be impossible. But that daily hour calms my mind, strengthens my body, and makes me more focused and productive in my other activities. Just knowing that I have an hour on my mat each day to focus on my breath keeps me going through difficult times.
I often don’t know what my day will look like from one minute to the next — but I know that 60 minutes of each day will be spent on me.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep disruption negatively affects every aspect of our mental and physical well-being. When I was diagnosed with depression a few months ago, I worked with my doctor to find the right anti-depressant medication that has made it possible for me to sleep eight blissful and restorative hours per night again.
Make sure to put down your smartphone well before bedtime, as researchers are increasingly sounding alarms about the negative effects of smartphone use at night. For example, in a 2016 study of 653 smartphone users, found that “longer average screen-times during bedtime and the sleeping period were associated with poor sleep quality, decreased sleep efficiency, and longer sleep onset latency” (Christensen et al).
Putting your smartphone “to bed” in another room may be a great way to improve your sleep — and your mental health.
4. Set Aside a Few Minutes of Quiet Time
Taking some “quiet time” for yourself every day can help calm your spirit and enhance peace of mind. Whether you take five minutes or 20 each day, the results can be transformative. Sit in the car and just breathe deeply for a few minutes. Take a 20-minute leisurely walk around the block. Sit outside on your porch and gaze at the sunset. Pick a calming activity where you can relax and enjoy “you time.”
5. Say No
On my office wall, I keep a cross-stitched saying that I made for myself in college, where I majored in Latin and Greek. It reads: “Learn to say no. It will be of more use to you than to be able to read Latin” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 19th century English preacher). It has taken me several years to live and learn this statement’s important truth. When we take on too much, even if we are trying to be helpful, it can become difficult to accomplish our goals, and our mental health can suffer.
One of my favorite authors and role models Brené Brown wrote in her book “Rising Strong” (2017), “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
Whatever path you choose to promote your own mental health, one of the most important things is to be kind to yourself. I missed yoga today. I don’t feel guilty — I’ll be back on my mat tomorrow. I sometimes take my smartphone to bed with me. I don’t feel guilty — I’ll forgive myself if I’m not perfect. Focusing on our own mental health makes us stronger for our children — and it gives our lives meaning and purpose. Take care of yourself.
Brown, Brené. “Rising Strong.” Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2017.
Christensen, M. A.; Bettencourt, L.; Kaye, L.; Moturu, S. T.; Nguyen, K. T.; Olgin, J. E.; Marcus, G. M. (2016). “Direct Measurements of Smartphone Screen-Time: Relationships With Demographics and Sleep.” Plos One, 11(11), e0165331. https://doi-org.cwi.idm.oclc.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0165331.
Smyth, J. M.; Johnson, J. A.; Auer, B. J.; Lehman, E.; Talamo, G.; and Sciamanna, C. N. (2018). “Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial.” JMIR mental health, 5(4), e11290. doi:10.2196/11290. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6305886/.