It’s hard to feel productive when you’re too tired to do anything. So when your body demands a break, take the opportunity to boost your mental wellness.
Have you ever felt like your brain wanted to do something but your body wouldn’t cooperate? I have. So. Many. Times. Like many other types of chronic illness, my autoimmune disease is unpredictable. It seems like it’s unpredictability is the only predictable thing about it.
There are days when I can take a long, brisk walk and feel (almost) like a “normal” (translation: healthy) person. But then I’ll have day where running a few simple errands leaves me feeling like I might collapse under weight of a light grocery bag.
I’ve been chronically ill long enough to know this isn’t unusual. And it’s not the kind of tired that a nap is going to fix – in part because my brain isn’t tired. In fact, it’s screaming at me to do something.
When this happens, we need to pay close attention and find ways to practice self-care. Because chronic illness chips away at our mental health. We feel frustrated, we are in pain and we feel defeated. So I’ve learned to take advantage of the necessary physical downtime to nurture my emotional health.
Three ways to boost your mental wellness:
1. Exercise your creativity
2. Envision a goal
3. Discover what really makes you happy
By design, these exercises are calming and require very little physical energy, but they are enjoyable, rewarding and productive .
Let’s take them one at a time:
Exercise your creativity
One really enjoyable way to boost your mental wellness is by doing something creative. Engaging in creative activities reduces stress, improves mental health and boosts the immune system. Why? Because when you create something and see the result of your efforts, dopamine – a chemical that is also referred to as the “happy hormone” – floods your brain. It feels good to be creative! And the spike in dopamine motivates you to do more.
There’s a tactile component to being creative- meaning that it’s important to physically connect to what you’re creating. Our brains are wired this way. So don’t fight it. Whatever creative task you choose, you’ll need to “touch” it.
But before you settle into your comfortable place of choice (with your preferred beverage and a maybe a furry companion by your side), grab a pen, some paper, one or two of your favorite magazines and a pair of scissors.
Two easy steps to exercising your creativity
Step 1: As you page through the magazine, cut out any words and pictures that appeal to you. Don’t overthink it. The goal is to get into that flow – that mental zone where you are totally absorbed in what you’re doing.
What’s amazing is that the process of trimming around a picture so that you’ve cropped it just the way you want it is, in itself, calming. You’ve merged your action and awareness into one task. And this task is purposely designed to be simple and stress free.
Step 2: Once you’ve exhausted the magazine, look through all of the pictures. What themes do you see? What surprises you about what you chose to cut out? Are there certain colors that you were drawn to? Write your observations down. If you’re really feeling inspired, pick a picture and write about how it makes you feel.
Envision a goal
Another way to boost your mental wellness is by setting a goal. Goal setting is difficult for most people. For those of us who are chronically ill, setting a meaningful goal can seem like a pipe dream. At least that’s what I used to think. Until I realized that it’s not the size of the goal that makes it meaningful. A goal is meaningful if it is designed to help you better yourself. That’s also how we make the world (not just our own world) a better place.
Although we often think of goal setting in a career context, it’s just as important in our lives outside the workplace. Goals can be short-term or long-term. The thing about goals is that they force us to really think about what we want. They force us to be super specific. A goal isn’t really a goal if we haven’t defined a path forward to getting there. We can only get there one step at a time. But we can all take one step at a time.
When I was at my worst physically, I was desperate to recover strength and mobility. It was a struggle to breathe. My body had betrayed me. My muscles were astonishingly weak. Getting dressed was my biggest accomplishment.
So I had a lot of time to think. This made it the perfect time to tend to some emotional housekeeping and try to find a way to boost my mental well-being. I started to think about all of the things I wanted to do. They were all of things I used to do and had taken for granted. I chose one simple thing that I wanted to do. But I did more than think about it. I envisioned it. I imagined watching myself do it.
Don’t just think about a goal – envision it!
My goal was to cook a meal for my family. I envisioned what I wore (a bright red shirt). Then I imagined standing at the counter in my kitchen, seasoning the chicken with rosemary, garlic and lemon. I pictured myself slicing tomatoes and olives. I saw myself retrieve the old ceramic serving bowl imprinted with brightly colored vegetables. It had been my grandmother’s and every time I use it I think of her – and what a fabulous cook she was. I pictured my family sharing this meal.
It took a while – three months, I think, to reach my goal. And to most people, this might not sound like a goal at all. But it was. It meant a lot to me. It required that I work toward being able to achieve it. And when I was able to accomplish it, I knew that it wasn’t about what the goal was – it was about what it represented: progress, healing and hope.
What is your goal? Now envision it in detail. Imagine what it will feel like. Revisit it daily. Watch it come true.
Discover what really makes you happy
Last year my sisters and I embarked on a 12-week journey to nurture our artistic selves. This sounds so fancy, right? I regret to inform you that we did it all over the phone because we live nowhere near each other. We read The Artist’s Way , a book by author Julia Cameron. The book provides techniques and exercises that help people find and enhance their creative talents. While I’d recommend committing to the entire 12-weeks, you can benefit from doing even just a few of the exercises.
One week, we added our own. My older sister is a pastor. She has an enviable gift for nurturing others. Through her training and experience she has mastered pastoral care. She mentioned that she had gone on a retreat where one of the exercises was to write down 100 things that bring you joy or peace. Game on. I made my list and I ask that you do the same.
List 100 things that make you happy
This is the third way to boost your mental wellness: focus on what makes you happy. As in the first exercise, don’t overthink it. If you find that you’re struggling to get to 100, stop. This exercise isn’t really about the exact number. It’s about recognizing what gives us peace and realizing how many things do.
Once you’ve finished your list, read it. What do you see? I’ll bet you’ll find that many of the things are about your connections with other people, or with nature, or with art in whatever form you find it.
Need examples? Laughing with your kids. Snuggling with your dog. Hearing a favorite song on the radio when you’re driving home from work. The smell of a pot of coffee brewing. Feeling the sun warm your skin when you’re out for a walk on chilly day. All of these are ordinary. But they bring me joy because that’s where joy lives – in the gratitude for the most ordinary of moments.
Our mental wellness is just as important as our physical health. When you’re having “one of those days” (and as a chronically ill person, I know there are more of them than we’d like), recognize that part of living fully, part of living forward, is nurturing your emotional health.