Who is Affected by Mental Health?
It is common that upon the mention of mental health, the first thing that comes to mind is mental illness. And though it is important to have open conversations around mental illness, mental health is not exclusive to those who suffer from mental illness. Of course, if you suspect that you are struggling with mental illness, it is important to speak to a professional and to seek appropriate treatment, but I am not a mental healthcare professional, and so this article is not about how to identify or treat mental illness in any way.
Instead, this article is an invitation to consider that everybody with a mind has mental health to be minded. That is to say, we do not have to wait until we are struggling with depression, or caught in the midst of anxiety to acknowledge or check in with our mental health. Because even if you have not been clinically diagnosed with a mental illness, it is likely that as you experience the ebb and flow of emotions that accompany a life where the only constant is change, you may feel “down” or “a little off” from time to time.
Effects of the Pandemic on Our Mental Health
Even though we have now been struggling with the pandemic for more than a year, and we might even feel accustomed to some of the changes it has brought about, the effects it has on our mental health cannot be overstated. For some, it has been an adjustment of lifestyle: now they work from home or limit social interactions; for others, the effects have been more gruesome, and they have: lost loved ones and not been able to celebrate their life as to avoid gatherings, lost jobs, suffered themselves from the illness, or are stuck at home with a partner who is emotionally or physically abusive. But wherever you fall on the spectrum of bad things that happen due to the pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that your experience is valid. That even though we are not the only ones suffering, and even though others may have it “worse,” the challenges that are present in our lives are still present and challenging, and in need of our effort, time, and attention. It is not uncommon to experience intermittent feelings of anxiety, fear, or uncertainty, and especially not now.
However, to be able to address the plethora of emotions that lead to dis-ease requires a certain amount of surrender. Because as quick as we can be to invalidate our own feelings by way of comparison, we can also fight with everything we’ve got to avoid invalidating Ego; we might even go as far as to prevent ourselves from feeling better after we’ve invested both time and energy into feeling disappointed, frustrated, angry, or sad. Because after investing both time and energy into these feelings, we might fear that by letting them go, we are actually admitting that we are somehow wrong for owning these feelings at all in the first place. And being wrong upsets Ego. But what is helpful to understand is that we are allowed to feel bad and we are also allowed to emotionally evolve.
How to Observe Triggers
Once we have determined that letting go of dis-ease does not invalidate our experiences or emotions, and is not by nature an admission of fallibility, the scope through which we perceive reality becomes a little less foggy, and the capacity to observe without judgment just may increase. With the ability to observe without judgment, we can begin the check-in process. This is the process of pausing and peering into the situation at hand with both compassion and non-attachment so that we can ultimately return to peace of mind.
As we practice mindfulness daily, recognizing when we are triggered will eventually become second nature. But this is a lifelong practice, and some days it will be more accessible than others. On the particularly difficult days, we can begin our check-in with the basics. HALT is an acronym for Hungry Angry Lonely Tired. Now, I am not suggesting that all experiences of dis-ease can be explained away by hunger, anger, loneliness, or exhaustion, but any of the aforementioned would most definitely exacerbate other accompanying experiences of dis-ease.
Once the fundamentals are covered, it will be easier to access the rest.
Yoga and Mental Health
In the yoga world, there are loads of airy, ooey-gooey phrases or notions such as “you choose your reality” or “yoga is about letting go” that when used out of context, can be easily manipulated into a form of spiritual bypassing, or “a tendency to privilege spiritual beliefs or experiences over and against psychological needs creating a means of avoiding or bypassing difficult emotions or experiences” (Picciotto, et al.). To spiritually bypass others’ or one's own experiences in the name of yoga is to misunderstand the aim of the practice altogether.
It has been studied and determined that the practice of yoga is very effective in calming the mind and assisting in the practitioners’ ability to achieve a state of relaxation and peace. Committing to a home practice, even for just 10-15 minutes per day can reinforce our mindfulness practice by keeping us engaged in the present moment. Of course, asana, or the physical practice of yoga is good for the physical body. Strengthening and lengthening the muscles can result in increased mobility, and as we all know, increasing the heart rate can lead to a release of endorphins, but yoga does not end with asana, and the benefits of yoga are not limited to the physical body.
Pranayama or breathwork is another limb of yoga and can be practiced in conjunction with seated meditation. To manipulate the breath requires attention to the present moment and to the intricate sensations of the body. To meditate is to gently, yet firmly retrain the mind to stay focused on the present, though the goal of meditation is frequently misunderstood; this practice is not meant to be done as a way to ignore your worries or take any life from them at all, but rather just to simply give you the peace of being present for even a short period of time so that maybe after you can return to that which is in need of your effort, time, and attention with clarity. What I’m suggesting here is not that we disown or take life from what might be perceived as negative emotional responses i.e. anger, anxiety, sadness, irritability, but rather we learn to identify them, to validate them, and detach from them, so that we can begin to recognize what might be triggering these emotional responses and better understand how to cope with them.
If you are looking to deepen your practice, My Vinyasa Practice offers a free course called Yoga for Anxiety. You can click here to register.