Mental wellness skills and attitudes are learnable
We all improve step by step. We do not make a single jump into a state of mental wellness, and can continuously improve as we continuously learn what works for us. Developing mental wellness isn’t much like going to a professional to be treated for a disease – mental wellness skills attitudes and knowledge as well as self-awareness all develop through learning and improving self-awareness.
The good news is that an investment in developing mental wellness pays off in many parts of our lives. Employers are demanding emotional, psychological, cognitive, and relational competencies – and these are certainly critical for entrepreneurs. Understanding how to contribute to our brain development also helps to build the foundation for higher level thinking, planning and self-regulation as well as strengthen the other mental wellness competencies.
Students come to post-secondary education with coping strategies and basic life assets built through their earlier years – some more productive than others. The time in post-secondary can help reset habits and attitudes that support resilience and improve life assets. Building positive life assets you already have, testing out new ones and strengthening those practices that work for you, are important as you learn to cope with the increased stresses of post-secondary and life. Going further, undertaking structured processes of self-inquiry can help a person to understand their underlying assumptions to self-sabotaging habits.
Not everyone is the same, and not everyone reacts the same way to stress or finds the same things effective for coping with stress. So the most effective ways of coping and prevention are different for everyone, although there are some universal benefits – things like eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep, keeping physically active, building friendships are important for brain development, which pays off throughout life.
Learning goes beyond coping in the moment, or simply doing activities without understanding why they are important or relevant to you. In school we learn by receiving information from experts or by participating in experiential activities. This is learning from experience. To learn from experience, we must pay attention to our experience – as if seeing the actions we take as a kind of experiment – worth watching for the results the actions produce in different situations. So the activities used for short-term coping and stress management are also ones that help you build your mental wellness skills, if combined with mindfulness, reflection and action learning.
Different things work for different people so the first key to action learning is to continuing to pay attention to five key things:
- Which types of stress, or which times of day, week, or year are most challenging for you, and how does a combination of stressors impact?
- Which types of stress relief work in the moment (breathing fully, some creative activity etc.) and which types aren’t as helpful for you?
- Which types of stress management help as basic life practices (eating nutritiously, proper sleep, mind-body activities such as yoga, creative activities etc.) and what types aren’t so useful for you?
- How you best organize stress management practices to work in your life so you use them consistently, as a practice (scheduled, blocks of time, multiple-outcome practices such as standing desks, short breaks to move rather than sitting for long periods, ceremonial practices, etc.)
- Acknowledging and celebrating progress helps keep your momentum going. Which ways of learning from experience, recognizing your progress and identifying possible adaptive actions work best for you?
This isn’t a completely linear situation – behaviour alone won’t necessarily create an impact – so paying attention to these things in different contexts is important.
The continuous process of learning from experience and adapting is what makes mental wellness a process as well as a state, and what enables us to develop to our fullest potential. Since we learn from each other in our social environment, this process also involves supporting one another.
Some use the term ‘resilience’ to describe mental wellness – ‘bouncing back’ after a stressful event, ambiguous situation or a challenging time. Being resilient does not mean that you don’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have or are experiencing stressful events or trauma. And it isn’t about controlling the stress (trying to control it actually can make it more stressful). It’s about regulating stress and your response.
Resilience involves a number of actions. In addition to connecting with resources such as caring and supportive relationships that a person has developed over time, one can use coping or stress management tools to regain their usual functioning state. Combinations of mind-body activities such as yoga or meditation, creative activities such as art (even colouring), breathing exercises, movement of different kinds, socializing with trusted friends and colleagues are all activities that might equally be used for stress management or prevention – the key for resilience and mental wellness is to recognize what works for you.
Practice, and reinforcing what works will help you become more and more able to regulate stressful activities, so you can reliably access these strategies even when under pressure. This brings you into the realm of developing life assets.
Use resources from reliable sources as guidance. For example, the American Psychological Association has a booklet on the Road to Resilience that describes 10 different kinds of steps you can take. Programs like “The Inquiring Mind” can provide specific activities to help you know how to prepare for events that you find particularly challenging. (see references list).