Written by Annabelle Ketchum, MS, LMFT
When someone asks, ‘How are you?’ many of us are conditioned to respond, ‘Fine.,’ without even thinking. But if you were to stop and consider the question, would your answer change?
When was the last time you sat down to think about how you’re doing and the state of your mental health?
Since 1984, the United States has recognized May as mental health awareness month. Each year, the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) aims to educate, reduce stigma, and fundraise for mental health treatment across the country. With the start of the pandemic in 2020, NAMI’s work became even more important. Many of us have experienced changes in our mental health over the past few years, but do we know how to treat it?
In thinking about how to care for our mental health, it is important to ask yourself these three questions:
1. How do I evaluate it?
2. How do I manage it?
3. If I need support, how do I find it?
For some people, these questions are answered easily. But for many, even evaluating our emotional state can be difficult.
Our brains are not good at evaluating our emotions.
Before our modern-day stressors of emails, bills, and arguments, our bodies developed a system to help us react in a crisis. Many people know this as fight or flight. Controlled by the Sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight prepares us to react to an acute stressor such as can we outrun the bear chasing us, or should we stay and fight? Unfortunately, this system isn’t fine-tuned for our modern-day stress which tends to be more chronic in nature. So, if we aren’t fighting or flying but are instead dealing with high stress daily over a long period of time, how do our brains know when the stress is done, and our nervous system can rebalance? The short answer is, they don’t. Our brains are often unable to tell when stress if over. Our bodies hold on to stress and we continue experiencing symptoms such as high blood pressure, feeling on edge, or difficulty sleeping.
The number one way to motivate your brain into resolving the flight or fight response is exercise.
When we exercise, our increased heart rate signals to our brain that we are acting out our flight or fight response. Cardio exercise such as running or biking says to our brains, “We did it, we fled!” while working on a punching bag or tossing a weighted ball could simulate fight.
What should I do if my stress response gets too intense before I can complete the stress response cycle?
When our flight or fight response is triggered, but we are unable to work though it we are more susceptible to a heighted sense of emotion, also known as emotional flooding. During a flood, we tend to be irritable, impulsive, or shut down completely. It may cause us to feel completely helpless.
One way to help in an emotional flood is to create physical space from yourself and your stressor. When we change environments, our brains must re-evaluate our surroundings to reassess for danger and stress. Whether it is getting ready to blow up in a work setting or reaching a breaking point because your spouse forgot to change the laundry, the ability to stop, change your location and control your breathing can help you reconnect with the logical parts of your brain which aid you when you are ready to re-engage with the stress.
Here are recommendations for giving yourself space when stress becomes too intense:
- Take a moment to walk outside. Spend time really noticing what the sky, trees, and ground look like today.
- Leave your office and take a moment in another room. Spend a few minutes getting a drink of water.
- Find a relaxing place and listen to a favorite song that gives you a sense of calm or try to write down the lyrics to that song from memory.
- Practice 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. While in a new location, try to name 5 things you can see, 4 you can hear, 3 you can touch, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste.
Another way to help our brains work through intense stress is by changing our temperature. When we start to enter fight or flight, our body sends blood to the muscles, which can make us feel hot or flushed
. Just like changing locations, changing temperature helps to reset our brains, particularly if we move from hot to cold. Five ways you can change temperature are:
- Take a cold shower.
- Change clothes into something cooler.
- Hold an ice cube in your hand.
- Freeze a paper towel and place it on your forehead or keep a frozen gel mask in your freezer if you are feeling fancy.
- Go outside if it is cooler than room temperature.
To utilize any of these examples of changing space or changing temperature, you don’t need to spend a large amount of time. Just practice one of these activities until you feel your breathing slow, and your body begin to relax.
If you have read all the recommendations listed so far and are thinking “That will never work, I’ll never remember once I’m flooded with stress.,” take time to practice your preferred intervention when things are “low stakes,” such as getting off a lengthy but not aggravating work call. If you practice these skills when you have the emotional balance and mental capacity to do so, you will have them ready when you hit a point of intensity and really need them. The Seahawks practice before their big games, you should too!
What should I do if none of this helps?
Sometimes someone’s mental health needs require more outside support. This could be engaging more with friends, our asking a partner for help. It also may look like reaching out to a therapist or psychiatric provider who can help create a treatment plan. If you are thinking that you need more help, you can contact the Counseling Center at PRO Medical by emailing CounselingCenter@proclub.com or use the search function on https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/wa/king-county .
ANNABELLE KETCHUM, MS, LMFT
Annabelle is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in many areas including; ADD/ADHD, adolescent concerns, anxiety, depression, emotional stress, family conflict, and self-esteem issues. She views therapy as a collaborative process between herself and the client, empowering the client to view themselves as an expert on their own life experience. Together, Annabelle works with clients to explore their thought patterns and behaviors that can be difficult to change and improve alone. As a Symbolic-Experiential therapist, Annabelle focuses on language and metaphors to help clients have a better understanding of their emotional experience.