Did you know that more than 50% of us will at some point be diagnosed with some form of mental illness or disorder? Mental issues touch each one of us in our family lives, work environment, and communities. This article looks at new practical ways to improve mental wellness and why institutions need to be proactive in providing resources and support for their staff. There will be a particular emphasis on higher education.
Issues That Affect Mental Well-being In Modern Society
Many things in our modern society can impact the mental health of people all over the world. Here is a sampling of some of them.
Culture And Technology
The culture in our society that tells us we need to work hard, get ahead, and make something of ourselves puts a lot of extra strain on us. There is more of a stigma towards mental illness in less developed countries, which makes it worse.
Then there is technology. Our phones are gifts and curses. We have pressure to reply to emails and texts as soon as possible. The burden of getting a reply to that text within a couple of hours is real.
Work And Institution Environment
We constantly have to be at our best, give it our all, and produce results at work or school. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves in the office one day then working from home the next day. We live in extremes, working from home with the kids and dishes, then suddenly we are back at the office with all the new working conditions.
We all want to have a sense of certainty. Are we on campus? Are we off-campus? Are we working from home or at the office? There is a disruptive new normal that we find ourselves in now that does not help mental well-being. The current global situation took the haven of classrooms away with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, which added to the current dropout rate in most countries.
Higher Education Under The Gun
The Department of Education made calls for the restructuring of higher education before the COVID-19 pandemic hit; some people do not see the value of higher education anymore. With the push to return to a certain kind of normal, administrators and staff are left out on how the return will be done. Higher education is under constant critique and a spotlight. Administrators and staff are under increasing amounts of pressure because they are the targets of criticism and finger-pointing.
Through all that, administrators must find the capacity to still deliver at a high level. You will find that the capacity cup of these people is overrun and overwhelmed.
Higher education professionals find themselves with so much stacked against them, depending on what time of the year it is. How do people prioritize and handle all that comes with their work while taking care of their wellbeing? It's a million-dollar question. There is also the need to involve other stakeholders, people like the Dean, to help take care of one’s mental well-being.
When what is being asked of you becomes too much to handle and starts impacting how you eat, drink, or deal with everyday life, it's time to bring in some awareness and have a serious talk with your boss.
Unrealistic expectations are toxic.
Understanding Mental Health And Its Impact
The world is starting to have more and more conversations around mental health. We had Mental Health Awareness month in May. We're beginning to understand that mental health affects the way we feel, think, and act.
Keep Employees In Mind
If, as an employer, you can focus on employees' well-being, then it will impact productivity.
If a person in student services, curriculum development, or curriculum delivery is happy, it will help the whole faculty feel better, resulting in better service delivery for students. Students will start to feel better about themselves and their education.
Having The Tough Conversations
A conversation with your boss is necessary when work expectations are overrunning you. Books like Chris Voss' Never Split The Difference prepare employees for those tough conversations with the boss.
Think things over and do a mental audit before sitting down and negotiating your way out of a toxic work environment. You can start the conversation by saying, “You might think I am weak right now, or you might feel that I can do this and meet your expectations, but in reality, I’m suffering. My work is suffering. The students' experience is suffering. How can we work on this together?”
Approaching the conversation having done a mental audit will help with the stigmas attached to approaching the boss at work.
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Contributing Factors To Poor Mental Health
Mental health, mental illness, and mental wellbeing are a spectrum, and you need to understand where you are on that spectrum. Answering a few questions will help you. Are you feeling unmotivated? Do you have a sense of anxiety or remorse over not feeling motivated enough? Are you breaking commitments, in severe cases, through adultery, or, in the worst cases, white lies? Are you breaking promises to yourself or others? Do you see bad habits developing? Do you feel you are not as productive as you should be?
You should look at the answers you give through the lens of culture, technology, and your business environment.
You need to ask yourself where you're letting yourself down on the spectrum are and if they contribute to your mental health issues. Ask yourself, how am I letting myself down? Oh, I'm feeling irritable. I'm losing sleep. I'm working too hard. Having answered this, we need to look at the root causes of mental health issues.
There is no single cause of poor mental health, but there are several contributing factors.
Trigger, Trauma, Toxicity
You may have a stressful meeting at the end of the day, which could trigger the need to go out and have a drink or binge on that bag of chips or pint of ice cream sitting in the fridge. Maybe you're not hitting your enrollment numbers, or perhaps you haven't brought in the level of endowments needed for your advancement goals, and that's creating a sense of trauma in your mind. Those feelings and thoughts of inadequacy are going to lead to further triggers and trauma. The whole thing becomes very toxic. Our goal is to figure out how to unwire some of the toxicity.
Biological and Generational Factors
There are medical conditions such as cancer and diabetes that we can pass on in our genes that cause stress and toxicity. The use of alcohol and drugs also causes chemical imbalances in our brains, worsening our mental well-being.
Some people are experiencing generational trauma from certain events that occurred in their families and how certain things were allowed to carry on, or from racially motivated violence or violence based on their personhood that carries on from generation to generation.
Tools To Address Traumas
Modules that make office environments a safe space have been used to help with workers’ mental well-being. One such module is called Wonderful Wednesday. It involves coming together every Wednesday to share ideas on things like implicit bias, racial and generational traumas that exist in society.
There’s something called the neuro cycle that advocates creating awareness around a subject or problem. With the neuro cycle, we create an understanding of the problem, bring it to light and talk about it as objectively as possible.
The philosophy of Freemason speaks about points within a circle. Your mind is the center point within the circle, and it's the center of your story. If you put red marks around the circle, these are those triggers or those traumas that occurred in your life. Then they permeate outward into our emotional and physical being.
This is why the effects of poor mental health are so devastating because it permeates out, and what we see on the outer shell of ourselves reflects what we're dealing with and grappling with on the internal level.
You can feel it in terms of your sweat glands. It turns into your heart rate. On an individual level, it's quite palpable. Then it will have you saying to yourself, 'why am I staying up till three over a silly meeting that I have tomorrow?’ Or you start overthinking about a small conversation that you need to have with one of your underperforming students or your boss, who has crazy expectations of you.
The Reptilian Brain
The core brain sits at the first brain nodule on top of our brainstem; this is the reptilian brain. It's essentially the fight or flight mechanism. It's there for survival when there is a threat, deciding if we need to confront it or flee.
These inputs that we're getting in anticipation of a meeting are triggering your brain at the reptilian level, causing us moments of panic and anxiety on whether we should flee or stay in and fight.
This then goes into the mammalian brain, which is our emotional and feeling center. Rarely, those feelings go into more of a logical analysis of the neocortex, where language, perception, and reasoning occur.
So the reason we're stressed out, staying up all night, is because that little brain center that controls our survival instincts hasn't evolved to the point where we can recognize that it's not a real threat. What was once essential to our survival and evolution is still controlling our minds, sending us down the wrong path. We have to learn how to move it from the reptilian brain and into the neocortex, where we can process it.
Dealing With The Saber Tiger
Some superiors or bosses behave like the saber-toothed tiger. The saber-toothed tiger simply devoured its prey without hesitation or mercy and was relentless. In dealing with a boss that behaves like a saber-toothed tiger, we steal from Chris Voss again and use labeling and mirroring. If a saber-tooth tiger, aka your boss, has targeted you, one of the tactics is to think win-win and understand before being understood. If it looks like the boss is angry, you should mirror it back. Make it look like you are also angry.
Keep it very objective, without saying something like, 'I feel like you are attacking me,' or 'I feel you are super stressed out, and I can't deal with that.' You can say, 'It feels like, or seems like, or sounds like.' This will keep a confrontation from happening. You can then use your neocortex to rationalize and think about the situation at hand.
If that doesn't work, you could say, 'why don't we table it for now and talk about it an hour from now? Is that okay?' You can somehow move the conversation away from the moment and create some space, decreasing the toxicity at that moment.
When you're having an issue with anyone, even in personal relationships, take time to think about how you're going to address it. You can find a solution that works for everyone involved. We need to understand how that emotion will affect the other party and how they will receive what we're saying.
Impact On Healthy Lifestyle
When talking about the stigma and culture of what's expected of us daily, there is this idea of a healthy lifestyle. We tend to think about diet, the amount of sleep, or staying active as part of that healthy lifestyle.
Unfortunately, the mind is in a messy state. It’s that messy state which negatively impacts the chances of living a healthy lifestyle. Toxic thoughts, depression, anxiety, and anxious thoughts are muddled. Imagine a room or a classroom with all the desks moved around haphazardly. We wouldn't set up our classroom like that. We certainly wouldn't want our bedroom or living room in that state. We manage our home. We manage our finances so they don't get messy, and we manage our classrooms.
For some reason, we're not managing our minds, our mental space, in the same way, we manage our homes and finances. Dr. Carolyn Leaf's book, Your Mental Mess, is an excellent supplement to this. She demonstrates that the mental mess might be natural. It's a natural thing to have a million different things bouncing around in our minds.
Even though it might be a natural outcome, it doesn't necessarily mean we have to live with it. It doesn't mean that we can't take the time to do what Dr. Leaf calls mind management. We need to have better sleep, better eating, better exercise habits, a better version of ourselves.
When a problematic situation crops up at work, whether an altercation with a faculty member or someone in the Dean's cabinet who doesn't like your new initiative, it triggers something; in her book, Dr. Leaf says that you can use the neuro cycle to embrace the process and then reconceptualize the input to your brain.
Embracing it can be saying to yourself, ‘I am feeling angry with the response I just received about my new initiatives for this program I am committed to.’ That thought process alone moves the problem from the reptilian brain into the neocortex.
Using this neuro cycle, anytime you’re in a conflict, feel like you have hit the trigger or the trauma, or that toxic feeling and that toxic thought is emerging, try to embrace it by acknowledging it first and then processing it. Now you can start processing it and analyzing it, “Is it something I have control over? If not, why am I spending so much time worrying about it? If I do, how can I reconceptualize this as something that I can take action over and put together a more appropriate follow-up or set of next steps.”
Processing involves getting to the root cause of why a trigger is happening, then reconceptualizing it. Is it something within your control? Processing helps promote healthy mental cognition and enables change. It changes the shape of our brain over time.
A neuro cycle is then a tool for mind management. Once you have that tool in your toolbox, you can make a T chart of your time on the job, time off, and time on-call, downtime, or uptime. List the places you're spending your downtime, and rate it as healthy or unhealthy.
Taking some inventory around how you're spending your downtime is one of the secret techniques to use when working on your mental health issues. An audit on how you're spending your downtime can be applied to the individual, family, classroom, and work environment.
In life, there are life-giving activities, and there are life-sucking activities. Based on how you're spending your downtime, you can see that you're doing many life-giving. The chances are you have very healthy, positive mental health compared to life-sucking activities that make mental health worse. Practicing meditation has been an anchor for many people.
Meditation doesn't necessarily mean sitting for 30 minutes. It could be taking a walk and just bringing some awareness to your breath, feeling the thoughts come in, and then allowing the thoughts to leave. It's like being a third-party observer to your breath and the influx of your thoughts going in and out. That simple act of getting up and taking a walk, using that as a form of meditation, is a very healthy way to spend downtime.
One exercise is a deep breath in up to three, hold it for three, then exhale for three. In that process, think about something that brings you peace. It could be a childhood memory, or maybe a memory of your wedding, that promotion, a place you go that feels safe, secure, and nurturing. Perhaps it's a person that makes you feel at peace or possibly a routine or habit. They call this single-pointed meditation. You can take that place, thing, or memory that brings you peace and make it the single point of your meditation.
Some apps help with mental health issues. What's cool about apps is that you can use them in the office right at your office chair, lying down at night, or first thing in the morning, depending on where it fits your routine. Apps have a specific curriculum that can take the premise of meditation and use it not only for mental health but things like weight loss as well.
Self-Care And Self-Care Boundaries
Carving out time is the number one challenge facing many people working on their positive mental health or cultivating a healthy mindset.
There are some very simple, low entryways for self-care setting boundaries. Try adding asking for help at the office to that list that includes spending time alone, spending time with the family, and spending time at the beach.
Get over the stigma of asking for help. You can think of asking for help as an exercise in self-care, just as forgiving yourself is an act of self-care.
Going hiking, going on neighborhood walks, doing a morning crossword, a quiet walk without music or podcasts are all part of self-care.
The activities mentioned above are essential in life-sucking or life-giving activities and where you are spending your downtime. The downtime activities, such as that short walk, are healthy exercises while getting ready for whatever you will tackle in the day ahead.
A Sunday drive, being alone with your thoughts on the open road, can do wonders for your mental state and is a popular form of self-care. Some say stand-up paddle boating is also very helpful for mental well-being.
Another technique for self-care is to figure out your love language. We've heard about love languages. How about self-love languages? You can treat yourself to a soft massage blanket, for example. Quality time with friends, calling up someone close to you that you have not talked to in a while, giving or receiving gifts, and acts of service are all forms of physical love languages.
Words of affirmation are surprisingly powerful. As an exercise, think of some accomplishments, small wins, a couple of things you're particularly proud of, maybe in the last week. You can think about the previous year, especially in all the turmoil and crisis we've been through. Think of those accomplishments, write them down like a brainstorm. Write down as many as you can edit, add more, and then yay yourself.
You can say, 'yay me for walking right past that box of donuts and not picking up one. Yay me for coming to this presentation today that is going to help me become a better person. Yay me for surviving the pandemic.' It can go on and on, then you share.
There's a great story from Sasaki Roshi. He was a Zen Buddhist teacher who lived to be 104. He recounted this ancient Zen story of a king of Japan who was struggling with mental health because of taxes, conspiracy, and war. Someone from his community, a plebeian low-class citizen, came to him and gave him a stone.
Some people say it was a ring, anyway he told the king that it was the secret to mental health, and the king must put the stone in his pocket. Any time, the king felt like he couldn't go on, and he had incredible anxiety, all he had to do was touch that stone and remind himself that this too shall pass.
So, anybody that wears a ring can touch it in those moments privately and say to yourself, 'this too shall pass.'
Last year, there was a woman who lost her mother. She had also had to deal with the death in the family due to the Coronavirus. She had the Coronavirus. At the same time, she was trying to make a problematic departure from a toxic work environment. When asked how she was doing, she said, 'I'm staying grounded with gratitude.'
Science backs the benefits of gratitude. Gratitude is just giving thanks, acknowledging the things you get to do, not the things you have to do. I have to do this. I have to send this email. I have to do that. I have to show up for class. Reframing these as things you get to do expresses gratitude. Painting your office expresses appreciation for the art and the creativity. Including a family photo in that painting expresses gratitude for them and what they've taught you. Think about that saber tooth boss that we were referring to earlier and give thanks to them.
How can universities prioritize both their people and their business, you may ask yourself. The key is in building wellness into the organization's culture.
In the end, it comes to flight or fight. If the boundaries you have drawn are being pushed back on by your boss, it might be an indication that you’ve both put in 90% and you’re bickering over the last 10%.
If that situation comes to the point where you need to leave, and you'll know if you're in a toxic environment, use the 90% rule. If you've given yourself 90% and you feel like you've gotten in return 90% of what the company, organization, or institution can provide to you, chances are it's time to move on.
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