Many people start the new year with a resolution, but it is rarely about their emotional health. Kyle MacDonald from the University Counseling Center outlines some of the things we can do to be emotionally healthy.
Rosemary Cope: Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness wellcast. I'm Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections. Our guest today is Kyle McDonald. Kyle is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Millsaps College and he is currently a mental health clinician at the University Counseling Center. This month, we will be focusing on what it means to be "behaviorally healthy." Many people approach the new year thinking they are going to work on their physical health, but they rarely consider their mental health. Kyle, how would you define what it means to be mentally or emotionally healthy?
Kyle McDonald: I think the first thing is realizing that oftentimes our mental and emotional health is the things that prompts better feelings physically. So, if there are goals around physical health, maybe focusing on the mental and emotional health will make those goals happen. I think, overall, being mentally and emotionally healthy means being honest with yourself around things you are struggling with and taking actions on those things, whether it be seeing a therapist, learning some coping skills, support groups, talking to friends. I think we often see this world as black and white in terms of either being emotionally/ mentally healthy or not and I think it is more realistic to see it as a spectrum and understand that there is going to be good and bad throughout the process.
Rosemary Cope: Just as we all know that improving our physical health might include things like a healthy diet or exercise, what do you think we need to do to work on our mental and emotional health?
Kyle McDonald: I think a lot of things come to mind here, but I think two important things ring the most true, and first is boundaries ... so, thinking about where do you need some boundaries for yourself to support your own mental and emotional health, really focusing on when do you need to take care of yourself. I think this comes up in a lot of conversations around self-care and work-life balance but isn't practiced nearly as well as it is talked about, and I think oftentimes when we think boundaries, we think setting up rules or confronting other people in our lives, but I think boundaries can be very much spoken and unspoken. Maybe you need to set a boundary with yourself around going to bed at a certain time no matter what happens during the day, or maybe there is a boundary you need to set with a friend who keeps calling you every single day to complain about how bad their day was, and I think most importantly, realizing that we don't have to pick up every single phone call that we get and the whole purpose of voicemail is so that we don't have to pick up every phone call we get, so, really letting go of that obligation to pick up the phone or do the next thing when we really need to make a choice to take care of ourselves. And then secondly, being active, and being active in finding the things to help yourself feel more stable, and it is easy to tell ourselves that something won't work or won't help us, but in reality, that is just an assumption we are making about that. Make a list of things that you think might help deal with something or deal with some sort of instability and start testing them out and figure out what works for you. And I think with these two things, it is about creating safety in your life and creating that environment that is going to promote your wellness as a whole instead of expecting yourself just to "do better."
Rosemary Cope: I like that, that I need to be real intentional about what makes me feel better instead of just expecting, "It's going to happen," or it is not going to happen ... that we have these preconceived ideas about our own emotional health also. And so, if there are certain skills that it takes for me to be emotionally healthy, and I start to look at those, how do I maintain those over time, because life comes in and messes with our heads?
Kyle McDonald: Yeah, absolutely. I think it comes back to ... again, I could say a lot about this, but I think it comes back to managing those expectations and understanding, again going back to that mental health and emotional health is absolutely a spectrum, and that we know, accept that good and bad days are going to happen. And I think the biggest mistake we can make in kind of trying to cope is only using skills to help us on the bad days. Alright? And, so, some more intention about taking yourself on the bad days to prepare for those bad days. So, maybe on bad days, you go to those coping skills that you know are going to help. You call that one really good, supportive friend, you do that one act of yoga or mindfulness or whatever helps you that you just know is going to work. And then on the good days, how can you start to prepare for the bad? Maybe there are some new things you want to try out. Maybe you want to dig into a new book or something that might start to become a preventative measure, and I think that's a big way to start to make longer-term progress, is using those good days to grow prevention against the bad.
Rosemary Cope: So, what I am also hearing is that good emotional care is not a selfish act.
Kyle McDonald: Absolutely.
Rosemary Cope: And that if I can focus, at least a bit, on what makes me better, then I am going to have, hopefully, more of those good days than the bad days.
Kyle McDonald: Absolutely, and just on that, like, I think, again, being rational with our expectations. There are so many different things that can make us have a bad day and it's not always in our control, and when we kind of learn to accept that ... like, I know for me, if it is cold, rainy, traffic, am I going toI didn’t eat enough for breakfast…? Llike, all four of those things are things that are going to make my day a little bit worse, and so, how can we start to see those and take action on them?
Rosemary Cope: So, if one of our listeners has concerns, or they want more information about this, can you suggest some online or campus resources?
Kyle McDonald: Absolutely. I think it comes back about intention and honesty with yourself, right? So, first, trying to figure out - what is the thing you are trying to change? What is the thing you are really struggling with and kind of land on that topic, and then try and do some research to educate yourself about it? So, what are you dealing with? Search for support groups, self-help books. There are blogs online, podcasts. And then, maybe, ultimately, you land on coming to therapy or going to see someone and talking through it. I mean, that can be in the community or even with the EAP here and I think it is important to understand that therapy is not for "sick" people. It is not for "mentally ill" people. Therapy is for people that there is this aspect of safety that comes in that relationship with the therapist where I can say anything. I can say whatever I need to say to feel better and it is not going to leave that room.
Rosemary Cope: Excellent insight. Thank you so much, Kyle.