Just like your bank account balance, your mental health fluctuates depending on what you put into it - and what you take out. In this episode, the Savvy Psychologist explains how to invest in your personal mental health bank.
Many of us have significant worries about our finances. We spend hours of our day pondering how we can make more money or reduce our expenses. This rationale makes a lot of sense because financial strain is a major stressor. Well, today I’m not going to talk about money matters; I’ll leave that to Money Girl. What I will do, however, is talk about your general psychological well-being and introduce the concept of a “mental health bank” which might help you avoid becoming mentally bankrupt.
Ever feel burned out? Tapped out? Exhausted? Look around and think, “What do I have to look forward to?” These can all be signs that your mental health is in the red. Just like our monthly bank statements, our mind’s health can be seen as a series of deposits and withdrawals. Petting my cat on the couch while watching a TV show is a deposit and running late for an important meeting is a withdrawal. The past year with the COVID pandemic has been the equivalent of a financial crisis on our emotional resources. Now that things are starting to ease up, it's a great time to reassess how we take care of ourselves on a daily basis. I'll be helping you open a mental health bank account today. Now, let’s walk you through the steps.
Step 1: Take an Inventory of Assets and Debts
Taking an inventory can feel like the most difficult step, as it involves taking an honest account of how we've been living. You will want to isolate the behaviors and activities that have an additive benefit to your life (aka, your assets), and also the aspects of life that cause you stress (aka, your liabilities). It’s important to note here that there isn’t a method to eliminate all stress. In fact, some of our stressors are also our greatest assets.
For instance, raising children can sometimes make you want to pull your hair out, (which some of us would happily do in exchange for a 10-minute nap because we haven’t slept in eight years). However, for those who make that choice, child rearing can also be an enriching endeavor. The goal is to make sure that life isn’t so imbalanced that you are living in a psychological deficit.
Examples of assets can include healthy relationships, regular participation in recreational activities, and a non-judgmental mindset. Your debts often look like the reverse of your assets. These can include: damaging relationships, lack of hobbies or wellness activities such as cardiovascular fitness, and a highly critical mindset. The key is to look at both internal and external factors that are contributing to the plus and minus columns of your life.
At the end of this assessment, you may end up patting yourself on the back because you’re doing better than expected, or you may end up looking cross as you add Step 1 to your debts category. Either way, we’re going to get through this because Step 2 is how to add more funds to your bank.
Step 2: Make Daily Deposits
Remember the old adage, “A penny saved is a penny earned”? Well, that definitely applies here! Many people consistently fall into a mental health trap known as magnification and minimization.
It can look like this: “Going on a walk in the park a few times a week isn’t going to help. My boss is still going to be around every day making my life terrible!” In this example, you’re minimizing the impact that a deposit (walking) could have to mitigate work stress. When you magnify situations in your mind, it can lead to feeling helpless, which increases the magnitude of the withdrawal from your mental health bank. Think of it like hidden fees. We want to accumulate as many positives per day as possible, whether they are the equivalent to a nickel or $100 bill.
I think of deposits in two broad categories which I call “Pleasure” and “Progress.”
Let’s start with Pleasure. This category is all about doing things that feel good. This could range from having the thought, “I’m a worthwhile person,” to going on an all-inclusive vacation on a tropical island. The goal here is to do at least one thing per day that is enjoyable for you. I would suggest writing out a list of things so that it’s easier to select an activity, even when you may be highly stressed. It’s important to have the list be highly personalized to increase your likelihood of experiencing joy. Remember, there’s no shame or judgment here; if you are tickled by watching old episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants for the nostalgia factor, or Real Housewives for the drama, then go for it!
Next up is Progress. These are activities that leave us feeling a sense of accomplishment. When you have more confidence, and experience yourself as a capable person, it can lead to a reduction in negative emotions. Just like with Pleasure, you want to pick one thing that you can do each day for the Progress column. You should choose something that feels challenging, but doable.
For instance, if you’ve never run more than a mile, you wouldn’t set an expectation to run 10 miles today. Instead, set an incremental goal that is just enough to make you stretch, but not enough to make you fall flat on your face. The idea here is to plan for success, not failure, which involves gradually increasing the difficulty over time. Remember: this is a no-judgment zone. Don’t get critical about the size of your challenge! When I first started running, it was a quarter mile at a time. As you accumulate achievements in the longer-term, you can improve self-esteem and overall happiness.
Step 3: Investments
If you’ve been listening to the Money Girl podcast, you will know that with any financial investments, it’s important to diversify. We need short term positives that pay off right now and long term investments that pay dividends. These investments are usually linked to our values. Values are our principles, morals, ethics, and standards of living. If I am a spiritual person, then religious study and attendance of religious services may be a top priority. If attending to my relationships is paramount, then I may schedule weekly calls with family and friends and/or plan a yearly family vacation.
Investments tend to be ongoing because a value isn’t something you complete. You can, however, finish a goal related to a value. So, if I value being helpful to others and I help my elderly neighbor carry her groceries upstairs, I’d never say, “Challenge complete! Now I can go around being a jerk to people for the rest of my life.” What you will notice about living within your values is that they provide our lives with meaning and purpose. And these are investments that usually pay back with interest.
Step 4: Turn on Alerts and Notifications
In order for all of this to work, we have to mindfully manage our mental health bank. You will need to monitor for suspicious activity and write down red flags to watch out for in your emotional spending habits.
Have you been spending time with people who are toxic for you? Have you been staying up late at night doomscrolling and not getting enough sleep? What happened to you picking up crocheting again? If you aren’t paying attention to your debts, they can quickly accumulate and outpace your deposits. Consequently, this also involves setting up routines that include accumulating positives as a standard practice.
This could include setting regular days for exercise, setting aside time for reading, or saying one affirming and compassionate comment to ourselves every morning. When we are engaged in a pleasant event, we must fully participate in that moment. That means focusing our attention on the here and now, not worrying about when the good thing will end, or if we deserve it. We need to fully acknowledge that in this moment our experience is one of satisfaction, or relief, or happiness.
Another mindful tactic is to take a few minutes to dwell on the positives. Recall your experience through your five senses: the thoughts that went through your mind, the emotions you felt, and the body sensations that you attribute to the encounter. I think of it like couponing, and it’s a great way to save an event in your mind and have access to it later when you’re going through a stressful time. For example, let’s say you’re going through a breakup and you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m all alone.” That’s a pretty hefty withdrawal, but if you look into your bag, and scattered around you see all these wonderful moments with friends and family, it may lessen the impact on your wallet. You might instead think, “Going through this breakup is rough but luckily, I have people around who love me.” From an emotional perspective, that could be the difference between totalling your car or having to get a new transmission from your mental health bank. Who doesn’t want those kinds of savings?