This post was originally featured on HuffingtonPost.com
Being an eager, determined, and active male within my personal and professional roles, I understand the inherent challenges when it comes to living and maintaining a balanced lifestyle. It is also a frequent complaint encountered within my role as a therapist working with men. These conversations often start off like this:
"I'm functional. I have a good paying job, I'm dating, having sex, I'm happy. I'm close with my family and have quite a few close friends. I eat well, I exercise, take good care of my body, and I like myself. I maintain an active lifestyle and seek out new opportunities for growth and personal development. There's nothing wrong with me, so why should I consider seeing a therapist?"
There are many ways to answer this question. For the purposes of this article, I focus on two responses.
1) Few of us fall into this ideal on a consistent basis.
Yes, fundamentally and cognitively, we know exercise, diet and nutrition contribute to better mental states. That nature provides us the opportunity to connect with our spirituality, to rejuvenate, and relax. We know giving back to society, mentorship and volunteering reap deep intrinsic rewards. We understand management of stress is vital, and to do so, we need to carve out time to play, be creative and relax. We've heard the importance of healthy and intimate relationships; of the benefits afforded to processing and exploring recent events and stress. But really, who has time to do this?!?
Too often, we have competing interests in our day-to-day lives. With pressures coming from employment, peers, family, household chores and more, our daily tasks often become hasty, triaged decisions based in reaction rather than prevention.
This makes sense. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a forum where member countries discuss issues and policies relating to economic growth, prosperity and sustainable development. The OECD reports people in the United States of America (USA) work more hours per year, and have more employees working "very long hours" than the average nation. Collectively, the USA ranks 33rd out of 36 nations when it comes to "time devoted to personal care and leisure," an outcome which contributes to poor physical and mental health.
Furthermore, our society reinforces a minimized view of such therapeutic activities and encourages other means of support instead. Roger Walsh states, "(these activities) require considerable and sustained effort, and many (individuals) feel unable or unwilling to tackle them. (Individuals) often have little social support, little understanding of causal lifestyle factors, and a passive expectation that healing comes from an outside authority or a pill." He identifies advertising as a main method of refocusing us onto more economic, and easier, ways of soothing these desires. These mechanisms include "self-medicating" via alcohol, nicotine, unhealthy food and other compulsions, which, at a certain point, become unhealthy and suffer from the psychological concept of habituation, the perceived benefits yielding less and less relief over time. These societal messages are further reinforced by many of our friends, family, employers, co-workers and many others.
What can we do?
Stress exists in all of our lives. It is not a question of if we will experience stress, but rather how we will deal with it. My colleague Ken Howard, LCSW recently listedsome warning signs when it comes to your lifestyle. Here's what I think:
2) Seeing a therapist can be helpful in moving from reaction-based decision-making to a more proactive approach. In doing so, we create an environment for preventative health care and move toward a more balanced lifestyle.
Like seeing a doctor for regular check ups and evaluations, seeing a trained mental health professional on a regular basis can be a great way to maintain consistency in perceiving, evaluating, interpreting and responding to the overwhelming complexity making up our daily lives. In fact, with many mental health symptoms seen in primary care physician settings, there is a push within the field to integrate mental health treatment earlier and more often in physical health treatment as well. Very few of us are allowed the conversational space required to explore the deep cognitive and emotional impact of our daily lives, not only on our minds but also on our bodies.
Given the challenges outlined by Walsh, being proactive over your lifestyle is imperative. In order to move toward a more proactive view of your lifestyle and healthcare, I believe integrating mental health treatment or coaching into one's schedule is vital. Prior to a mental health evaluation, it is important to have specific goals in mind. For example, if you are stuck, one goal could be to gain clarity. Other helpful hints in searching out a therapist include interviewing your therapist to ensure they are competent in approaching your unique situation (some great sample questions here), and to establish mutually agreed upon goals prior to beginning treatment. There are exceptional treatment protocols in the field of mental health including resolving uncertainty via Motivational Interviewing and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as discussed in my last post.
Mental Health and Therapy Writer. As featured on Huffington Post, Vox Media and elsewhere.