If you have hiked or climbed, you might be familiar with the “ten essentials” – a list of things to pack along to keep you safe and to use in case of accident or emergency (like water, map and compass, extra clothing, and a first aid kit). I was lucky to visit the Canadian Rockies recently, and I got away for an overnight trek into mountains, just by myself. While I hiked into the unfamiliar territory, I did a mental checklist of things in my pack and was pleased I had my back country essentials with me. [Except a way to deal with the mountains of mosquitoes I encountered. Lesson learned]. Getting out in nature is a great opportunity to reflect on your life. I was thinking about the people I work with in psychology practice, and the day-to-stuff of keeping well and maintaining a positive attitude. How to distill the advice I gave to clients, and to myself? I wondered what a “10 Essentials List” for daily mental health and well-being, our “mental hygiene,” would look like. What go-to concepts or tools should we always carry with us to be resilient, protect our mood, help us cope with daily ups and downs, and if needed, deal with big crises or emergencies?
Below is the list of essentials I gathered on my trip. I’m describing them just I imagined as I made mental notes hiking. The list will probably evolve for me. And your list may be different. That’s fine. The point is that there are many things you and I can do every day to better manage our moods, and that are based on solid clinical experience and on scientific study.
Think of this as a handy checklist. The first five items are simple actions you can do by yourself, privately, anywhere. The second five are more “advanced” in that they require the assistance of other people, the ability to look far outside of yourself, and opening yourself outside influences (like inspiring art or music, or to spirituality and your “higher power”). These essentials will help you no matter what happens. (If you don’t misuse them. I’ll explain more on that later.)
The 10 Essentials
1. Practice Gratitude.
Develop a habit of pausing to be thankful for the good things in your life. When you are having a hard day, remembering the good things can arrest a downward spiral in your mood that prevents you from being your best self. Even during a set-back, there are many things that are also going well in your world, or could be much worse. (You burnt your dinner? Be thankful you have food to eat. Car accident? Give thanks you are alive. Angry at someone close to you? Be thankful you have someone.) I have a habit of doing a mental list of what I am thankful for several times a day. I encourage you to develop this habit too. This will preserve your ability to see the positive things in life. The act of gratitude is a physical exercise for your brain. Feelings of gratitude directly activate brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine and have positive effects on metabolism and stress levels. If you are depressed, a daily gratitude practice can be as effective as swallowing an antidepressant medication.
2. What advice would you give to a best friend facing your situation?
The “what-advice-would-I-give to my best friend?” technique is also a go-to mental health essential. This mental exercise activates our compassion and creativity and buffers our self-criticism. Imaging advice to a friend seems like a simple act but it causes many things to happen for you on a psychological and neurological level: Taking an objective look at the situation, imagining creative solutions, crafting helpful advice, and putting this into words. The “what-advice…” technique is really a complex short cut that engages your whole brain, side steps your inner critic, and allows you to draw on your innate wisdom. Try it! Ironically, we are often kinder and more helpful to our friends than we are to ourselves. By answering this question, you will be surprised how you can reframe the situation you are in, in new and more promising ways.
3. Take 5 to be Mindful.
Where possible, stop and breathe or meditate for five minutes. Pause the mad rush of the day and be present for those moments. Use a watch or timer, or access the meditation app I use for a guided exercise or visualization. Even a brief mindfulness break can help “reset” our outlook and mood in a more positive direction. Plus, mindfulness can calm our heart rate, lower our blood pressure, and activate a relaxation response in our parasympathetic nervous system. So, we can move forward more refreshed.
4. Get outside.
As in, literally, go outside the building you are in and get your head under the sky or the trees or in contact whatever natural elements are available. A physical change of scene can provide an actual physical and mental reset for you. The outside place can be “nearby nature” like a yard, campus or street. It doesn’t have to a pristine, idyllic setting (though that helps, of course). Much like gratitude and mindfulness, “nature-based stress reduction” is a balm for your body and mind. The sense of space and complexity in outdoor settings (think of watching the play of clouds, or sunlight and wind moving through tree tops), beautiful scenes and views, the quality of the air and influence of helpful chemicals in the soil and trees, all have health-promoting affects.
Physical movement of any kind — stretching, walking, running, biking, an exercise or sport (so many other options) can get you “out of your head” and into a different, better perspective. This doesn’t have to be a long, rigorous commitment. A several minute walk can do wonders. Keep in mind, regular aerobic exercise is also a fully-fledged psychological treatment. Like mindfulness and gratitude, exercise can be as effective as medication for treating depression and anxiety. (Hint: You can combine numbers 4 and 5 for an added boost.)
6. Talk to someone.
Get social support from a friend, family member, neighbor or colleague, or anyone you know is “in your corner” no matter what. They may give you a new perspective, or just help you “talk it out” – whatever “it” is. Putting your thoughts into words moves them out of yourself and gives you perspective. The discovery that many problems are universal — you realize other people share your same concerns — is validating. It helps develop compassion. Also, learning someone else’s perspective helps us to free us of our habitual mental biases. When selecting a confidant, it’s important to choose wisely. A person that you know to be negative may do more harm than good.
7. Enjoy the Arts.
Whether you enjoy music, painting, poetry, literature, film, crafts or other such endeavors, make time to feed the creative parts of yourself. Art can inspire you (a positive feeling), help you express complex emotions, and restore your creative spark. Doing art is a political act. Again, be thoughtful about what art you surround yourself with. If you are struggling with a bad mood, that might not be the best time for stale or gloomy art or music. Find something cheerful, beautiful, and uplifting to reset your mood. Experiment and figure out what “essential” art looks like for you.
8. Reframe the situation.
This is a flexible essential. To reframe something is to look at it in a different light, from a different angle, or in a different context. For example, if the situation allows, try to see it with humor. Many daily stressors — from traffic jams to family feuds — are forgotten in a day, a week, a year. Imagine those stressors as nothing more than “a fly on an elephant’s back.” You are the elephant: powerful, strong, moving ahead — because a fly isn’t a big deal. Experiment with what kinds of reframes are most helpful for you (e.g., making a joke, seeing a crisis as an opportunity, depersonalizing the situation and remembering it’s not about you, etc.).
Of course, if you are genuinely depressed, the thought energy needed for reframing can be hard to find. When you are tired, beware of ruminating (recycling the same ideas in an uncreative way) so much that you think yourself into a box! Also, be alert for negative forms of reframing like catastrophizing (seeing a situation in the worst possible light). If you notice this happening, go back to the some of the earlier steps to get back on the wellbeing track.
9. Tap your spiritual side.
For many people, belief in a higher power or a mantra like “Let go and let God” can genuinely help them feel to less alone and to find the strength to work through a difficult time. For others, just thinking in more transcendent, earth-level or universe-level terms about what’s happening may enable them to put things in a better perspective (a mega-reframe). In both cases, you are searching for the serenity to be and to act [as in the Serenity Prayer.] You never know what’s going to happen, so you should act with humility and let go of the illusion of control that you may have. Religion and spirituality are associated with resilience and well-being. Certain situations like extreme losses, a death, or disaster will naturally bring out spiritual or religious impulses. Find out what works for you. Even the most hard-boiled scientists I know also make room for the beauty and mystery of the world.
10. Acknowledge your strength.
Dealing with a truly difficult situation — like the death of a loved one, divorce, serious illness or loss of a job — can often take you out of the realm of simple “mental hygiene.” If you’re just trying to get through the unthinkable, remind yourself that you are indeed surviving a tough set of circumstances that will make you a stronger person. Acknowledge the fact that, “this is one of the hardest moments of my life, and most won’t be this hard.” Remember that when you manage to endure the “worst of the worst,” that reveals something about your strengths as a person. And when you do come out the other side, you’ll have the pride of being a survivor of life’s greatest challenges. Being depressed and feeling overwhelmed or even traumatized are normal reactions to severe life events. Remember, people will tend to cope in character. Some are stoic and resilient, some have a short but intense experience of grief and loss, others fall apart and require time and care to rebuild themselves. Know and trust your coping style, and allow others to use theirs.
As noted, the first five “essentials” are straightforward techniques that you can do yourself. Be aware that essentials 6 through 10 can be a bit trickier. Each has a “shadow” side that can make it unhelpful. For example, if you try and try to reframe a situation, and instead depress yourself even further because you keep turning it over in your mind, then you are not using the technique properly.
Which of these essentials resonate with you? And give me a shout if you’d like to speak about some techniques that are tailored for you. Now, close your eyes. What are ten things you are thankful for?
Good luck today with whatever the world throws at you.
— Thomas Doherty, Psy.D.
References and Resources
- Find an authoritative list of the Modern Ten Essentials of Climbing and Backpacking from the Mountaineers here.
- A Ten Backpacking Essentials Infographic.
- Techniques for improving mood: I have referenced the book The Upward Spiral from Alex Korb on several occasions. Here is a good brief article from Korb on gratitude and the brain.
- A classic nook on the health benefits of mindfulness is Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. See also 10% Happier by Dan Harris.
- See my previous post on Nature-based Stress Reduction.
- On the Mental Health Benefits of Exercise: See the research summary Exercise for mood and anxiety disorders: The state-of-the science by Powers et al, 2015 or see the self-help book Exercise for Mood and Anxiety by Otto and Smits (2011).
- For a deeper look at exercise and whole body health see Katy Bowman’s Move your DNA.
- For an excellent, up-to-date, journalistic review of the psychological benefits of nature see Florence Williams The Nature Fix. For a medical perspective, see Your Brain on Nature by Selhub and Logan (2014).
- A discussion of reframing from a psychological perspective.
- A classic article on sources of happiness, including friends and religious faith is The Funds, Friends, and Faith of Happy People by David Myers (2000).
- On being a “survivor”: When the situation is the darkest and I have to move forward under extreme conditions, I reach for my copy of concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
- A good overall take on Resilience is Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by psychiatrists Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney.