Have You Had a Mental Health Tune-Up?

A short piece in the New York Times prompted me to follow-up with a brief “mental health” story about me. First, let me propose to you that almost everyone of us – boomers and elders included – could benefit from an occasional mental health check-up and tune-up.

Many of us have long standing and deeply ingrained ideas about ourselves and how we relate to others and to our experiences. Some of these ideas and concepts may be  wrong. Basing our behaviors and thoughts on wrong ideas can produce stress. We have all read about how mental and emotional stress can impair our physical health, e.g., my stress-induced overeating.  So I now operate under the theory that my physical health is primarily dependent on my mental health. If my head isn’t screwed on straight, it will lead me in directions that are unhealthy to the rest of me.

I started on this path a little more than a year ago, when I sought professional help to deal with some life circumstances that were tremendously stressful to me. I had trouble sleeping and focusing. I had trouble dealing with the anger that would arise in me from being subjected to these stressful circumstances.

I chose a therapist who (a) had experience with some of the specific issues I was facing and (b) who proclaimed herself to be an “in your face” sort of therapist. This second criterion was important to me because I didn’t want to spend hours talking to someone who would not directly and aggressively challenge me. If I had messed up ideas in my head, I wanted to know about them and fix them – now.

I knew at our second session that I had chosen the right therapist. When I complained about a certain family member’s behavior “wasting my time” she stopped me immediately and asked me “what do you mean by ‘wasting your time’?” When I feebly tried to explain my statement, she asked: “Are you saying that some time is more valuable than other time?”

I thought hard about that question. The rational, scientific person in me had to answer “no.” In fact, all time is equally valuable. She smiled knowingly. Baby step 1 had been taken.

In that one Q&A, my whole idea of “wasting time” melted away. No one else can “waste” my time. Only I can waste my time either by not establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries or by not being mentally present to experience each moment as it comes.

That may sound trivial to you, but this brief Q&A exchange launched me on a new path of discovery. I learned that my therapist was not only a clinical psychologist but also a Zen practitioner. She subtly and wisely integrated Zen principles as she counseled me on various issues, including managing my anger. She introduced me to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, starting with his book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.

My work in therapy challenged me to reconsider and reevaluate many of my beliefs on spirituality, ego, death, happiness, and relationships with others. I became a prolific reader and listener on these topics. I took up yoga and meditation. I could go on and on about how my mental health tune-up was a significant catalytic life event for me. But I will spare you from possible boredom.

Many people fear being stigmatized by others if they seek help for their mental health. (Not in Argentina, however, where it seems most of the population has a therapist.) So I will end this post by suggesting that you put aside that fear. Your life is more important than what others may say about you. If you are not emotionally and mentally healthy, it will be that much harder to maintain your physical health. You do not want to spend your retirement years dealing with health problems and their associated costs. Just call it “life coaching” if others ask.

Here is a link to the New York Times article. Therapy Can Still Help.

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