Simple skills to help give your mental health a tune up

How can we correct the negative trajectory of mental health problems like the two most prevalent conditions, anxiety and depression?

Take any activity you want to master and you’ll find there are skills that need to be learned and practiced. While there may be some child protégés, whether it be piano, dance or a new language there is always drill and skill practice. Why should it be any different in the mental health world? Of course, some people are gifted with a positive outlook, appropriate self-confidence, seem to make healthy life choices and live calmly in balance. Then there are the rest of us.

The cornerstones of positive mental health are sleep, nutrition and exercise. In some cases medication may be required, but the bulk of poor mental health is rooted in a mix of temperament and lived experience. An easily aroused temperament exposed to a chaotic, traumatic environment will likely be less resilient than a more easy going temperament under the same conditions. This can explain why two children living in the same environment will have a different mental health outcome. Two people exposed to the same traumatic or distressing event may respond quite differently, with one developing PTSD and the other, not.

How can we correct the negative trajectory of mental health problems like the two most prevalent conditions, anxiety and depression?  We know that at least two thirds of all mental health problems have their root in childhood, so it makes sense to focus a lot of attention and resources upstream. The study of psychology suggests that changing the course of mental health can be done in one of several ways: through corrective experiences, insight, and new skills.

Corrective experiences are relationships that are unconditional, consistently trustworthy and address some element of early brain development that is problematic.  Insight refers to discovery, acceptance and commitment to change.  New skills refer to breaking down and rehearsing micro actions that are both “patterns of mind” as well as “habits of behaviour.”  For years, therapeutic efforts have focussed on all three, with some practitioners and “therapies” favouring one strategy over another.

A therapy developed in Seattle known as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) was first used to treat the problem of Borderline Personality Disorder.  DBT is a marriage of eastern mediation practice and western behaviorism.  DBT’s applicability has broadened quickly because it has become obvious that the skills it teaches can help just about anyone.  It addresses a number of important questions, such as, what are the skills required to be mindful, to be emotionally regulated, to tolerate distress, to behave effectively with others and have a broad, accepting mind set? It then sets about to teach these skills to people whose mental health and behaviour has been creating chaos in their life and the lives of those around them. Like many good things, what has helped some of the most troubled, chronically suicidal people, turns out to have relevance in a broad array of circumstances, essentially becoming a formula for healthy living. In this column in coming weeks, my colleagues Eryn Wicker and Marie Amos will be writing about some of the skills of DBT that you might consider using to enhance your mental health. Study them and, if they aren’t currently part of your repertoire, practice, practice, practice.

Dr. Rob Lees is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Chilliwack