Are You Aware of Your Own Mental Health? Or, Why It’s Important to Water Your Plants.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month! Organizations like JFS hope you will join us this month to raise awareness of those living with mental or behavioral health issues and to help reduce the stigma so many experience. You can participate by following organizations on social media, sharing awareness messaging, contacting your legislators to ask for improved mental health policy, or sharing your own experiences with mental health. There are so many ways you can help #EndTheStigma that focus on speaking out and being active with others, but have you thought about raising mental health awareness within yourself?

Observation provides insight into our health

I can always tell when I have been neglecting my diet by how my skin looks. I know I have been neglecting my body when I struggle to fall asleep at night. I know I am not communicating with my husband when insignificant behaviors upset me. (It’s always the dishes next to the sink. Just put them IN the sink!) If you take the time to observe your body, mind, environment, and behavior, you, too, can probably tell what you are neglecting in your life. But, what about when you are neglecting your mental health?

Observing your mental health

I use my 8-year-old pothos plant to gauge my mental health. Hear me out, it’s not as odd as it sounds! There are many plants cluttered along the surfaces of my house, but my pothos plant is the oldest and most, well, expressive. Her name is Sheila. (All the plants have names. How else would I sing them ‘Happy Birthday’?). Sheila has been on the brink of death a few times (bugs, lack of watering) and other times her tendrils are nearly 10 feet long with nary a yellow leaf insight. Usually, she is in the middle: A yellow leaf on occasion and a little droopy when she is thirsty. 

It was not automatically apparent to me that when Sheila the pothos was not doing very well that neither was I. But, in our long 8 years together, I began to notice a pattern. 

Behavioral patterns and mental health

A big project would come up at work making me feel a little stressed. I would start to cut out things in my life that felt nonessential, like grooming the plants, reading before bed, and taking my dogs for really long walks. Then, I would stop preparing healthy meals in favor of quick and comforting foods. Later, I would stop exercising as frequently. In combination, all of these things would make me feel bad. Sheila would start to look very droopy and a little yellow. As whatever stressor (work, family, money) wore on, I would try to balance the things that felt more essential (exercise, healthy eating), but still ignore those things I considered nonessential. Day by day Sheila would look worse and worse. Every time I looked at her, I felt guilty that I was not taking care of her and that I had not dealt with the bigger stressor. Finally, Sheila would look like she was on death’s door! Her stems completely bent over like she had lost the will to live. Numerous yellowing tendrils and, gasp!, brown leaves! Maybe because I have had her for so long and she moved cross-country with me, or maybe because she is so forgiving and always comes back from the brink, but something about Sheila would sound the alarm that I needed to get into (mental) shape. Those behaviors and habits were not nonessential; they were the foundation of my overall health.

Prevention

This little dance happened a few times before it dawned on me that everytime Sheila almost died, I had stopped taking care of myself. Soon, I began to rely on her to signal when I needed to slow down and assess my behavior. It was easy for me to dismiss pimples, disrupted sleep, and bickering with my husband, but Sheila’s health was all on me. I began to notice other behaviors, such as clenching my jaw, raising my shoulders, and a lack of focus, as signs that my mind was overwhelmed and under nourished. Sheila is the best shtick for this blog post, though, so we’re talking about her. 

You don’t need to go out and buy a plant to pay more attention to your own mental health, but you can take more time to observe your behavior and your environment. You can slow down and notice that you are scrolling your phone more than usual, that the water glasses have accumulated next to your bed, or that the book you were so engrossed in is gathering dust on the coffee table. Small, seemingly insignificant behaviors can tell us when we are not doing right by ourselves. You just need to slow down, take notice, and water the pothos plant.

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