Organization expert Marie Kondo’s
Tidying Up with Marie Kondo
took Netflix by storm, making decluttering a hot topic to a stuff-burdened audience. Viewers are now ridding themselves of possessions they no longer need. Researchers say that decluttering has a positive effect on wellbeing and productivity, but why stop there? It’s time to rid ourselves of mental clutter, too.
The Chatter in Our Brains
Mental clutter is the chatter in our heads that keeps us from focusing and makes it hard to remember simple facts. It can show up in many forms, including negativity, worry, control, procrastination, denial and avoidance. It sabotages our actions and lowers our self-esteem by telling us we can’t reach our goals. We usually know better, but we tend to listen to powerful negative voices all the same.
Several factors contribute to how well we cope with stress and mental clutter, including our genes, brain chemistry, life experiences, and family history – not to mention our thoughts and actions.
But there’s hope. We can change the negative chatter in our heads. It takes a conscious effort, but our mental wellbeing is just as important as the physical. It involves our psychological, emotional and social welfare and controls how we get along with other people, make decisions and handle stress. Let’s talk about some ways to tidy up your mental space.
Steps to Mental Fitness
Your path to a clearer headspace could look wildly different from another person’s. How you choose to declutter your mind will depend on why you’re experiencing mental overload – depression, a general feeling of malaise about life or even underlying medical conditions can all impact your mind’s ability to function – but we’ve put together a few suggestions to get you started. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to mental health. And most approaches work best when you combine them with others.
Meditation is a simple way to increase happiness and reduce stress. Types of meditation vary, but some of the most popular include loving-kindness, progressive, mindfulness, breath awareness and Transcendental. Other options include relaxing music with binaural beats, guided meditations and moving meditations like yoga or qigong.
If these approaches sound a bit far-out for you, then consider starting small with some dedicated deep breathing. You can find guided breathing tracks with soft, soothing music or try an ambient noise machine (or app) to set the mood. The key here is to allow your mind and body to completely relax so that you can focus on the present, a critical component of mindfulness.
Exercise improves your mood, but now psychologists say it might also aid in addressing mental illness. One psychiatrist demonstrated that three exercise sessions of resistance training or aerobic exercise for 45 to 60 minutes three times a week improved chronic depression in a month. Exercise not only changes the way the brain functions, but it also causes a release of endorphins, such as dopamine and serotonin, that produce positive emotions.
Not a fan of the gym? Bring a buddy. Working out with a friend increases accountability for both of you, and you’ll have someone to support you in your efforts, making it a win-win for mental health. And make sure to find an activity that you like doing, inside or out of the gym. There’s no sense in running on a treadmill if you hate it or get bored easily. Try hiking, martial arts classes, boxing or dancing to get your blood flowing and boost your mood.
Good nutrition is the fuel that keeps the brain running smoothly. Clean (meaning whole), nutritious foods that contain minerals, vitamins and antioxidants feed the brain and prevent oxidative stress, lowering free radicals that damage cells and lead to inflammation.
You don’t need to splurge on organics unless you just want to. Research is still out on whether organic food is inherently better than non-organic, but there seems to be a consensus that non-organic produce, for example, contains just as many nutrients as the organic variety. So if you need to stick with non-organic food for your budget, don’t worry. Eating whole, nutritious foods is still a better choice (organic or not) than eating highly-processed junk.
Acupuncture, massage, hypnosis and biofeedback are some of the most commonly used alternative therapies for managing stress and improving mental health. Best used along with standard practices like good nutrition, exercise or talk therapy, these alternative therapies can be helpful in promoting the body’s natural healing reflex. Check your health insurance to see if some of these alternative treatments are covered by your plan. Some plans cover acupuncture, for instance, which would help offset the cost.
Several types of drugs are used to treat illnesses like depression and anxiety. Doctors prescribe some of the most common – antidepressants, sedatives and stimulants – to correct chemical imbalances in the brain. While medication isn’t considered a cure for mental illness or mental health problems, they help lots of people function better and lead more productive lives.
Note that prescription drugs are more effective when used with an overall treatment regimen that includes practices like meditation, exercise, good nutrition and/or counseling. Your doctor and counselor, if you have one, should be able to coordinate these treatments.
Counseling, also known as talk therapy, plays an important role in mental health and wellness. It can help to change faulty thinking, improve relationships and heal past trauma. Other benefits include learning new behavioral skills, setting goals, solving problems and handling strong emotions. The frequency of counseling sessions and the length of treatment vary depending on the situation.
Therapists specialize in different areas, so make sure you find the right person for what you’re dealing with. Most mental health specialists fall into these broad categories:
- Clinical psychologist: Clinical psychologists have a doctoral degree in psychology. They diagnose mental illnesses and offer group or individual therapy.
- Clinical social worker: Clinical social workers have a master’s degree in social work. They can diagnose certain conditions, provide individual and group counseling, or serve as patient advocates.
- Licensed professional counselor: Licensed professional counselors have a master’s degree in psychology, counseling or a related field. They are trained to diagnose mental health conditions and provide individual or group counseling.
- Mental health counselor: Mental health counselors have a master’s degree and several years of experience in clinical work. They can provide individual or group counseling
- Psychiatrist: Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have been trained to treat emotional and mental illnesses. They diagnose conditions and prescribe medications. Some psychiatrists specialize in treating children and adolescents.
- Psychiatric or mental health practitioner: Psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioners have a graduate degree in nursing and specialized training in diagnosing and treating mental and emotional illnesses.
Other kinds of mental health professions include specialized fields like pastoral counseling, marriage and family therapy, and substance use disorders. Within the above categories, mental health professionals may also choose to focus their practice on specific areas, such as pediatric counseling or mood disorders.
If you meet with a counselor and don’t click, find a new person. You’ll want to feel comfortable with someone who’s helping you address mental health problems. Major medical plans now must cover mental health services as an essential benefit, so check with your plan to see who’s in your network. Ask close friends or family for advice, too, so you have a starting point.
And if you’re not quite comfortable with the idea of meeting someone face to face, consider telehealth. Online counseling is a relatively new option for affordable, convenient care. Confidential group and individual sessions are available with trained therapists by video conference, text or phone, often for a reasonable monthly fee. The American Psychological Association has a comprehensive guide to finding an online therapist.
The Psychology Today website also has a searchable register of mental health professionals around the country. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) provides resources with information and access to helplines and treatment centers nationwide. Bottom line? Help is readily available if you need it, so make clearing away mental clutter a priority for the new year.