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The Year of Living Well

Making Mental Health Your New Year’s Resolution

By Paul Harasim

So 2018 is history. For some, that’s a relief – ain’t no sunshine since she/he’s been gone. If it weren’t for bad luck, you’d have had no luck at all. For others, the past year had more ups than downs: a lost love found, a dream job realized, more money banked. The good times rolled.

While Dr. Alison Netski, the department chair of psychiatry and behavioral health at the UNLV School of Medicine, is well aware the passage of time from December 31st to January 1st is no different from the passing of any other day into the next, she also appreciates tradition – that for most people a new year marks the opportunity for a fresh start, to make some positive changes.

“Our society places so much value on the new year being a potential reset, so being able to set some small, achievable goals for yourself is a good place to start if you’re thinking of making changes,” notes Netski, who specializes in the treatment of adults with a broad range of psychiatric illness, including mood, psychotic, and anxiety disorders. “What you don’t want to do is make unrealistic resolutions – say you’re going to quickly lose 40 pounds without any real plan for doing so. When you don’t do it, which often happens, you feel like a failure, and instead of feeling better, you end up having a worse self-image. If we can do what we set out to do, we lose the feeling of being powerless [and] feel better about ourselves.”

With that in mind, the good doctor has spelled out five areas that she says can put you on a path to improved mental health in 2019.

1. Be purposeful with your free time.

“When I ask people who aren’t happy with their situations what they would like to do more of, they list things like getting started on a new book, regularly having coffee or lunch with a friend, getting in a bit of exercise,” she says. “They complain that they don’t have enough time.”

However, what the doctor has learned from patients is that the problem is not not having enough free time to do what they want, it’s how that free time is being used. She’s found people often spend hours “vegging” out in front of the TV or randomly scrolling through social media. She says if you have no plan, you choose the path of least resistance, and you end up wasting time doing things that bring you no real enjoyment – if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. You’re just passing time.

“People have to make a plan,” Netski says. “When you got your job, it didn’t happen by accident. You had a plan. When you go to work, you have a plan on what you’re going to do. Free time is valuable so you actually do have to plan to do what is enjoyable.”

Netski said there is often a mismatch in what people want in their lives. “They see themselves accomplishing goals, but a lot of the problem is they’re not investing resources to do so, the most valuable of which is their time. You can’t just hope that things will change. Without some kind of purposeful action, we feel really stuck. Carving out time to accomplish personal goals results in a better outlook on life. The positive results of capturing bits of time for yourself include feeling more connected to others, losing the feeling of being powerless, and increased happiness.”

2. Improve the quality of your sleep.

“As a society, we are very good at depriving ourselves of sleep,” Netski says. “People will tell me they’re tired, that they’re not sleeping well. I ask them what time they go to bed and they’ll say 12:30. When I ask what time they have to be up to go to work, they’ll say 5. That really wears on you. Ideally, sleep time should be closer to 8 hours per night for the average person. Without the proper sleep, people have problems with concentration, low energy, and there’s a big increase in anxiety.”

Too often, according to Netski, people are plugged into technology at night. Whether they’re connected to TV, email, the web, or video games, there is cognitive stimulation. As the brain revs up, its electrical activity increases and neurons start to race – just the opposite of what should be happening before sleep. Even answering an email can be problematic – it frequently can cause stress and the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that is hardly conducive to a night of good shut-eye.

Netski also points out that the glow from electronics is also not conducive for quality sleep. The blue light from the devices delays or prevents the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.

“Improved sleep starts with a nighttime routine,” Netski says. “Set a bedtime that gives you the opportunity to sleep about 8 hours, limit screen time before bed, turn off the TV, limit afternoon and evening caffeine.”

3. Exercise

“There is no escaping exercise when you think about any type of health improvement,” Netski says. “Small amounts of exercise can have a beneficial impact on your mental health. Studies have shown that as little as one hour per week of brisk exercise, even broken into smaller time increments, will decrease recurrent depression. Exercise also improves sleep quality, decreases anxiety, and increases natural endorphins that improves mood. People who exercise even 10-15 minutes per day will also report improved self-image and pride for doing something for their health.”

4. Meditation

“This can seem like an overwhelming idea for people who are unfamiliar with the practice of meditation,” Netski says. “There are many smartphone apps, audio, and traditional books that are guides for meditation.”

Netski points out that meditation allows a person to focus on something peaceful and relaxing.

“Even a short meditation can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones, resulting in less anxiety,” she says.

Studies have shown the practice is known to enhance the flow of constructive thoughts and positive emotions, helping individuals live happier lives. Researchers have also found meditation triggers the relaxation response and that the part of the brain regulating stress and anxiety actually shrinks when meditation is practiced consistently.

“Meditation can be as brief as a 60 second slow, deep breathing to a 15 minute (or more) guided visualization experience,” Netski says. “This is helpful before work or school if you are anticipating a stressful or chaotic day.

When meditation is done during a break in a work or school day, Netski says it can help you refocus. If meditation is done during the evening, she says it can “reduce ruminating about the negative parts of your day.”

5. Reach out for help

Depression, Netski says, is not just about feeling blue or sad occasionally.

“Everybody has a sad day,” she says. “Depression is a state that lasts at least a couple of weeks. A person can’t enjoy things. There’s no positive emotion for the majority of the day. There’s a negative quality to an individual’s thoughts and he or she feels burdensome to other people. They feel their situation is hopeless. Energy decreases. Sleep is disrupted. And it is very common for suicidal thoughts to accompany this situation.”

Should you find yourself in that situation, Dr. Netski says it is important to reach out to mental health professionals for help.

“It seems to be part of human nature, that at times we feel like we are carrying the burden of mankind on our shoulders,” she says. “I often see people who feel shame or stress about talking about stress or their feelings and later report having tremendous relief when they do.”

What is a mistake, stresses Netski, is for individuals to self-medicate. “It is not uncommon for people to use drugs or alcohol to numb sad, anxious, or depressed feelings, which leads to a worsening condition.”

People need to acknowledge that sometimes there is a need for help with our mental health, just as there is with a physical condition. Today, Netski points out, more people in society appreciate there is a legitimate need for help with mental health problems. “There is much less stigma,” she says. “People have to reach out for help. You can’t assume other people know what’s going on.”

People from all walks of life seek help from mental health professionals, Netski says.

“The reasons range from grief and relationship conflict to severe depression, losing touch with reality, or having suicidal thoughts. There is always more help for people who feel hopeless. This year, on World Suicide Prevention Day [Sept 10], I received a T-shirt from a colleague that read, ‘Tomorrow Needs You,’ and this statement could not ring more true. There is always someone there to listen. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255. There’s always more help available.”

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