Investing in Yourself: Mental and Spiritual Health

investRecently, I discussed the value of investing in yourself – putting time and money into improving you, not building assets. Today, we’ll look at one area of investing in yourself as part of an ongoing series on the topic, spread out once per weekday over two weeks. If you’d like to review all the entries, look at the investing in yourself subcategory.

Most of the time, I’m a reasonably happy and content person. I feel upbeat about my own life and I feel in touch with the world around me. Sure, I occasionally dive into melancholic moods, but compared to my mental state several years ago, things are going incredibly well for me.

It’s not easy, though. I spend time virtually every day keeping my mind in good shape and keeping my spiritual self – that sense of connecting with things I don’t fully understand – in shape, too. Without proper care and feeding – without a little regular time investment – it’s easy to watch these areas of your life wear down, leaving you feeling constantly exhausted, unhappy, and feeling rather empty on the inside.

Obviously, one big part of this puzzle is to eat well and to engage in exercise, two specific areas that will be addressed in other essays on investing in yourself. Another one may actually be proper care for psychological ailments – if you feel you need such help, getting that help can be a profound investment of your time and money. Beyond that, here are some things that you can do to shore up your mental and spiritual health.

Pray and/or meditate every day
Just try this, right now. Close your eyes, then breathe in deeply, hold it for about a second, breathe out completely, hold that for about a second, and repeat it ten times. While you’re doing it, concentrate on letting every muscle in your body relax. If you need to think about something else, try to mentally return the most peaceful experience you’ve ever had in your life.

Got it? That’s meditation in a nutshell, albeit a one minute taste of it. I spend twenty minutes or so each day doing this, usually in conjunction with stretching and basic yoga. I usually do it each day right after work, in a quiet part of my home. Prayer can also be a part of this if you choose. Spend some of your time being thankful for the blessings in your life, and use the relaxation of a meditative state to recharge yourself mentally and spiritually. Here are a few tips to help you get into the groove.

Put aside a bit of time each day to pray or meditate. It can be in conjunction with other activities – I do mine along with stretching, for example, and one of my closest friends does a short meditation and prayer each day in the shower. Just clear your mind of the mental clutter of the moment and allow yourself to unwind.

Try several basic meditative techniques until you find one that works for you. There are countless different techniques out there to help you meditate. Try using Google to find a few to try out. If it seems pointless and doesn’t work for you, throw it out and try another. Eventually, you’ll find something that clicks with you.

Accompany it with a spiritual reading to meditate on and/or some music. Often, I start meditating by reading a Bible verse aloud, something to give me a bit of focus as I meditate/pray. Try reading a short snippet from any work that is powerful in your life. Another useful thing to try is to select some ambient music to play softly while doing it – I find Boards of Canada to be very good for both meditation and any activity I do that requires mental concentration – their album The Campfire Headphase works very well for me.

Get adequate sleep
This is a particular challenge for me, as I tend to overstuff my days with activities. Sleep tends to be the biggest thing that I shortchange, and I sometimes suffer for it, feeling deeply worn down and mentally not engaged with the things I should be engaged with. If I’m sitting around yawning and thinking about sleep, I might as well be sleeping.

Take a power nap. Set aside a small period of time during the day to take a nap – thirty minutes should do it. This is a technique that I often have a hard time executing, but one of my coworkers closes his office every day and takes a thirty minute nap on the floor with the lights off – when he awakens, he’s like a new person.

Sleep extra on weekend nights. I tend to use my weekends to recharge from an overpacked week, and one aspect of this is sleeping extra on weekends. I’ll sleep as much as four hours more on a weekend night than a weeknight, and it makes a huge difference for me.

Fall asleep faster. I do this by organizing my evenings carefully. I’ll do things that require mental effort until I notice that I’m not as mentally sharp as I should be. Then, I’ll fill the next hour with mindless physical tasks – vacuuming, doing dishes, doing laundry, and so on. When I reach the point of genuine tiredness, where it’s challenging to actually stay awake, then I go to bed and I usually fall asleep in a minute or two. Alternately, if I went to sleep earlier, I’d just toss and turn in bed for a while, read something, toss and turn some more, and maybe get a half an hour of additional sleep out of the deal – not worth it.

Eliminate burdens that are wearing you down
As most of you know, the number of responsibilities I have on my plate are many. I often have to come up with creative ways to manage my time – writing in the early morning hours (as I type this, it’s 4:25 AM, for instance), buying groceries during my lunch break at work, mastering the art of balancing an infant while reloading the dryer, and so on. While I’ve been able to juggle everything effectively for a while, it can be a major mental load at times, and I am prepared to make some changes if I feel that I’m becoming overwhelmed. Here are some tactics for discovering things to cut out of your life.

Make a master list of all of the responsibilities in your life. Sit down and list every significant responsibility in your life. Your work commitments. Your family commitments. Your social commitments. Your community commitments. Just write them all down in one place, all of the things that are a burden in your life. You can make it highly detailed or just list the big things – I find, though, that the more items you list, the better off you are for what you can do with the list.

Rank them by importance. I usually split them into five groups ranking from absolutely essential (time with my family) to trivial (scooping the sidewalk or mowing the grass). This is mostly to gauge what’s really important to me – and what’s really not. Some honesty is vital here – I have some responsibilities that I should view as more important than I actually do, for instance.

Consider eliminating the bottom few. When you’re done, start from the bottom and look for ways to eliminate them. Can you hire someone to mow the yard or scoop the snow? Can you perhaps step down from that useless committee? Maybe you can cut out the sports booster activities in the coming year. Trimming away some of the least important things leaves you room to breathe – and perhaps room to grow in other areas.

Focus on your personal positives, not your negatives
Many people find themselves in a downward spiral of self-reinforced failure. They come to believe that they’ll never succeed at anything. This belief then influences their behavior and then, when this failure finally comes to pass, they use it as evidence that they are a failure. This self-reinforcement leads to a hugely negative self-image and a very strong likelihood that success will never happen in a person’s life. I’ve witnessed some variation on this in a lot of different people in my life and I’ve also witnessed that the best way to get out of it is through some positive reinforcement.

Consider the things that you do well. I have a friend named Tori, who sometimes comments on this blog. She’s the type of person who has a lot going for her, but she tends to dwell on the negatives. She’s a better writer than I am, for starters, and her ability to recall facts is probably the best I’ve seen. She’s also very good at lifting the spirits of others, she’s great at seeing the positive aspects in other people, and she’s one of the most patient people I’ve ever met. Yet, quite often, I’ve seen her drowning because she looks at her “bad” traits, when there are so many good ones to look at.

If you have a hard time thinking of your positive traits, talk to a friend about them. See what your friends view as your most positive traits. You might be surprised at what they say – I’ve heard friends describe traits in me that I would have never seen on my own.

Once you’ve really got a grip on what’s good about you, choose ways to spend your time that accentuate those positives. Tori, who I mentioned above, would probably be the best person I’ve ever met to write a pop culture blog of some sort – she’s got the writing skill, the knowledge base, and the right attitude and humor to really make that kind of thing work. Perhaps she should adopt something like that as a hobby, as it could naturally lift her spirits by letting her use her good traits and minimizing the traits she views as “bad.”

Set tiny goals each day
A friend of mine recently told me that she feels as though she accomplishes nothing in her life. That’s a shame, because almost everyone accomplishes far more than they ever realize. Here are some tactics to raise your awareness of the many things that you can accomplish in a day.

Set some microgoals for the day. I do this almost every day. I usually do something along the lines of the prep card idea, where I actually write down three or so things that I will do today, and two things that I won’t do. It’s simple stuff, but stuff that feels like an accomplishment at the end of the day, whether it be something that I actively do or a triumph of willpower. For example, you might write down that you’ll stop at the library today and finally get some books on a topic you’ve been wanting to follow up on, and you won’t eat any fast food today. At the end of the day, if you made that library stop and the willpower held out, you accomplished some goals today.

If you feel out of touch with your spiritual side, try to explore it in some fashion each day. Make it your goal to pray every day, or to learn more about a spiritual topic, or to read a small amount of scripture. Just touch base with it every day and you’ll eventually feel more in touch with your spiritual side.

Engage in regular mental exercise
Regular mental exercises are a great way to improve your concentration skills as well as your ability to solve problems. There are countless ways to approach this, but doing a somewhat regular series of mental exercises can really pay off. Here are some of my favorite web resources for mental elasticity.

WebSudoku is a brilliant way to solve sudoku puzzles at your convenience. Solve them online, or print off a handful to do later if you wish.

The New York Times crossword is another good challenge, particularly for word-oriented people. I enjoy solving them in pen, meaning I’m not allowed to erase and can’t make a mistake – it adds to the challenge and the focus I need.

Bridge, however, is my favorite mental game. It’s an incredibly engaging card game – don’t let a bit of terminology scare you off. Once you learn to play, it’s a brilliant way to learn to focus and make predictions. Not only does it help with mental acuity, it can also be a strong social game as well.

Take some time off
If you’re simply mentally and spiritually exhausted and the above solutions don’t help, it’s probably time for a recharge. Take some time off from your responsibilities – schedule a lengthy vacation from work and get in touch with other aspects of your life. Time off is as much an investment in yourself as time at work is – they both pay great dividends in different ways, and a healthy life contains some of both.

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  1. Tyler says:

    I have noticed a drastic increase in my mood and my ability to concentrate throughout the day following a switch in my exercise routine.
    Last year I switched my workout time from after work to before work. This change has made all the difference in the world to my awareness, concentration and energy throguhout the day.
    I did, however, have to adjust my bedtime back by 45 minutes. Once I was accustomed to my new sleep pattern the world seemed like a much better place!
    Thanks for the great article. It really hit home with me.
    ~ Tyler

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks for another insightful article. I fully agree with focusing on the positives of oneself. I have been working hard at doing this as my fundamental approach to life and experience has shown me that it works. It makes being a parent a joy and not a burden. In a “Primer of positive psychology” by Chrsitopher Peterson there is an exercise that involves writing down three good/meaningful things that have occurred during the day. I have found this a useful tool to keep feeling positive. When I allow myself to lapse into being negative about myself, life becomes an unpleasant grind.

    This has been the best article in this series so far.

  3. Great article. I’d just like to add that if you suffer from depression, there’s nothing better than daily aerobic exercise. This isn’t just anecdotal evidence, they recently conducted a study that showed 30 minutes of cardio per day had more of a long term impact on depression than anti-depressants.

  4. squawkfox says:

    “Focus on your personal positives, not your negatives” is a tough one. I can understand why your friend Tori would struggle with this one (even with her talent) as glossing over the good things in life is common. Hopefully Tori reads your article and sees a positive ray of light. Thank you for this read as it resonates with me.

  5. Mary says:

    Something that I find very useful and mentally soothing is to make a habit of thinking of the things I’m grateful for when I lay down to sleep at night. I started doing this a few weeks ago after getting over a cold that was very physically taxing, and I remember thinking about what a pleasure it is to drift softly into sleep, and not be awakened by intense shivering or a hacking cough… It made me realize how much health is taken for granted, until you don’t have it any more.

  6. Lisa Spinelli says:

    I have trouble meditating, but have found that I “meditate” while exercising. Since I’ve started the new blog, exercise has dropped off my to do list, and I am really feeling the loss. I’m trying to come up with a schedule where I can do it all.

    Lisa

  7. Trent, this is quite simply an excellent blog entry. Having recently had some time off work with ill health, I couldn’t agree more with many of the points you make, especially the ones about praying and taking time off. It’s amazing how easy it is to get caught up in the work treadmill but the work/life balance is so important to get right. Thanks for a truely inspiring post.

  8. I agree that before work is the best time to get anything, including exercise, done.

  9. Pamela says:

    Great post, Trent. I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed with life right now (working almost full-time as a manager, taking 9 credits at school, working opposite shifts from my husband and trying to see him sometimes) and I think making a “master list” of everything I’m responsible for (or think I’m responsible for) may help me out.

  10. I’ve found it absolutely essential to invest time and money into my mental and spiritual health. I recently took an entire weekend away to just focus on my personal development and I found it well worth the $250 or so that it cost me. In fact, I plan to do something like that once or twice a year going forward.

    It may not be realistic for everyone to do something like that, but an evening or Sunday to devote to “me time” is sooo important!

  11. Sandra says:

    I’m a big fan of your blog and I love this post, it sends a great message about physical and mental health. But as a former PE teacher I would like to comment on some of the fitness advice:

    I’m really glad you mentioned stretching and yoga. Yoga improves flexibility, core strength and balance, which are often overlooked even though they are crucial aspects of preventing falls and injury and in improving day-to-day function as well as sports performance.

    Walking is a fabulous exercise. Do not, however, walk long distances in running shoes (I have made this mistake and it was painful). Walking shoes are fundamentally different from running shoes in their construction. They may not feel different if you only move in them for a few minutes at a time, but if you do any significant amount of exercise you will notice. It’s worth the time to go to a shoe store and get someone who knows what they’re doing to help you find the right shoe and size. You can write down the shoe and size and buy it from the Internet if you don’t feel like you are getting the best deal in the store. I walked, ran and hiked for years in whatever shoes were cheapest. I was finally persuaded to go to a local shoe store for a real fitting, and the shoes I ended up buying were thirty dollars more expensive and a half-size smaller than the pair I’d planned to buy; but they significantly reduced my discomfort and made it possible for me to exercise longer and more intensely. So please, invest in good shoes. It’s certainly a frugal investment because your joints and quality of life are at stake.

    If you are going to lift weights, you should really take the time (in a class or with a trainer) to learn proper form with lighter weights, and then increase your weights enough to challenge yourself but not so much that you have to break form to keep lifting. Lifting with poor form increases your chances of hurting yourself and decreases your chances of working the muscles you are actually trying to work. As for the appropriate reps and weight, more and lighter is not always better. It really depends on your goals.

    Don’t forget there are loads of great strength exercises (push-ups, dips, squats, reverse crunches) that don’t require any equipment at all!

    Cheers,

  12. Katie says:

    I would also like to add: eliminate negative influences from your life whenever possible.

    This includes people, which are often the hardest things to look at objectively. Don’t let yourself be drug down by people who bring themselves up by making everyone else feel worse. They have the ability to undermine EVERYTHING written above.

    GREAT post

  13. krasni says:

    These are excellent suggestions. May I add one more? Do the thing or things that allow you to sink into the activity itself. It’s a lot like an active meditation. Many people reach this state while exercising, although I find that martial arts are the only exercise that allows it for me. I find my “flow” state when writing fiction. My best friend finds it playing the piano. My mother finds it gardening.

    It’s not necessarily easy to find something that puts you into the flow state, but, once you do, it’s a key stress reliever. This may just be because it’s a mini-vacation from all that yakking and worry that usually floats around the conscious mind.

    It sounds like zoning–the state best described as watching television you don’t like for hours because it’s too much trouble to use the remote–but it’s the precise opposite. Instead of drugging your conscious mind with continual input, it’s a state of perfect focus on what you are doing.

    I recommend it highly.

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