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.

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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