Mental Health Goes to School

Dr. Karen Katchen brings over 35 years of experience as a registered psychologist and executive coach. She works with senior executives and startup teams to build awareness around and strengthen their Emotional Intelligence and build skillsets for performance in this fast paced, high pressure scale up economy.

Karen holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and M.Sc. and Ph.D. from the University of Calgary. As a Clinical and Consulting Psychologist as well as an Executive Coach, she has maintained an independent practice since 1974. In Calgary, she counselled University Students, taught Educational Psychology and was an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Calgary. Throughout her clinical career, she has trained police, teachers, child welfare workers, physicians, lawyers and judges. As an Executive Coach, she has advised executives, founders, and directors of some of Canada's fastest growing companies.

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Mental Health is a very complex topic.  However, there are some fundamental elements we can all learn, incorporate and practice to maximize our personal mental health. The goal of this article is to provide a brief curriculum for Mental Health 101!


Mental health is closely associated with our Emotional Intelligence.  If we think of emotional intelligence as a set of learned skills that allow us to make our way in a complex world, we can easily make the transition to the fact that we have enormous power to influence our life by enhancing those skills. Strangely, it has taken years of research, study and complex statistical analyses to discover that the main ingredients of strong emotional intelligence are those that contribute to good mental health! 


Start With You Thoughts, Frame How They Make You Feel, Then Act


How we think, feel and act all contribute to how we are doing. Our beliefs and thoughts guide our behavior, whether we are aware of that or not.  For example, in the course of a day, we may get out of bed, go through our morning routine, prepare for work or school and get ourselves there, and so on. For most of us, this feels quite automatic and we usually don’t consciously think about the steps involved in going through this routine.  However, one of the first things to suffer when we are upset, is an interruption in our routine.  We may miss meals, alter our sleep habits, pass on exercise.  When this happens, we discover that we are intentionally thinking about next steps!  Planning to resume our habitual routine puts us back on our familiar and stable path. 


Here’s another example of how thoughts guide our behavior and feelings.  “I cannot meet my deadline today and I don’t feel I can tell my team.”  This negative thought not only delays our disclosure but also limits our problem-solving efficacy and innovation in the situation.  Consistent negative thoughts may produce a pattern of procrastination and avoidance. 


Here are some more thoughts and beliefs that we may not realize can negatively impact our well-being: 


a.  The belief that working harder, faster and longer is the only way to succeed.

If we follow this directive, we are making a mistake and are likely to fall, falter or fail.  Studies, as well as many anecdotal reports, remind us of that.  This belief leads to behavior that is high risk to our emotional health, social and family relationships, concentration, productivity and even to life itself.  Instead, believing that we need to learn how to work differently keeps our emotional door open to opportunities for growth, support, renewal, satisfaction, pleasure and yes, even greater productivity!


b. The belief that emotions interfere with productivity and performance.  Research shows us that the opposite is true.  In fact, emotions help us train our brains to stay flexible and creative.  Learning to identify what we are feeling, what others might be feeling, how to express and manage our emotions is fundamental to increasing our efficiency, building resilience and maintaining our total well-being.


c. Beliefs about stress.  We are taught that stress is bad.  Stress is everywhere and everyone has it.  My stress is not different, and I really can’t do anything about it – that’s life.  In contrast to these beliefs, studies have repeatedly shown that stress itself can facilitate, motivate and even protect us.  While stress and its partner, anxiety are normal parts of human experience, when prolonged, ignored or unrelieved, they may produce an acute or chronic state leading to physical, emotional and psychological difficulty.  Therefore, learning to manage our stressful thoughts and feelings at the time we experience them is key, whether the source of stress is internal, relationship, environmental or a combination. 


What are The Impacts of Negative Feelings?

Becoming depressed, experiencing feelings of unworthiness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, isolation, fear or feeling overwhelmed, are all examples of the unintended consequences of neglecting feelings that arise in response to stress.


What if I believe I am okay because I have no signs of stress or anxiety?  That is great. However, bear in mind that another possibility may exist.  What if you don’t’ recognize what you are feeling?  You may be afraid to acknowledge to yourself or others that you are anxious or under pressure for fear of negative consequences.  That fear may keep you silent. That fear may keep you in a state of denial.  That fear may keep you from reaching out for help.   If this is a question you ask yourself, go ahead and check it out with a professional.


Using Reflective, Rather Than Absolute Statements

These are just a few examples of how our beliefs may impact our actions.  When we become more able to identify and interrupt our negative beliefs and thoughts, they have less power to derail us from feeling, thinking and behaving successfully.  We can become mental health engineers by learning to redirect our negative self-statements into more neutral and positive ones.  The missed deadline example would become, “I’m uncertain about how to tell my team that I won’t make today’s deadline, but I will try anyway… maybe someone has a way I haven’t thought of.”  This statement is reflective, realistic, and it offers an opportunity for support, understanding, and potentially, assistance.  It takes the steam out of the internal struggle, “Should I tell,” “They’ll know I can’t cut it,” as well as the negative self-evaluation, “I blew it,” and “I’m unreliable.” This internal battle is damaging to our confidence, self esteem and ultimately to our mental health.  In other words, we do have the power to catch what we say to ourselves and promote our ongoing mental health.


A key ingredient in our recipe for mental health is resilience – that is the set of skills that determine our capacity to weather the bumps in life’s road.  What can we do to build our resilience?


Five Building Blocks to Success

I propose five fundamental building blocks to strengthen personal resilience.  First, build a consistent self-care routine.  Paying attention to regular meals and good nutrition is a good place to start.  Start small and grow to increase your chances of success.  For example, one a day is better than none a day!  Establish or re-establish routine sleep habits.  Just as any new skill improves with practice, so does your new sleep plan.  Discover some sleep preparation strategies that are calming, non-stimulating and new for you.  Attend to physical activity and exercise.  For example, if you are out of the habit, use the stairs to get where you are going but try to add an intentional second climb as part of your new exercise habit.


Second, develop a personal toolkit of anti-stress activities.  Become aware of your stress triggers.  Identify them and explore a variety of strategies to help you recharge.  These may be action-oriented such as exercise, hobby or interest classes, physical activities, play, or more sedentary options like entertainment, reading, games and movies.  You may want to survey some popular, focussed anti-stress programs and classes like:  Yoga; Meditation: Mindfulness; Progressive Relaxation; and Apps like “Calm”, “Headspace”, “10% Happiness.” There is no one size that fits all.  Find your own best combination.  If you need assistance, ask. 


Third, consider working smarter, working differently.  Take more control over your work environment by scheduling short breaks and routinely plan to interrupt yourself for exercise, networking, nutrition, and reflection or thinking time.  You may want to create a brief communication-free zone to focus.  For example, place a sign on your workspace.  Disconnect from IM, Slack, social media, and post when you will be on line again.  Recent studies all suggest that working differently will enhance your efficiency.  Your concentration and focus will soar, and you will feel in control again.


Fourth, aim to create work-life flow.  Consider your priorities and review how your personal values, social and community priorities are reflected in your choices.  Set boundaries in time and space that correspond more closely to your priorities.   This is difficult but critical.  Your initial attempts may seem miniscule.  However, boundary making is a habit that requires practice.  How often do we hear ourselves or others say, “I don’t have time to …” . We must acknowledge that time is a resource and we are in control of our resources.  When we discover that we are not managing our resources very well, we may see that we have been unclear about our boundaries.  Recognizing this, we have the power to re-align our priorities, create appropriate boundaries, and make the time to do what we wish. Becoming adept at setting limits is key to giving you more freedom, less conflict, better concentration and productivity, and greater satisfaction.


Part of work-life flow is creating or re-establishing our social and relationship network. Social care is essential for support.  It also is a strong mitigator of high, persistent stress.  As you maintain and expand personal and work relationships, you are continually practicing empathetic, respectful interaction.  You are also increasing opportunities to improve communication, assertiveness and active listening.


Fifth, build your personal brand – find your compass.  Recognize your personal strengths and shortcomings and learn to express and manage your feelings.  Developing emotional awareness increases the likelihood of you becoming more empathic and more able to negotiate and connect with others.   Clearly identifying your values and selecting environments – people and places-- that are congruent with them encourages you to set realistic goals for life, work and relationships.  Developing a mindset of openness to self improvement and learning helps you withstand the impact of change. It is easy to see that creating your personal brand will incorporate many components of emotional intelligence which have been shown to make a positive difference in building resilience, creating a positive attitude, and guiding decisions as you make choices in life, work and relationships.


Closing Thoughts and Summary

Mental Health Goes to School outlined many core ingredients for personal mental health. Some thoughts, feelings and beliefs were identified that frequently inhibit our openness to learning new personal skills. An individual’s mental health was considered as a unique brand.  At the same time, many shared elements of emotional intelligence were also seen to contribute to robust emotional health.    Building emotional resilience was critical to building and maintaining good mental health and five distinct aspects were highlighted. 


Mental health “success” deserves our ongoing attention and care – just as we would approach a challenge to be successful in any other realm.  This is simply not a once and forget it effort.  Rather, our mental health requires self-monitoring, ongoing refinement, feedback, and flexibility to continually maintain our personal resilience. 


On a final note, if you experience or recognize that someone you know is struggling, do not be reluctant to ask for help. Talk to a friend or mentor.  Reach out to a coach, spiritual leaders, managers, counsellor or psychologists for professional guidance.  Share your discoveries with others.  We all benefit from good community mental health.

Cherry Rose Tan