Understanding our Spiritual Health

In one of the earliest posts for You Matter Too (The Importance of our Mental Health), the wholistic approach to health was broken down and discussion was had around how our dimensions of health worked together with particular relation to enhancing our mental health. Over the past few months, each of the dimensions were examined, with a focus on how we can enhance them so we can truly optimise our overall health and wellbeing. This month, the focus turns to our spiritual dimension of health.

As with all the other dimensions of health, our spiritual health plays an extremely important role when it comes to supporting our mental wellbeing.  I truly believe that this dimension has one of the strongest connections to that enhancement of our mental health.

What is the spiritual dimension of health?  

Spiritual Health relates to our sense of overall purpose in life. A willingness to seek meaning, be curious and to appreciate things that cannot easily be explained. 

When we look at our spirituality, we are looking at a sense of connection with something bigger than ourselves.  We are trying to find our purpose through values and beliefs and this can be through a faith system, or by even creating one’s own purpose. This dimension of health is closely related to feeling a sense of belonging and connectedness. 

When we were children, most of our values and beliefs came from our family. As we grow and experience life, our values and beliefs start to change and at times it can be difficult to find our purpose, especially if we start to question previously held beliefs and begin to be curious about the world around us.

Why is our spiritual health important?

It has been said that a person who has purpose and meaning in life is healthier than those who do not.  By having this purpose in life, it can improve our self-worth, help in our overall happiness and motivation, as well as support our ability to set realistic goals and move towards achieving them. 

By being spiritually healthy, we are able to love freely, show compassion, experience joy, forgive others and be altruistic.  All of these aspects link strongly to being able to enhance our mental health.  In particular by:

  • Increasing our self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Reducing the risk of anxiety and depression
  • Providing a sense of purpose and of belonging
  • Improving resilience and coping skills

Strategies to enhance spiritual health.

Just like with all of the other ways to enhance our dimensions of health and our overall wellbeing, we need to find strategies that work for us.  There are many different ways to help enhance our spiritual health, but they will not work if we feel forced to do them.  A small list of these strategies include:

  • Journaling
  • Meditation/mindfulness practice
  • Spending time in nature
  • Prayer
  • Appreciation of music and the arts

Each of the strategies listed above can take on many different forms and it is up to the individual to find the best fit for themselves.  There are no set rules on how to do any of these strategies and finding a way to truly enhance your spiritual health is very unique as it is about the individual trying to find their own meaning and purpose in life.

One of the key things though is to continue to be lifelong learners.  Be curious, question your values and beliefs, be inquisitive about things you don’t quite understand, learn new things and most of all, don’t be afraid to re-learn.  Keep an open mind and allow yourself and others to truly be your unique selves.

Enhancing our social health

Our social health is another one of the dimensions of health that work together to support our overall wellbeing.  This dimension is actually one of the three pillars of the World Health Organisation’s definition of health that was constructed all the way back in 1948, and has stayed as a key dimension of health today.

“a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmary”

World Health Organisation Definition of health
Our social dimension of health refers to:

Our ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships, behave appropriately within them and maintain socially acceptable standards, including within the community as a whole.

When someone is seen to be “socially healthy”, it can include some of the following aspects:

  • positive interpersonal skills
  • fostering a strong support network
  • successfully adapting in social situations
  • taking an active part in your community
  • living in harmony with others and treating people with respect
  • effectively balancing your social and personal time
  • caring about others and having them care about you
  • building and maintaining those healthy relationships

Why is our social health important?

It is well known that overall, human beings are social creatures.  We are required to interact with people in a variety of ways nearly every day.  Maintaining connections and developing relationships are essential to our overall health (can read more detail about the benefits of strong connections in this previous blog post: Strengthening Connections).  When we don’t have a strong social system, it can impact on many different aspects of our health and wellbeing.  Social isolation and loneliness can have detrimental effects on our mental health in particular.  

By enhancing our social health, there can be direct benefits to our mental health such as:

  • Improved mood 
  • Increased self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Decreased risk of depression and anxiety
  • Promotes a sense of belonging and connectedness

How do we improve our social health?

Self Care.  This is the most important way that we can improve our social health.  Before we can build and maintain relationships with others, we need to build and maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves.  When you love and respect yourself, you are more inclined to become more confident and have a boost in your mood.  Self care can take on many forms including: 

  • ensuring you have a healthy lifestyle (eat well, be physically active, get enough sleep, remove harmful habits)
  • taking time for yourself and doing things that you enjoy
  • practising mindfulness and gratitude

Communication Skills.  Having poor communication skills can make it difficult to build and maintain those relationships that are so important to our social health.  These are skills that we can develop and build upon by practising the following:

  • maintaining eye contact when in conversation
  • being an active listener – give people time to talk without interrupting
  • being aware of your body language – show that you are interested
  • developing thoughtful responses

Foster your relationships.  If we don’t work on our relationships, they can, over time, fade away.  Both parties need to ensure that they are fostering the development and maintenance of the relationship.  Some of the following can help in this department:

  • being attentive and listening
  • removing criticism and blame
  • sticking to commitments
  • showing your appreciation

When we have good social health, it lets us be able to develop boundaries that can enhance communication and trust.  It can also help our conflict management skills and support our ability to build emotional resilience (the ability to adapt to stressful situations).  These aspects are key within any kind of relationship and being a thoughtful and respected member of the community.

What is intellectual health?

A dimension of health that is very rarely talked about, but no less important to our overall wellbeing, is our intellectual health.  This dimension of health is not just about academia or how “smart” we believe someone is.  It is multifaceted.  

Our intellectual health refers to: 

our ability to expand our own knowledge, skills and abilities through continual personal growth and development

Developing our intellectual health is important as it helps us maintain an active and open mind, seek out creativity to expand our minds and use problem solving skills. It also develops our ability to think critically, make responsible decisions, be objective in our reasoning, become life-long learners and embrace curiosity. 

When we enhance our intellectual health, we are continually looking to challenge ourselves.

Practices that show enhanced intellectual health include:

  • Learning for the sake of learning
  • Having a strong sense of curiosity
  • Developing effective study and time management skills
  • Being interested in the views of others 
  • Keeping updated on current issues

What are the benefits?

  • Improved cognition
  • Improved concentration and memory
  • Deepened critical thinking skills
  • Improved problem solving skills
  • Development of personal values and opinions
  • Open to new ideas and perspectives
  • Improved communication skills

By ensuring we take the time to work on our intellectual health, there can be quite a range of benefits that impact all of our other dimensions as well.  You will notice some of these benefits above also support our mental health and have been spoken about in depth in previous blog posts.

How to improve our intellectual health?

Just like with any other dimension of health, there are also ways we can enhance our intellectual health (train our brain).  The following is just a small selection of the many things we can do to support our intellectual health. 

Read – read widely and for fun. Doesn’t matter what you choose to read (though having a variety of forms is important), but ensuring that we read often helps stimulate our brain and, depending on what it is that you are reading, can kickstart our imagination and help us become lifelong learners.

Learn something new – when we learn something new, it gives our brain space to grow and evolve (increasing its neuroplasticity – letting the brain function at a higher level).  You could learn any new skill be it a new language, how to juggle, cooking, maybe even something outside of your comfort zone.

Practice self-reflection – this is a practice that involves looking internally at our thoughts, actions and/or motives.  Self-reflection can be a powerful tool and improves our self awareness, enables inner growth, provides deeper learning opportunities and can improve our confidence and perspectives.  One example to help practice self-reflection is through journaling.  Keeping a record can help us look at our thoughts over time and see growth areas.

Switch off – give your brain a rest through meditation, mindfulness and practices.  By doing these things, it gives a chance for greater emotional clarity and the ability to calm our thoughts.  Deep breathing in particular increases circulation and brings oxygen to our brain.

Be creative – creativity feeds curiosity and self exploration.  It provides an opportunity for your mind to open up and explore new ways to express ideas and possibilities.  You can choose any way to be creative, there are so many options, music, writing, drawing, painting, cooking, dancing, designing.  Any form of creativity that lets you come in with an open mind and heart.

Practice a healthy lifestyle – eat well, be physically active, get enough sleep/rest, stay hydrated and avoid harmful habits.  All of these examples that were spoken about in a previous blog post on enhancing our physical health are also prime examples to help support cognitive health.  Having a healthy lifestyle sets the foundation for us to be able to focus and provide us with the energy to complete everyday activities.

Engage in tough discussions – open your mind to differing opinions.  Having conversations with people that are complex and provide the opportunity to explore issues deeper can give us a chance to open our minds, actively listen to others and help develop differing or new perspectives that we may never have thought of.  This can provide opportunities to develop our critical thinking skills also and understand other opinions that we may never have thought of before.

Play games – games can help exercise your mind.  A lot have strategies that you put in place to help you complete them (or win if you are of the competitive nature).  You can play games with other people, which also helps our social nature, complete a good old fashioned jigsaw puzzle or participate in problem solving and puzzle type games like sudoku, crosswords and any of the multiple “brain training” games you can get on your devices (though keeping your screen time down is also something that should be remembered).

One key thing to remember about enhancing our intellectual health is that it comes down to each individual’s attitude. If we do not come to see things with an open mind or embrace the curiosity that we have within ourselves, we will never truly open up to the potential that we possess.

Reflections #7

Pause……..Breathe

In this fast paced world, we can find difficulty in slowing down.  We may feel the pressure of needing to achieve, to always be “on”, to push through things that may be bothering us, to get to the final goal.  The final goal of what, you ask……that really is the question.  For a large number of people, that final goal is unachievable.  Why? Because we keep moving the goal post.  We achieve something and then immediately look for the next checkbox, the next task to fill the hours in the day in the hope that it will provide us with fulfilment.

We seem to have this inherent need to continuously seek something……..be it love, acceptance, companionship, a new job, more money, a better life (whatever that would look like), worthiness, just something different.

What if we spend all of our time seeking, and never see what is happening right in front of us? 

What if we stopped seeking and simply just “be”?

We can be so focused on going after what we believe we want, that life just runs right past us.  Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with going after something that you want or setting goals (and it can actually be really good for us), but our goals need to be manageable and achievable so that we do not miss out on what is happening in the now.

I know for myself, that whenever I started to look too far forward, and sought out things that I thought I needed, it increased my state anxiety.  There became too many “what ifs”, too many hypothetical situations that I had no control over.  I got to a point where I really needed to pause, and breathe.  

For 20 years of my life I worked, hardly took time off, either for sick leave or a holiday (and I know as a teacher we get “school holidays” but speak to the majority of us and we are working through these times too), sought out and achieved promotions, and did what I thought was required of me as part of a society.  I stayed in relationships that weren’t right for me as I tried to seek out what I thought I needed.  It wasn’t until I found myself dealing with depression that I really started to look at my life and start the healing process.  Part of this ongoing process had me taking time to just “be”.  Be in the moment (I started to explicitly practice mindfulness and gratitude), take more time for myself (not doing things to please others), and just really start to slow down and notice what was happening around me.  Self-care became a key focus and I began to not spend all my time focusing on work.  

All of these things, and months of healing work (which is still ongoing and that is ok), has led me to being 3 months into a 12 month break from work (a sabbatical you might say – I call it extended or long service leave).  It is really interesting how, when you give yourself permission to pause and breathe, that you can start to see yourself in a different light.  For me, I have gone from a focus on work, to traveling alone without a plan.  Just going with the flow.  I have been able to take strolls in nature, observe what is happening around me, take notice of the little things and reconnect with who I am as a person and where my priorities might lie (a lot of self-discovery is happening).  Slowing down has opened my mind and allowed me to completely reduce any negative stress (my current roommate has commented on how relaxed I am).  My mental health is thriving.

Now I’m not saying that everyone should go to the extremes that I have (I am lucky that I have the ability to take this leave), but the benefits of taking a pause, and just breathing, are numerous.  Maybe you can start with an afternoon, a weekend where you don’t have many commitments, or even just a couple of hours where you can just be.  Think about what your goals are and see whether they need to change.  Try not to be swept up in what we think society asks of us.  

Pause………..breathe………..

NB: I just wanted to add that I do not look back on any of my time and regret the decisions I’ve made and what I have focused on.  They were all parts of my life that have led me to where I am today.

The link between physical & mental health.

The wholistic approach to our health has us look at how all of our dimensions of health (also known as wellness) interrelate – that is how each dimension impacts on all of the others. More detail in this previous post: The importance of mental health.

Over the next few months the focus will be on each one of these dimensions and how they directly affect the mental dimension of health.

This month we will start with having a look at the strong links between our physical health and our mental health.

What is the physical dimension of health?

Our physical dimension of health is the one most people refer to when thoughts arise about being “healthy”.  It refers to:

the “bodily aspect” of health or the more “traditional” definitions such as the absence of disease and injury 

How can we enhance our physical health?

It is well known the many different ways that we can support our physical health, and there is a wealth of information at our fingertips. Most of us learnt what we need to do for this dimension of health from a very early age.  Basically, we can enhance our physical health by:

  • Eating well 
  • Getting enough physical activity
  • Having a sleep routine
  • Avoiding habits that are harmful (smoking, excessive drinking, unhealthy eating, sedentary behaviour etc) 

The benefits of these health enhancing behaviours, however, are not just physical (maintaining a healthy weight, increasing cardiovascular fitness and muscle tone, reducing the risk of lifestyle diseases – heart disease, diabetes, obesity etc), but each of these behaviours are also strongly linked to being able to enhance our mental health.

How do these aspects benefit our mental health?

By working on our physical health, it gives direct benefits to our mental health such as:

reducing stress, enhancing self esteem, increasing our energy, boosting mood, reducing depression and anxiety

mental health benefits from enhancing our physical health

Below are the physical health enhancing behaviours and how they can affect our mental health:


Getting enough sleep

somewhere between 7-10 hours of sleep a night (depending on your age). Sleep is the time when our body has the chance to rest and recuperate, helping us focus and become energised.  Not getting enough sleep can lead to increased stress (poor sleep can make it more difficult to deal with everyday stress that we can encounter), mood changes such as increased irritability and anger, and in some cases can increase the risk of depression and anxiety.  The flip side is that poor mental health can then lead to sleep issues – it can become a cycle that is hard to get out of.  (Sleep fact sheet – Headspace)

Maintaining a healthy and nutritious diet

making sure you are eating well and drinking plenty of water.  By eating a balanced diet, it can help provide us with the energy needed to get through the day.  It also can enhance our concentration, improve our mood and lower the risk of stress.  By implementing a practice of mindful eating, it also gives us an opportunity to slow down and appreciate the food that we have before us, as well as focusing our minds on the task of eating. 

Ensuring we get enough physical activity

preferably being physically active each day of the week. This might be as simple as going for a walk. Physical activity releases endorphins, our “feel good” chemical which can boost our mood, reduce stress, lead to reduction in depression and anxiety, improve our sleep and increase our self-esteem and self-confidence. It can also help distract you from negative thoughts – especially if you practice mindfulness (being in the moment) whilst exercising. Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, start by doing some, and gradually build up to the recommended amount.


As with all of our dimensions being interrelated, it means that if we do not look after our physical health, it can have a detrimental effect on our mental health.  It is one of the many important reasons as to why we need to keep educating ourselves on these links and benefits.

Reframe your thinking

You’re not good enough, why would you even try?  I failed that test today, I’m a failure at everything.  I can’t find a partner, I’m probably going to be alone forever. 

Have you ever gone down this spiral of negative thoughts?  Found it hard to redirect your thinking?  No matter how your life is going, is your inner critic taking over? 

This is not uncommon.  Many times we can become overwhelmed with negative self-talk and in some cases, it can get so bad that it can lead to a decrease in motivation and an increase in mental health issues like depression and anxiety. 

There are some common traps we fall into when it comes to negative self-talk.  The following are a small selection of cognitive distortions (when the thoughts we have move towards the negative):

  • All or nothing thinking (you are either a success or a failure)
  • Over-generalisations (applying one experience you have had to all other experiences – including future experiences)
  • Catastrophising (always looking at the worst case scenario)

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”

Epictetus

Being able to “reframe our thinking” (a technique used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – CBT) is when you actively notice the unhelpful or negative thoughts in your mind and work on turning them into something more useful or positive.  It is a key tool in being able to enhance our mental health.

Just like with everything else, reframing our thinking takes time and practice.  Our thoughts are something that have been ingrained in our lives for a long time and it is not so easy to change them around.  We can’t just flip a switch on our negative thinking, we need to put processes in place that make it easier for us to recognise the negative thoughts and then try to redirect them into more positive and realistic thinking.

What are the benefits?  

There are many benefits to being able to reframe our thinking and all of these help us to enhance our mental health.  By being able to put this into practice when needed, it can:

  • Encourage positive thinking
  • Help you be more realistic
  • Change your perspectives
  • Reduce depression and anxiety
  • Boost your self esteem and self worth

So how can we reframe our thinking?

As mentioned before, this is not easy to do.  Below are a few examples of how we can reframe our thinking, though just like with all of our other enhancing mental health tools, some will work for different individuals and some will not.  You always need to choose things that work for you.

Acknowledge when your negative thoughts arise.  By making yourself aware of these thoughts during different situations, you can start to deconstruct where they are coming from.  When you do this, put it down on paper and then try to be objective about the situation, take the thought out of it and write down the facts.  When we can be objective, we can start to think more rationally about the situation and change our thoughts to more positive/realistic ones, hopefully counteracting the anxiety that may have developed.

Be aware of your emotions. Emotions play a large part in many aspects of our lives. At times, we can let our emotions take over our thinking and this is where we can be pulled into a trap of unhelpful thoughts and feelings.  It is important to learn when your emotions are starting to take over and try to prevent that.  Again, this is not always easy and takes practice.  As mentioned above, when we acknowledge our emotions, we can start to understand where this reaction is coming from, then we can be more alert to its presence and hopefully be able to tailor our emotions to a more logical and rational reaction and thought process.

Be compassionate with yourself.  A lot of the time we are able to be supportive to a friend when they are having negative thoughts and feelings, so why can’t we use this practice on ourselves?  Ask what you would say to a friend with the same thought and then use that on yourself.  Be forgiving and accepting.

Be realistic, not always positive.  Many times when we look at reframing our thinking the first thing that people like to do is completely flip the negative into a positive.  We assume that trying to put a positive spin on everything is how we move past the negative thoughts.  Though a reminder that it is not just about negative thoughts but those that are unhelpful too.  When our thoughts are unhelpful, we need to flip the narrative to be more realistic.  We can use the same tactics as already mentioned about writing these thoughts down and then writing out a more realistic and objective statement next to it.  If you can’t come up with realistic statements right away, leave it until later and come back to it once you have had time to process.  It takes time. 

Finally, try not to take everything personally.

One key thing however, is to know when to use it as a tool.  If it’s not working and if you need more support, seek out professional help, specifically those that use CBT.

Things in our lives are constantly changing, including our thoughts and emotions.  We need to be understanding of this and be receptive to those changes when they occur.


For more reading on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, check out these two books by David D. Burns, MD

  • Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy
  • Feeling Great – The Revolutionary New Treatment for Depression and Anxiety

Reflections #6

Change

The beginning of a year can be a catalyst for new intentions, for conscious decisions around what it is in our lives that we would like to change.  These changes can seem small (cutting back on caffeine – though I’ll be honest, that’s a big one for me) or even sometimes quite large (new career, a move etc).  It is where the whole “new year resolution” comes from.  We like to start the new year with a fresh view and thoughts around making a change in our lives.  I am not one that makes resolutions for the new year, have never really gotten on board with it, but for some people, it really pushes them to make that change that they have wanted and as I have always said, you should always do what makes you feel comfortable and happy (so this is not a post about why you should/shouldn’t have a new year resolutions).

One of the first things that I teach my students in their first year of high school is all about change and the challenges that arise from it.  I feel that if we can acknowledge the change and the challenges that the change presents, then we can look into healthy ways to deal with what is in front of us, whether we have control over it or not.  

There are many times change occurs in our lives.  Sometimes it’s a change that we have enacted ourselves.  Something that we have a large amount of control over.  Other times, however, we have very little control over changes that happen and this is where it can become quite difficult to deal with.  No matter the type of change, it can have an impact one way or another on our mental health.  Just like with everything else, we need to have coping mechanisms put in place that suit us to support ourselves and others when there is an impact from change.  

One of the many things that I have learnt over the years is how to deal with changes that we have very little control over.  This has become more prevalent in the last couple of years when there are many things that have occurred that are out of our control.  Being able to deal with these changes has been hard.  It has taken a large amount of inner work and reframing of my thinking to help myself understand that I cannot do much with things that I cannot control, in particular, other people’s behaviours.  We do not have control over the decisions other people make. We might not agree with them, we might even try to convince them to change their mind, but in the end, we don’t make the decisions for them.  It is hard, especially if their decision directly (or even indirectly) affects us.  It can lead to anger, frustration, and at times despair.  All emotions that are valid and should be recognised when they occur, but emotions that if we hold onto, can detrimentally affect our overall mental health and wellbeing.  In these situations, we have to find ways to deal with the impact so it does not adversely affect us.  For me, I have learnt to acknowledge the emotion that presents itself, use my toolkit I have developed to enhance my mental health (which have been spoken about in previous posts) and then work on the things that I can control in the situation, which may include making a conscious decision to change something in my life.  As I have previously mentioned, this is not easy and I have been practising this over quite a few years (and at times, still need to work on dealing with it and that’s okay). It is also something that every individual needs to work on that best suits themselves. The tools that I use, do not necessarily work for everyone.

On the flip side, when we control our decisions around change, it can bring forth a feeling of being free and sometimes can really heal our inner selves.  No matter what the change is that we want to make, if we have really considered what we want to do and then moved forward with the change, it can give us that boost in life that sometimes we need.  These decisions at times are also not easy.  It may be about changing a relationship, moving careers, packing up and going on a journey, or even cutting back on that caffeine.  Most of the time our big life decisions are challenging, they take a lot of work and can be quite scary.  One thing that I know, is that if the decision needed to be made and it was the right decision within your control, then the weight that you may have been feeling can be lifted right off your shoulders and it feels so good.  

No matter what, change in our lives is inevitable.  By having practices in place to support ourselves, change does not have to be the thing that we are scared of.  Find the practices that enhance your mental health that suit you and use these when those changes occur.

Reflections #5

Finding your worth

Self-worth.  It is how we value ourselves, whether we feel that we are deserving of respect and love.  It is one of the most vital aspects of us as individuals.  Our self-worth links closely with the other “self” words; self-esteem, self-concept and self-confidence.  Though in my opinion, our self-worth plays such a key role in our mental health.  Our behaviours, feelings and overall thoughts are linked to how worthy we feel, and if we place value in ourselves.

When we don’t see value in ourselves, we start to get those feelings that we are not good enough, suffer from “impostor syndrome”, and think that we cannot achieve what we want to.  The negative self talk appears and it becomes harder to move ourselves out of feelings of inadequacy. 

A lot of times, we look at how worthy we are by external factors.  This can be anywhere from our appearance, how much money we earn, academic performance, acceptance from others (and many many more factors).  We are continuously comparing ourselves to other people and linking our value to that.  Doing this can really impact negatively on our mental health.  When we solely see our worth based on how others see us, it becomes a struggle to redirect when things don’t seem to be going our way.  

The key to how we value ourselves, however, is internal.  It is that inner voice we have, and the unique qualities that make us who we are.  Sometimes it is difficult to reign in our inner critic and that is an area which is easily amplified when we don’t value who we are.  

For me, losing my feelings of worthiness led to a state of depression.  My inner critic was very loud and hard to ignore.  This was something that snuck up on me, and even though how you value yourself is linked to internal factors, it was external forces that led me to undervaluing myself.  It wasn’t an easy thing to pinpoint and be able to stop.  It was only when I started to do a lot of work on myself that I started to understand I had lost my feeling of worthiness.

Reminding ourselves of who we are and practising kindness, compassion and empathy are all areas that can support increasing our self-worth.  Though just like all aspects of enhancing your mental health, how you develop your self-worth is different for everyone and you need to find things that suit your own uniqueness.  For me, I had to step back and really work on my inner self.  Remove the critical voice and re-frame my thinking (ensuring I work on my positive self-talk).  Focusing on myself also included the practices of gratitude, mindfulness and self-care.  I found that participating in breathwork group sessions and finding things that are important to me also really helped (thanks so much to Christina Niven who runs programs and offerings focusing on ourselves – you can find her work at the following website https://www.youarethemedicine.ca/ and on Instagram: @youarethemedicine.ca).  I worked on opening up more to my support network and being open to exploring my vulnerability.  It wasn’t easy, nor did it happen overnight.  For me, it has been a journey of more than two years and is still going. 

Being prepared to work on ourselves and spend the time necessary to find our worth and seek out our value is something that I truly believe needs to be a priority in life.  It’s time to prioritise you!

Sense of Belonging

The last two posts here on You Matter Too were about strengthening connections and having a strong support network.  These all enhance our ability to feel like we belong.  A sense of belonging is another key component of our overall health and well-being.  

A sense of belonging is a feeling that you are accepted, supported and have a strong notion of connection, as well as providing that in return.  This can be with a multitude of aspects such as:

  • people
  • groups
  • communities
  • places
  • events
  • within nature

Usually you have a sense of belonging with something or somewhere you are most comfortable.  

Developing a sense of belonging is important and it can build up your self-worth (which is how we value ourselves), leading to an enhancement of our well-being.  It helps our happiness and motivation, gives a sense of purpose and meaning and has strong links to our spiritual health (a dimension of health that has a strong correlation with our mental health).

Just like with other aspects to do with our mental health and well-being, a sense of belonging is unique to each individual.  Finding the place or places that you belong is a journey and as we grow into life, our sense of belonging also grows with us.  It is dynamic, and as our needs and situations in life change, so will finding our true sense of belonging.  Where we felt we belonged as a child or in school, is not the same as where we may feel we belong years down the track as an adult.

Issues if we feel we don’t belong

When we have difficulties in finding our sense of belonging, it can be detrimental to our mental health, especially if it is in conjunction with a lack of connectedness and support networks.  This lack of belonging can lead to:

  • increased stress
  • feelings of isolation and disconnection 
  • increase in depression and anxiety
Developing your sense of belonging

Since it is another critical aspect of enhancing our mental health and overall well-being, it is also important to know that you can increase your sense of belonging.  This isn’t always easy however, as it can mean that you have to do a lot of work on yourself.  In particular, focusing on your sense of self (understanding who you are and the characteristics or traits that define you).  If we are struggling with this, it makes it difficult to know exactly what you want and can then lead to the difficulties in finding our sense of belonging. 

Some of the ways that we can develop our sense of belonging are through:

Authenticity/self acceptance – being true to yourself and your values and morals can help you find that sense of belonging.  If we are consistently trying to change ourselves to fit in and mold ourselves to the norms of a group that is not aligned with who we truly are, we will find it difficult to feel accepted both by ourselves and the people we are with. 

Inner work – prioritising ourselves and our healing journey is necessary to be in a place where we can achieve a sense of belonging.  If we are truly struggling with who we are and not looking after ourselves, we won’t be in a space where we can do the work needed to have that feeling of belonging.

Acceptance of others – understanding that we are all unique and that others may have a different way of being or seeing things.  This does not mean that we have to change, but we can focus on what might be similar between us and not the differences.  If we can do this, we can then appreciate the different strengths that others may have.

Communication – deep listening is key in many aspects of our lives and when we want to enhance our sense of belonging, we need to be able to do this well.  It enables us to listen attentively and avoid misunderstandings.  This also leads to strengthening the connections between each other.

Being open to new opportunities – make an effort to include yourself in activities and engage with others.  Seek out groups, people, places etc. that can share your interests and do not be afraid to try new things.  This can also lead back to our authenticity and having a strong sense of self as this will lead to being more confident in making an effort.

You don’t have to have the answers to where you belong right away.  Part of life is the journey we take, and as we are ever changing, so are the places we are meant to be.  It’s okay to be finding your way.

Support Networks

Previously, I have talked about the connections we develop with each other and how that can enhance and support our mental health (Strengthening Connections). From strengthening these connections, we can develop a strong support network.

A support network can simply be defined as people in your life that can help you.  These are people that you have developed a trusting relationship with. Those that you are able to go to for advice, or even just have a simple conversation with to make your day better.  When it comes to our mental health and overall wellbeing, having a network of people you can count on is vital. 

Support networks can improve our ability to cope with stressful situations and help increase our self-esteem.

Everyone has different people that they would classify as a part of their support network.  There are no hard and fast rules around who you should have in your network and you also don’t have to make it formal (no membership cards required).  The key is that you are comfortable and have an overarching feeling of safety and trust within your support system.  

Your support network can consist of anyone including:

  • Friends, family, peers, colleagues – probably the most common places where we find our support.
  • Groups within the community – some of us feel a strong connection within these types of groups and when you are a part of these groups (can be anything from fitness/sporting groups through to volunteering), you join with people who have shared interests and hobbies, increasing that connection.
  • Online communities – these communities have become more prevalent in today’s society with the improvement in technology (and dare I say the pandemic).  A lot of people are now finding fantastic support within a variety of online groups where you can feel like you can be your authentic self and safe.

It is important to have a variety of different people that make up your support network so that you can look at things from different points of view and not just rely on one person as this may become overwhelming and exhausting for them (and you).

As we grow and our lives start to change, our support networks can as well.  Just because you had people in your life 10 years ago, it doesn’t mean that they can be the only people that are there for you.  There may be situations that occur across your life where your current support network doesn’t meet your needs, and this is okay.  We need to do what is best for ourselves and find people that can be there when we need it most.

Support goes both ways!

It is important to remember that being a part of a strong support network requires active participation.  Making sure you are available when needed and you are not just “taking”

  • Be a good listener – actually listen.  A lot of times people don’t need you to advise them all the time, they just want you to be there while they talk through things. 
  • Make time for people – answer phone calls, respond to messages, reach out to each other to let them know you are there. 
  • Show your gratitude – take the time to thank others and let them know how much you appreciate them.
  • Talk about positive things – make sure you’re not always talking about the negatives or the really deep conversations that can be draining.  Have fun with each other.

The importance of boundaries.

One thing that can occur (especially if you’re someone’s only support), is that it can become overwhelming.  It can get to a point where you are no longer able to provide the support that is needed and it can start to impact negatively on your own mental health. 

It is why it is so important to know what your boundaries are, and to be able to communicate these to people.  This is definitely not an easy thing to do.  There can be an onset of guilt if you have to remove yourself from situations.  You may feel that you are letting people down.  The key thing to remember though, is if your stress is starting to increase and your energy is starting to drain, then this will have an adverse effect on you and your wellbeing. 

At times, you need to put yourself first and know when to say no.  

If this is something that is occurring (or it has in the past), think of ways that you can communicate your boundaries.  

  • Being respectful is important – even though you might not be able to provide the support at that time, you may be able to in the future and you may also need to go to them for support. This is why it is important to be respectful in your communication around your boundaries. You don’t want to damage the relationship or connection you have.  
  • Acknowledge their feelings – this can go hand in hand with being respectful.  Try not to be dismissive of what they are saying but let them know that you are unable to help at this time.
  • Write down/practice what you want to say – as communicating these boundaries can be extremely difficult, have something written that you could say if the need arises.  Even bring it up in conversation at times when you are not providing the support so everyone understands that there may be times you can’t help.

When to seek professional help.

Again, just like everything else, there is not one clear answer as to when this should occur.  When we are a part of a support network, we also need to remember that we are not professionals.  We can not solve everyone’s problems and nor should we.  There may come a time when we need to encourage someone to seek out professional help.  When this occurs, make it clear that seeking out this help is normal and healthy.  The same way that we would seek out help from a doctor for a physical ailment, we should seek out help from a professional when we are struggling mentally.  The more we talk about it, the more we can reduce the stigma around therapy.  

In the end, relationships and connections that we form with people are a basic need for us all.  There is an immense power in being able to share thoughts and feelings with people who care.

So ask yourself, who are my people?