Essays, Happiness, Learning, Life Hacks, Lifestyle Design, Mental health, Personal Development

Mental Health on Maternity Leave – How to Know if You are Doing Okay

Over the last few years I have been diving deep into mental health, resilience and grit. When I was completing my Masters Degree at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies here in Calgary, I had the opportunity to do some research into these topics, and that fascination has continued to this day – both inside and outside of work.

I have researched and done professional training (I highly recommend taking the Working Mind course if your employer offers it) and have studied and practiced many of techniques.  One I still use regularly is a box breathing technique taught by, and for, Navy SEALS that regulates the autonomic nervous system.

I believe that any coach worth their salt, should endeavour to put their own tools into practice and really understand what they are talking about on a somatic, emotional and mental level. I believe they should stay on top of research into human psychology and mindset, and I believe they should use their knowledge to translate advanced ontological tools into easy to understand techniques that a client can apply daily to their lives and take forward into their futures.  Coaching isn’t teaching – it is empowering a client to cut through their own fog, uncover deeper self-awareness, reconstruct their mindset, re-pattern habits and reach their potential through intentional practice.  Sometimes I may introduce a client to a model, research, or information that helps them have a shift in mindset, knowledge or awareness such as a technique or research study if that helps them and fits with their goals for coaching.

I have studied mental resilience, mental toughness, grit, persistence, whatever you would like to call it and have read through many resources put out by the United States Marine Corps, the Department of National Defence as well as research journals. In fact, rather than paying someone else to teach you, the best, best way you’ll ever learn in life is by seeking out the information yourself, teaching yourself and practicing it. This is the foundation of a powerful learning technique called Inquiry-Based Learning.  My pet peeve is getting into fancy inacessible langauge, so for our purposes, let’s just call it google-based learning with the assumption the places you are going to for information are a bit more legit.

Paying for courses is simply a way to speed up the packaging and delivery of information and researching stage and it saves you a few hours. I strogly believe in reading books.  First, you can take them at your own pace, second you can write all over them, and third, you immerse yourself inside the author’s mind and get a true feel for the content.  I think of it like steeping my brain in (name author here) tea.   When I am frazzled, I’ll crack open a book by Thich Nhat Hanh and come out thinking like him (because I have been while I read his work.)

Depending on your time and of course, budget, courses are a valid route. When budget allows, I enjoy taking them, and you’ll come out with great information.  But remember, you don’t have to have a big budget and access. To deeply immerse yourself and get that information locked deep in your mind, hunt down for it yourself and start practicing.

I highly recommend any material by Mark Divine through his mental training program, Unbeatable Mind.  Start with the book.  The Kindle edition (you can read on your phone or laptop) is less than coffee.  $2.50 (!)

Note:  Affiliate link to Amazon – by using this link to hop over to Amazon, you are directly supporting my blog, so I thank you in advance if you decide to go there via this button.  

I wanted to share one of the models that is employed quite extensively across the military and that is the Mental Health Continuum Model.  When I first was introduced to this model I figured, hell, if they use this on battle-hardened soldiers, this is definitely going to be good for Mums.  By the way, I will fully state here that I think Mums are the toughest people around.   Right now. Hands down.  Tough as any soldier.

We need this kind of information and training, but in all honesty, sometimes we are intimidated by this stuff. I remember walking into my first Crossfit Gym in 2010 for example and it was all five finger death punch and tattoos and ripped guys and it was terrifying for me, then I realized once I got to know everyone how wicked, approachable and normal they all were and that “intimidating” was just a story my head had made up. In fact, they have come to me for advice over the years, too!

So the model… bear with me… you may roll your eyes and think “here we go, another check list of things you should do for mental health, uggghhhh I already do those.”  (trust me, I find that frustrating too) but this model is different.

It made me think in a different way about my mental health.

I don’t think about how I am doing on a “good to bad” scale anymore.  I no longer think about mental health in a linear sort of way either. Hell, I don’t even rank it anymore.  I think about mental state movement.

I’ve learnt that ‘mental health’ is complicated as fuck.  You can be great in one area, not so great in another.  You can think you are doing awful, but then you are doing wonderful in another area . This leaves you confused.  You’re left wondering whether you’re just looking at things wrong, and it’s a matter of perspective, or if things are bad and this is some kind of weird response wherein you ignore what’s going wrong. It is so confusing.  Mental health is incredibly complex and a model is woefully inadequate to describe our inner worlds with five bazillion layers and complexities.

The mental health continuum model is about which direction you are moving in and that is an important concept.  A USEFUL concept.

If you asked me, “Carina, what the secret is to happiness, life elevation, fulfillment, whatever you want to call it but that which we are all working towards”   I would tell you that it is about accessing and maintaining this magical type of energy that infuses your whole being.  It’s not actually happiness, happiness is a side product of it.

This is where it gets tough for me because it’s hard describing this correctly in the English language.  The energy we want, is one of engagement and expansion.  It’s a really difficult energy to describe, but when you have it, you know you are in the right place.  You are interested in things, engaged, enthusiastic – yes you are being challenged and there’s some shitty times- but it’s got an upward “feel” to it.  It makes you want to be alive.  It’s when you are working toward a goal.  It’s when you are learning and growing and changing, it’s when you are looking forward to something.  Those are times you are in this energy space.  Even when you experience a setback and you’re picking yourself up and dusting yourself and the tears off, that’s where you want to be.

Think back through your life, do remember a time when you fell in love with a new hobby or activity and you couldn’t get enough? Even though you were awkward, and learning, and it was up days and down days, and days you wanted to quit, you knew intrinsically that you were moving forward in life and you were really quite excited and engaged?  There was something that lit your soul up, wasn’t there?

That’s that energy that I doing a terrible job at putting words around.

You see, mental health isn’t where you are on a scale.  It’s about whether you are moving forward or backward and which energy you are holding.

Forward energy:  Engagement + expansion  + fulfilment.  Green.  

Backward energy.  Disengagement + contraction + emptiness.  Red.

Mental Health Continuum Model - University of Calgary

Image credit:  The University of Calgary SU Wellness Centre.

The model is presented on a scale, but really try to focus your attention on what it means to move toward green or away from it. Energy.

There are so many ways that we understand what it means to be mentally healthy.  The key is understanding our baseline and whether you are moving forward or backward.

For example, one small facet of mental health is social life.  Some people have a small, close set of friends and are more introverted.  Their baseline looks different from a life of the party extravert with a wide range of acquaintances.  The key is to be aware of your movements within your benchmark… to what extent are you moving toward green or red?

Can you see how this diagram describes that energy I was trying to put words around?

It’s tough because the model above uses the words “healthy” and “ill” which gets clinical and makes us think it is a cut and dried thing.  I learnt over the last few months that raking your health is a terrible idea. For a while I was of the mind that my body was completely broken after babies.  That did NOT work let me tell you.  It made ALL of my symptoms worse and I had a pity party.  I choose to be of the mind that I am going green. I am improving my health, moving forward and upward.  I’m going to the green.  

Green is reaching out, expansion, elevation, growth, upward and forward.

Red is isolation, contraction, deflation, regression, downward and backward.  It just makes you feel, well, kind of ick. 

Another thing I like about the fluidity of this model, is that it normalizes fluctuation.  Our mental state changes ten times a day!   It ebbs and flows over a week, a month, a year.

The amount of mental health information we have access to is amazing these days, and the normalization of mental health has been a gift.  However, we have to be super duper careful in these times to not get into a fixed mindset, label ourselves and get a bit “stuck.”

It’s also hard to manage the information overwhelm because nowadays you can read stories about anxiety or ppd, and you are left thinking wow, so much of this is my story.  Does that mean I have it too?  At what level do I get help? does it go away? Etc.

(I’ve written extensively on post partum depression by the way, so feel free to read those if you are in that place and not sure whether to see a professional.)

It is super important to outline that we dont all live and stay in green, nor should we.  We shouldn’t be all great, all the time.  We need to be ill sometimes, we need to be injured sometimes and that goes for mental health as well as physical health.

Nature goes through seasons.  The bright lush greens of summer give way to contraction, withdrawal and less vibrance in autumn, and dormancy in winter.  EVERYTHING in nature goes through oscillations or wave patterns.  Forward and backward, upward and downward.  We are are part of the natural world.  In. out.  Expand. Contract. Breath in. Breath out.

This model shows you that there is optimal state and reacting state –  and it is okay to be moving between those and constantly correcting.  The key is being aware of that movement.  Which way am I going? 

I myself went through a BIG funk January through to May and I finally really got my groove back in May / June as I started trail running and getting out in nature again (it really is a key to my mental health.)

In May I found myself returning to this model, genuinely worried I was experiencing post-partum depression again and wanted to look at the indicators of moving into the “injured” zone of mental health.  I started looking at which parts of this model indicated I was regressing, and which ones I could correct.

Most of my changes centered around physical activity. I made some corrections to physical activity and physical health (I’m working on a laundry list of injuries and pain sources) and can confidently say I’m moving forward in the green direction.  I don’t “rank” myself along this continuum though, I just ask myself, “am I doing things that move me toward green, and away from red.”

This model empowers you to self-assess how you are doing.  Resist the urge to assign yourself a place on this model, because we all move back and forth.  Remember, we are part of nature and oscillate.  The key is to ask yourself, which direction am I going?  Which energy am I experiencing and in which areas of my life?

Having this model also encourages you to evaluate the tricker parts.  If you are in orange and going toward the red zone it’s a great chance to reach out.

If you do a google search of “wellness model” or “wellness diagram” you can get some ideas of areas of your life to think about when you look at this model.

Personally, I like the 8 dimensions of wellness from the Mental Health Association of Portland below. In my own work with clients, I’ve developed my own.

Think about the key components of wellness in your life.  For me, this model is missing “creativity” it’s a barometer of how I am doing.  I also like to get more specific, so I’d break down emotional into “family” “marriage” and “friendships” – all three of those areas are very important to me – and I like to think about whether I am progressing or regressing in those areas.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 9.49.23 PM

Image Credit: Mental Health Association of Portland

When I went through my springtime slump I withdrew very much from my social life, felt disembodied when I was out with friends, and felt myself being distant with my family.   Feeling that negative, slumping energy on all three domains was a big red flag for me that I needed to course correct.  I started working with a psychologist, ramped up my health efforts and got the hell outside.  All biggies for me.

A fun activity that you could even do is draw a bunch of circles, much like the above and label them with the key components of your life.  Inside each, draw a green arrow point up and a red arrow pointing down to represent forward momentum or backward momentum.  I do this with my students all the time and it’s a very enlightening thing to do.

Even though it’s common sense and fairly obvious to do activities like that, there’s something to be said about putting pen or pencil to paper and really reflecting.

So until next blog,

Keep moving forward.




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