I was baptized at eight years of age in a small, rural town in Wyoming, USA. I had been taught that baptism was a new beginning; the cleansing of my sins and the chance to start fresh. I distinctly remember having a feeling of cleanliness and newness as I came forth from the water and was confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In my innocent heart and mind, I reflected and committed: I like this feeling of being clean. I’m never going to sin again so I can always feel this way. My sincere but naïve promise lasted about twenty minutes, as I’m pretty sure I teased my little sister on the way home. Since then, like everyone else, my life has been filled with spiritual ups and downs. There are times when I feel strong and motivated, ready to change and move forward. Other times I feel discouraged and weak, wondering if I’ll ever improve.
The new year is a natural time for many to reflect on past patterns and commit to new and better ones. As a psychologist, I’ve devoted my entire adult life to helping people improve their mental health. With mental and emotional challenges becoming more frequent and intense for so many people, we can no longer presume that mental health issues will not affect us in some way. Such issues will not change on their own. Like most things in life, if they are not addressed, they will either stay the same or get worse. Here are four strategies that, if made a priority in your life, will help you improve your mental and emotional health.
Regardless of how mental health issues begin, no one will be able to improve them but you. Personal change requires a conscious choice. There may be many supporting factors in your journey to better mental health, including professional counseling, psychiatric medication, loyal friends, self-help materials, and improved physical health. But none of these interventions start on their own. You must initiate the change process.
Elder Jorg Klebingat spoke about personal responsibility for our spiritual well-being. His remarks translate seamlessly to being responsible for our emotional well-being. “Stop blaming others or your circumstances, stop justifying, and stop making excuses for why you may not be fully striving to be obedient. Accept that you are ‘free according to the flesh’ and ‘free to choose liberty and eternal life’ (2 Nephi 2:27). The Lord knows your circumstances perfectly, but He also knows perfectly well whether you simply choose not to fully live the gospel. If that is the case, be honest enough to admit it, and strive to be perfect within your own sphere of circumstances. Spiritual confidence increases when you take responsibility for your own spiritual well-being by applying the Atonement of Jesus Christ daily.”
If you want to improve your mental health, accept that this process starts with you. Decide what changes you’d like to make and create a plan. Reach out for whatever help you need to successfully start your plan. Then make it happen.
Have Accurate Beliefs
Most mental health issues manifest in unpleasant feelings. Depression creates gloom. Anxiety robs peace. Anger breeds contention. The effective management of mental health issues ultimately comes from changing those negative feelings to positive ones. How do we change our feelings? We begin with our thoughts.
Consider the following opinions and how they could contribute to commensurate feelings. “I’ll never be good enough” can lead to depression. “I have no control over my circumstance” can lead to anxiety. If we learn to change our thoughts, we can change our feelings. A key part of this process is aligning our thoughts with truth. “I’ll never be good enough? I have no control over my circumstance?” Those statements are simply not true. They are exaggerations, based partially in truth, but otherwise distorted to the point of being inaccurate. We can modify those statements to make them true. More correct versions could be, “I have my flaws but I’m good at some things,” or “I can’t control everything but there are some things I can control.”
Elder Lawrence Corbridge spoke of decreasing the distance between our beliefs and the truth. “People say, ‘You should be true to your beliefs.’ While that is true, you cannot be better than what you know. Most of us act based on our beliefs, especially what we believe to be in our self-interest. The problem is, we are sometimes wrong…. Someone may believe and even know that Jesus is the Christ and still deny Him not once but three times because of the mistaken belief that he would be better off appeasing the crowd. Peter wasn’t evil. I am not even sure he was weak. He was just wrong. When you act badly, you may think you are bad, when in truth you are usually mistaken. You are just wrong. The challenge is not so much closing the gap between our actions and our beliefs; rather, the challenge is closing the gap between our beliefs and the truth. That is the challenge.”
Begin the process of analyzing your beliefs and then correct them to align more accurately with true principles.
Most people don’t like curve balls. We want nice, slow, predictable pitches, that we can hit every time without difficulty. But such situations do little to foster personal growth. If you look back at times in your life when you experienced significant and unexpected disruption, you will usually find there were accompanying opportunities for change and improvement.
Elder Richard G. Scott talked about this at the October 1995 General Conference. His teachings were a reinforcement of doctrine that has been preached by prophets throughout the years. But many do not realize the backdrop to his remarks. Just five months prior, his beloved wife of 42 years, Jeanene, died suddenly and unexpectedly of cancer. Those who recall Elder Scott’s General Conference talks in the ensuing years remember that he often spoke fondly of his late wife and of how much he missed her.
In the moment of his grief, being alone again after decades of beloved companionship, he taught the following: “When you face adversity, you can be led to ask many questions. Some serve a useful purpose; others do not. To ask, Why does this have to happen to me? Why do I have to suffer this, now? What have I done to cause this? will lead you into blind alleys. It really does no good to ask questions that reflect opposition to the will of God. Rather ask, What am I to do? What am I to learn from this experience? What am I to change? Who am I to help? How can I remember my many blessings in times of trial?” I’m not saying you need to learn to love curve balls. I encourage you to try to stop fearing them. Understand that despite your best efforts, life will take difficult turns. If you can start to see those turns as opportunities for growth and change, this will help you increase your mental health and emotional resilience.
Positive, substantial outcomes take time. Going from having multiple mental health concerns to optimal emotional adjustment will take significant effort over the course of months and years. That’s not a bad thing. During such journeys, not only can we ultimately arrive at desired destinations, but we can concurrently develop such abilities as fortitude, tenacity, and other personal qualities that will serve us for a lifetime.
Consider Alma the Younger. How did he go from being an unruly, apostate youth to a powerful prophet? I don’t believe it was solely the angelic rebuke or the three days of hell he endured as part of his repentance. I believe the key is found in a statement Alma made to his son, Helaman, as he reflected on the beginning of his conversion. “Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost” (Alma 36:24; emphasis added). I believe it was consistent, obedient discipleship that transformed Alma the Younger.
In a January 2023 New Year’s social media post, President Russell M. Nelson counseled the following: “Be patient…. It is tempting to expect immediate results and then become disappointed when things don’t work out exactly as planned. This may be why the Apostle Paul counseled us to ‘run with patience the race that is set before us’ (Hebrews 12:1).”
As you begin the process of mental health improvement, be patient. Be consistent. Your course will likely be marked by slow, incremental progress peppered with periodic setbacks. When you fail (and you will), try to avoid discouragement. Get back up and do those things that lead to change. Give yourself grace for failure, praise for success, and employ patience daily.
Change is within your power! Be responsible for your own life and decisions. Align your beliefs with truth. Use unexpected change as a vehicle for growth. And accept that slow, consistent improvement is the royal road to better mental health. God bless and strengthen you in your continued efforts.