How and Why Leaders Protect Their Mental Health

Article Shared by EANE Trainer | Emmy Monticelli, MBA,PCC,CPLP

Most of us equate “health” to our physical health, but as Americans we don’t give much thought or practice to maintaining our “mental” health. We do cardio, lift weights and follow the latest fitness fads to maintain our physical health and appearance. However, we aren’t consciously taking the proper steps to care for our mental health.

Our mental health consists of our social, emotional and psychological well-being, and how we feel, think and behave each day collectively contributes to it. When we are mentally “healthy” or “strong,” we feel better, think more clearly and behave in a way that is aligned with our thoughts. When we protect our mental health, we are able to deal with stressful situations better, remain objective, keep things in perspective, make better decisions, overcome challenges more easily and interact with others more successfully. Overall, when we are mentally healthy, we are more effective, productive, calm and happy.

As a leader, it is critical to maintain our mental health so we can lead our teams effectively and show others how to care for their own. We need to make our mental health, as well as our employees’ a top priority.  

Here are some tips to help you proactively protect your mental health:

  • Know Yourself – It all starts with self-awareness: Knowing your strengths, your limits, what makes you happy, what stresses you out, what calms you down or helps you release stress, your energy levels (when you are most focused and productive and when you are not), etc. Focus on your strengths and what brings you joy. Know the things that stress you out or take more mental energy from you and put mechanisms into place to help calm you when you find yourself in a stressful situation. Better yet, limit the things that cause stress and don’t feel guilty about it. 
  • Stop Comparing Yourself –Measure your performance against your own best, not anyone else’s. Stop trying to prove yourself or do better than others, this is a waste of your mental energy. Instead, focus on your own strengths and talents.
  • Check in with Yourself Frequently – Physically, mentally and emotionally. Pay attention to your thoughts, your feelings and your body throughout the day. Listen to what they are telling you. Getting a headache or feeling tension in your neck? That may be a sign that you are getting mentally or emotionally fatigued. Starting to feel tired, impatient or irritated? That may be a sign that you may be anxious or stressed. The point is, you have to be aware of these things that come up for you so you can better understand what causes you to feel this so you can put buffers or mindfulness mechanisms in to help you when you get stressed.
  • Implement Mindful Mechanisms – These are the tools or techniques that we use to help us relax or release tension when we find ourselves stressed or triggered. They are different for all of us. For some it may be breathing, taking a walk, journaling, saying a mantra to yourself or meditating. For others it may be speaking to someone, counting or using a tapping technique. Whatever these are for you, know the mechanisms that help to calm you down in the moment. I suggest having a “toolbox” of them so you are aware of all the tools you can use at any given point.
  • Learn how to breathe – When you are feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed or emotional, find your breath, meaning pay attention to how you are breathing. Are you breathing shallowly or are you taking deep breaths? Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? This is especially important if one of your “mindful mechanisms” is breathing.
  • Pay attention to your inputs – Who are you spending time with? What are you watching or reading? How much time are you spending on social media? We need to be mindful on how we are spending time and with whom we are spending it. Surround yourself with people who uplift you, who positively challenge you to be your best self. Your time is precious; spend it on things that are good for your physical, emotional and mental health. If you find yourself getting angry at social media or the news, turn it off, besides any more than 15 minutes of news is too much anyways.
  • Prioritize your “physiological, physical & safety” needs – It sounds so basic, but paying attention and addressing our most basic needs, especially when we are stressed and overwhelmed is one of the quickest ways to balance ourselves. These needs include food, shelter, rest and exercise. Eating the right food, not drinking (too much) alcohol, exercising (at least 30 minutes a day), getting the enough sleep and being in a safe environment are vital to our mental health. When these things go unchecked for too long, our mental health suffers.
  • Connect and communicate with people you trust – Being able to share your thoughts and feelings is extremely important to our mental health. Whether it is inside or outside of our organization, we all need someone to be able to utilize as a sounding board to help us remain objective and keep perspective. Sometimes just getting things off our chest is enough release to help us maintain our sanity and stay grounded. Other times, it’s just nice to know that we have someone who understands us and is there for us.
  • Take a brain break (or 3 – 5) – Just like our body, our brain needs rest to work at maximum capacity. Research shows that taking 3 to 5 short breaks throughout the day makes us much more productive. When we take 5 – 10-minute breaks throughout the day where we can center ourselves, quiet the mind and still ourselves, not only are we more productive in doing tasks, but our mind is able to recalibrate. 
  • Focus on 1 thing at a time – There is no such thing as multi-tasking (I know I was shocked when I found out too!). When we try to do too much at once, we become overwhelmed, and cognitive overload is a real thing. Get organized, finish 1 thing at a time. And when multiple things come up, just breathe, step back and ask yourself, “What is the one thing that will help me achieve my goal that I can do now to feel good about?”
  • Compartmentalize & prioritize – Unfortunately, most of us have been trained to do the opposite of the last tip (focus on 1 thing). However, when the brain experiences cognitive overload or is stressed, we feel overwhelmed and stuck. When this happens, we have the tendency to either rush and try to get it all done, while leaving a trail of mistakes behind us or we get paralyzed, don’t do anything and ignore it. Ignoring things that we don’t want to deal with or are afraid of just creates more anxiety. Instead, take a step back, gain perspective, compartmentalize the pieces of the bigger picture. Depending on the situation you can compartmentalize by determining what is the positive, what is the negative, what is neutral of the situation. Or what is the most critical project to least critical.
  • Focus on the things you CAN control – Once you have compartmentalized and looked at things objectively, you feel more focused and able to move forward. Dwelling on doubt and the things you can’t control can wreak havoc to our mental health. Learn to let go of the things that are not within your control and use your mental energy on doing the things you can.
  • Exercise your brain in various ways – There are so many studies that show the power of our minds. From playing word games or learning a new language to practicing mindfulness and an attitude of gratitude, exercising our brain and challenging our natural thought processes helps to keep our minds healthy and strong.

Fun fact: The human brain is wired for negativity. However, each time you catch yourself thinking negatively and are able to shift your thoughts to more positive ones, you are re-training your brain and creating new neural pathways. Why does that matter? Well, next time it will be even easier to shift your thoughts. Just like muscle power, brain power gets stronger the more we exercise it.

  • Practice Self-Compassion & Presence – Remind yourself that you are human, and we all make mistakes. Release the notion of being “perfect.” That is a figment of all of our imaginations and does not exist. Take time to do things that make you feel happy and centered. Do at least 1 thing a day that makes you feel happy and centered – Whether it is spending time with your family, taking your dog for a walk, cooking your favorite meal, organizing your drawers…. whatever makes you feel good… find time to do it. Even if it’s for 30 to 60 minutes, just do it and take it all in when you are doing it. Be fully present so you can enjoy and savor the moment. Your mental health depends on it!