May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Mother’s Day, so it feels fitting to focus on women’s mental health this month — where we are and what we can do about it.
We are living in turbulent times and women’s mental health is suffering as a result.
There is uncertainty in the economy, gun violence, an extreme political divide, dehumanizing directives and legislation in southern states, and the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. And this is just in the U.S. We can’t help but also be affected by watching the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and women struggling in Iran and under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. These events have all contributed to a global mental health crisis that continues to disproportionately affect women.
Even prior to the pandemic,
- women were twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders, depression and PTSD.
- one in four women experienced depression and/or PTSD.
- one in five experienced an anxiety disorder.
- two-thirds of the Americans with eating disorders were women.
These numbers have only gotten worse as we are all forced to adapt to a “new normal” with no boundaries and more responsibilities than ever.
What can we do?
You are not alone if your life feels exhausting and overwhelming. And if the world feels chaotic and unsafe. These events dysregulate our nervous system. As a result, we experience emotions like frustration, fear, anxiety, loneliness, anger, even rage, and a profound sense of loss.
While this is a normal human reaction to the events unfolding around us, there is an implicit bias against it. We are taught that expressing and processing these emotions is not acceptable or appropriate as women. While we see men express anger, frustration and rage from the Oval Office to Wall Street to professional sports and beyond, women are labeled “too emotional” and unfit to lead.
This stereotype is more than flawed and unfair, it’s dangerous to our health. It ignores the science that shows “negative” emotion — if not examined, processed and released, but rather internalized and ignored — causes chronic pain and mental health and addiction issues.
Caution: What not to do
We tend to use coping mechanisms to hide from these difficult emotions. We over-work, over-eat, over-drink, over-exercise, overspend, over-Netflix. We numb ourselves and mislabel it as “self care” to avoid what we really need — to process and release these emotions. I’m not suggesting you incorporate outbursts of sadness and rage into your day. There is a better way!
Identifying emotions through awareness
When we recognize and release difficult emotions, we are able to reflect and reveal our true self, which is calm and balanced, compassionate and empathetic. Picture your body as an empty vessel. Your true self resides just below your naval (solar plexus). This self gets buried under layers of negative emotion. Being aware of these emotions as they fill you and drown your peace and power is the first step. How do you do this?
First, listen to your thoughts. When you wake in the morning, listen to the story you are telling yourself about your day, your personal and professional life, national and world events and how they affect you. Maybe you feel a lack of control, victimized and powerless. Then identify the emotions these thoughts are creating for you — maybe fear, anger or sadness.
Then, watch your behavior. Watch for behaviors that are compulsive, impulsive, controlling or indulging. These are red flags that you are avoiding negative emotions that need to be processed.
Releasing difficult emotions
Now that you’re aware of these emotions, prioritize time to process and release them in healthy ways. As women, we often serve everyone — our families, our clients, our communities — before we serve ourselves.
Research shows that chronic stress increases inflammation in our bodies, which, in turn, increases anxiety and depression. It’s a spiral that you can stop with self care. Incorporating the techniques below as part of your self-care practice will help you bring your best self to every aspect of your life. Taking care of yourself more doesn’t mean taking care of them less, it means taking care of them better!
- Name the feeling
As you expand your awareness of these emotions, it is important to also expand your vulnerability vocabulary. This allows you to understand and express the full spectrum of your emotions. Dr. Brene Brown’s research showed that after asking over 7,000 people to list emotions they could recognize while feeling it, they came up with three on average — happy, mad and sad. Google “list of emotions” to help you identify and name what you are feeling and keep it close by for daily reference.
- Give Your emotion a voice
There is a practice called “Rage on the Page” based on the work of Dr. John Sarno. Sarno wrote about how our physical conditions are caused by our unresolved trauma and unprocessed emotions. In this practice, you write for about 20-30 minutes focused solely on releasing your anger or grief. Give yourself the option to burn or shred the paper after writing. This will eliminate any filter you may impose when considering that someone finds and reads what you’ve written.
When you are done, go for a walk or meditate to reset your nervous system.
- Cultivate a peaceful center
There have been hundreds of studies on the benefits of meditation, including reducing and relieving stress-related psychological disorders.
In its most basic form, meditation can help you access your calm, authentic self that feels buried below your difficult emotions. In the silence or through the guidance of an instructor, you can process the emotion and cultivate a peaceful center to return to when your world feels turbulent again.
- Talk to someone
Whether you connect with a psychiatrist, counselor or coach, finding someone to help you excavate and navigate this terrain is important. I can’t tell you how many times a client said to me or I said to my coach, “I have nothing to talk about today.” And without fail, we are knee-deep in identifying and processing difficult emotions within 10-15 minutes. Sometimes the tools in our bag just aren’t enough or you can’t find the time for self-care and need to be held accountable by a third party. When you find the right person, the perspective and support they provide and the pressure it relieves is priceless.
5. Move your body
We now know that persistently elevated stress hormones like cortisol have a detrimental effect on the body. It can lead to anxiety, depression, weight gain, heart problems, sleep disorders, digestive issues, headaches, memory impairment and even chronic pain.
Studies show that exercise is especially effective recovery for people performing mentally demanding work — which feels like all of us. Research shows that the best exercises for releasing this stress and anxiety are walking, running, hiking, cycling and yoga.
Start small if you are not currently moving on a regular basis. Getting sore or injured will derail your motivation and momentum. If you are moving, adding a mindfulness practice like yoga and getting outside will bring added benefits.
6. Find peer support
Said plainly, there is not enough peer support in the world. I feel strongly about the incredible benefits of peer support among women. From my own personal experience as a provider and consumer of such support, I find these spaces invaluable. Talking openly about the unique challenges we face and the common traumas we endure normalizes them and melts the shame we carry when we believe we are alone in our struggles. Find or form a peer support group to create a safe space to be vulnerable, feel seen, heard and valued through shared experiences.
Wendy Tamis Robbins is an anxiety expert, bestselling author of “The Box: An Invitation to Freedom From Anxiety,” and founder of CAVE Club, a wellness community exclusively for professional women. She works globally as a mental health and wellness coach, speaker and advocate. She will be speaking and signing books at Shubie’s Marketplace on May 11 at 4 p.m.
Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.