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The rise in mental health awareness has been great—but we’re missing an important element

Nearly 300 years ago, Benjamin Franklin gave us the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Oddly enough, he was talking about fire safety in that instance, but it holds true for health as well. It’s arguably better to proactively prevent a problem than to wait for a crisis you have to fix.

It’s taken a while—and there’s still a ways to go, especially when it comes to insurance coverage—but disease prevention has caught on in the physical health world. We don’t just treat illness when it comes; we know we need to proactively maintain good physical health. We have PSAs about eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising regularly to prevent heart disease. We have dieticians and nutritionists who research what foods our bodies need (and need to avoid) to function at their best. We consume calcium to prevent osteoporosis and wear sunscreen to ward off skin cancer. We talk about the importance of sleep to let our bodies repair themselves.

Kids learn about physical health maintenance and disease prevention in health classes, and they should. Why don’t we teach mental health maintenance the same way?

For sure, the dramatic rise in mental health awareness and education in the past decade or two has been extraordinary, fulfilling a long-neglected need. People are far more aware, accepting and understanding of mental health issues than in the past, and we’ve come a long way in removing the stigma of mental illness.

But our approach to mental health awareness and education is still largely reactive. “If you struggle with anxiety/depression/etc. it’s okay to seek help and here’s where to find it” is the most common messaging. And that’s great—a huge step up from “Suck it up, buttercup. If you need therapy, you’re a psycho.” It’s good that we’ve normalized going to therapy if you have a mental health issue, and it’s good that we’ve reduced the shame of taking medication to manage mental health disorders. However, as a parent whose kids have struggled with various degrees of anxiety, I think we need a more proactive approach—one that focuses on mental health maintenance and provides tools that might prevent disorders from spinning out of control in the first place.

When I started taking my daughter to therapy for a debilitating anxiety disorder, I was surprised to find out how much I didn’t know about how anxiety actually functions. I knew the basics of the “fight, flight or freeze” response and I knew anxiety meant that instinctual survival system was overreacting. What I didn’t know was that the logical approaches my husband and I had tried to calm that system in our daughter were actually making her anxiety worse.

Thanks to her therapist, we learned all about the amygdala (the brain’s fear center), what it responds to and what it doesn’t. My daughter learned to recognize the cues that her anxiety was in its early stages, like a snowball starting to roll down a mountain, and how to manage it before it became a thundering avalanche. We learned that our repeated reassurances that everything was fine actually reinforced her anxiety instead of alleviating it, which is totally counterintuitive. My daughter learned how to talk to her brain when it told her something she feared was going to happen. Instead of saying, “No, that bad thing isn’t going to happen,” (the amygdala really hates being told it’s wrong), she learned to say things like, “Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong—let’s wait 10 minutes and see what happens.” That small difference in language inside her own head made a world of difference. Literally life-changing.

I don’t have an anxiety disorder, but sitting in on her therapy sessions helped me learn a ton about how brains work in general. And it definitely helped me be better able to help my children. In every session, I kept wondering, “Why have I not learned these things before? Why do they not teach us about managing thoughts and feelings in school?” We all have brains. Most of us struggle with our brains misbehaving sometimes. One in three adults will deal with an anxiety disorder in their life, and many more will experience fear or worry that doesn’t rise to the level of a full-fledge disorder, so isn’t “How to manage the amygdala” something all of us should learn?

Imagine if we started developing skills and tools to manage our brains at a young age instead of waiting for mental health disorders to develop before learning them. Schools started down that road with social-emotional learning (SEL), which teaches teaches kids about recognizing their emotions and manage them with breathing exercises and the like, but SEL unfortunately got wrapped up in the craze over curriculum and has been banned in some states. But we don’t need that large of a curriculum umbrella for simply teaching kids how their brains work. This is basic health information. Maybe people worry that proven mindfulness techniques will turn too woo woo or something, but there’s plenty of evidence-based, research-backed, non-controversial tools we can share to manage and maintain our mental health.

And I’d argue such knowledge is far more useful to the average person than, say, knowing how to factor quadratic equations.

I have personally witnessed how passing on the strategies we learned with my daughter to her younger siblings helped them learn to manage their own anxiety so much earlier. Could we have prevented my daughter’s anxiety disorder completely? I doubt it—some of us are genetically hardwired with certain tendencies. But I do think we could have prevented it from becoming debilitating if we had known from the start how to navigate what her brain was doing, saving her years of anguish and frustration.

While we can’t necessarily prevent mental health disorders, we can set people up with a much fuller mental health toolbox a lot earlier than we do. We all benefit from understanding our own thoughts and feelings, and the idea that we should all learn more about how our brains work is…well, a no-brainer. Of course we need to treat disorders when they occur, but let’s get proactive in how we manage mental health as well. With mental health issues reaching epidemic levels, it could only help.

Source: Upworthy
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