Voices for Recovery: Get stressed during National Recovery Month
Editor’s note: In observance of September as National Recovery Month, the Craig Press will publish a four-part wellness series focusing on mental, emotional, and behavioral health. Following is the third column in the series. To learn about the mental health benefits of social connection, laughter, and eating well, read parts one and two of the series.
As a society, we’ve come to categorize stress as universally bad. However, as humans have developed, the stress response has been necessary for survival. The increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing — the “fight or flight” feelings — are intended to help you respond effectively to dangerous situations.
Unfortunately, some modern threats feel neverending: work, money, illness, relationships, etc. This week, we’ve got two tricks to re-wire an overloaded brain for better mental health. And surprise, they involve opting into healthy stress.
That’s right. Some stress is good for you! Making new friends, falling in love, raising children, and starting a new job are stressful, but they can also be rewarding. When you focus on those rewards, you empower yourself, both physically and emotionally, to handle the less savory challenges you will inevitably face in life.
Get active; get strong
Exercise is physically stressful, but it’s the oldest trick in the book for improving your mood, clearing your mind, and boosting your energy, not to mention all the other well-known physiological benefits. When you fatigue your muscles, you experience increases in chemicals that help you recover; the physical benefits come along with emotional ones. Endorphins bring you pleasure. Serotonin ups your mood. Dopamine satisfies you. Glutamate and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) clear your mind. It is no wonder that many people managing mental health problems see exercise as a vital part of their recovery.
You don’t have to spend hours at the gym to reap these benefits. Just one hour per week of moderate or vigorous activity is associated with lower levels of mood disorders, anxiety, and substance use. This could be a brisk lunchtime walk, a casual volleyball game, or a fitness class at your local rec center or college.
Embrace something new
As an adult, you might think your brain is finished developing, but it is constantly being shaped by your interactions with your environment (including nutrition — see last week’s installment).
New connections form in your brain when you learn, old ones can be strengthened by practice, and weak connections dissipate with underuse. Just like a muscle, your brain needs to be challenged regularly to maintain proper function.
When stress comes in the form of an interesting challenge, you give your brain the opportunity to do what it likes to do best.
Learning doesn’t have to mean going back to grad school or embarking on a journey to understand bitcoin; it can be as simple as working on a jigsaw puzzle, cooking a new meal, reading a new book, or learning some words in a new language.
Learning takes patience and practice, and so does recovery. Take pride in this restructuring process, and look for more opportunities to surprise yourself as you grow.
Taking a Mental Health First Aid class can be a great opportunity to learn how to support yourself and others during difficult times. The next class will be offered in Craig on Tuesday, Sept. 25; sign up at mhfaco.org/findclass/attend/540.
There are many paths to wellness and recovery. Stay tuned for part four in this series, when we will explore the other side of stress: regulation and relaxation.
To celebrate September as Recovery Month, view our full calendar of events at ncchealthpartnership.org/news/calendar.
Sarah Valentino is Northwest Colorado Community Health Partnership’s regional behavioral health educator.