Growing up there were many times I would sit in Adoration trying to pray, but my mind would be all over the place. I couldn’t stop thinking about things I needed to do and worrying about what was going on in my life. For a while I thought I wasn’t praying right, but I soon realized that it wasn’t so much a problem of my prayer life, but of getting my thoughts and mental health in order. You want to live a healthy and holy life, right? You probably have a plan or a goal to build up your spiritual life. Maybe you’re trying to eat healthy and workout here and there, but what about your mind? What about your mental health? Too often we forget that our mental health can greatly affect how we think, talk, behave, and even pray. God created us body, mind, and soul and we can’t forget that He calls us to take care of our minds as well as our bodies and souls. So, what does good mental health look like? Well, why don’t we start by looking at what isn’t helping your mental health and maybe preventing you from living life to the fullest on a daily basis.
1. Replacing silent time with screen time
You’re in line at the grocery store and there are a few people in front of you, so you pull out your phone to check your social media. We’ve all done it. Some recent studies have shown that young people are spending almost nine hours of their day on their smartphones. We avoid awkward silence and lulls in conversation like the plague. A few years ago I heard Fr. Mike Schmitz talk about “gap” time. He described it as the time when we have to wait, aren’t busy, or are just standing or sitting around. He described that gap times in the past were times to think, pray, and reflect. Nowadays, almost all of our gap time is taken up by scrolling through social media, watching Netflix, or texting. All that time for personal reflection that is naturally built into our lives, is now gone.
As humans we need gap time, we need quiet time to think, pray, and listen to ourselves and God. We all need time with our thoughts, with silence, so be aware of how you are using your gap time. Consider making small changes in your day-to-day life to spend less time looking at your phone and more time in silence, conscious of your thoughts. Maybe even schedule gap time into your day where you can journal and spend some quality time with yourself.
2. Isolating yourself from others
Often times when we feel anxious, down, or insecure we want to jump into bed and simply watch Netflix. Why? It’s comfy and entertaining! In reality, this can cause us to form bad habits of isolation and can even worsen depression and anxiety. When you are feeling down, insecure, or overwhelmed, make sure you get out of your own isolation. Go for a walk, workout, or talk to a few close friends, your parents, teachers, youth minister… and don’t think you need to hide yourself away.
The devil wants to trick you into thinking that your struggles are too ugly or burdensome for others, but this is a lie. Be honest with the people in your life about the struggles you’re facing. No matter what you’re experiencing, there are people who want to help. Whether it’s your parents, siblings, friends, teachers, youth ministers, parish priests, or neighbors, people want to know your struggles and help you grow from them. Consider reaching out to your local youth group, support groups, school clubs, and teams to help you avoid receding into your Netflix hibernation routine.
3. Not exercising and not praying
Wait, I thought you said this was about mental health, not physical and spiritual health? It is. Scientifically, when you exercise you feel happier. Also, some statistics show that people who pray regularly are actually happier overall. We can’t pretend that our body, mind, and soul aren’t connected. Not exercising and not praying, simply put, make life harder. We don’t pray to get a magical fix, but it is a clear and obvious sign that God made us body, mind, and soul, and we have to take care of all three! Living and taking care of our bodies and having a solid relationship with God in prayer naturally helps our peace of mind. Prayer and exercise not only build physical and spiritual strength, but mental health and security as well.
4. Being busy all the time and procrastinating
Do you thrive under pressure? Do you like to wait until the night before to get that school paper or project done? It’s tempting, it adds some very needed motivation in the moment, but it isn’t all that healthy. Procrastinating can definitely add unnecessary stress to your life.
It’s easy to do pretty much anything else to avoid doing what you don’t want to do. In high school and college, I found myself cleaning my entire room before I actually wrote a paper I didn’t necessarily want to write. Similarly, booking our schedules to the max isn’t great either. I know that afternoons are often filled with practices, rehearsals, studying, or spending time with friends, but good mental health often involves intentionally making time to not be busy.
Being busy all of the time and procrastinating might give us a bit of an edge and some motivation to keep going, but ultimately, they can be a distraction from what is going on in our lives. Both can lead to burnout and stress. A packed calendar can keep us from reflecting on what truly matters and having time in prayer with God. Make time to waste time… with God and yourself. If you are super busy and overwhelmed, schedule time for prayer, silent reflection, a nap, or even a bike ride to de-stress and enjoy life a bit.
5. Pushing down/covering up problems to make them go away
This bad habit is kind of at the core of all the rest. More than anything, it’s easy to cover up our stress, anxiety, family conflict, etc. with Netflix, food, sex, alcohol, drugs, you name it. The truth is, we need to learn temperance, or healthy moderation, when it comes to what we do and use. As humans, we can be easily tempted to indulge in order to avoid tough situations, which is why we need to be mindful of why we are doing what we are doing. Covering up our problems with more things to do, people to see, or harmful habits will not make our problems go away — it will most likely make us more unhappy. Ultimately, we need to be brave enough to name our struggles and seek the help we need.
6. Thinking that struggling with mental health makes you weak
If you struggle with any of these habits, don’t fret, you are in good company with the rest of the human race. Many people, especially teens, struggle with mental health. It is a battle that some fight their wholes lives. The good news is that you never have to fight it alone. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Likewise, St. Paul tells us in the second letter to the Corinthians, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,* in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.” No matter our struggle, Christ is always there with us. Through Christ on the cross, your struggle with mental health becomes a strength in which you can glorify God. So many people struggle with mental health, but few talk about it. Be brave, seek help, and let God work in and through your cross.
God made us body, mind, and soul and longs for us to know His peace and love. Mental health is key in growing in a healthy relationship with God. Having good mental health isn’t just important when you are struggling; it is important to work on it daily, to better yourself each and every day.
If you need help, don’t be ashamed to ask for it. Talk to a friend, parent, youth minister, or seek out a good Catholic therapist. Therapy is a place to begin a real relationship with yourself, which, in turn, will allow you to live a more fulfilling and happier life. Saint Teresa of Calcutta once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” So maybe we can’t make a great change in our lives overnight, but we can take small steps to love ourselves in simple ways, with great love, in order to better glorify and love God and those around us.