Most of the work I do as a therapist involves helping people respond to current challenges they’re facing.
But I also spend a lot of time thinking about how we can be proactive—not just reactive—when it comes to our mental health. In other words, are there steps we can take to prevent mental health challenges before they start?
I believe there are, and in this post, I’m going to focus on just one of those steps: taking care of the small things.
There’s an old Nick Nolte movie that, for me, beautifully illustrates how important attending to the small stressors in our lives can be.
In Affliction, Nolte plays a character who’s going through a difficult time in his life. His marriage has just fallen apart. He’s struggling professionally. Flashbacks reveal that he’s dealt with an abusive father for most of his life. And there’s that gnawing toothache he keeps complaining about.
Scene by scene, Nolte’s stress builds upon itself, becoming more and more unmanageable.
Nolte’s brother, recognizing the signs of an ensuing downward spiral, pulls his brother aside and encourages him to make a dentist appointment for his worsening toothache.
Nolte ignores his brother and, in the end, experiences a complete mental breakdown. But you have to wonder: had he made the appointment, would things have been different?
Why the small things make a big difference
Struggling with a mental health challenge, like anxiety, depression or trauma, can be exhausting. When you’re constantly managing difficult and distressing symptoms, such as fear, sadness or intense feelings of shame, even the smallest of stressors can have a significant impact on your wellbeing.
This is why, as a therapist, I encourage my clients to be intentional about attending to the “small” things in their lives. Something as small as a toothache, for example, can precipitate a downward spiral in your mental health when ignored. It may not be as sexy as a spa day or going to a yoga class, but picking up the phone to schedule a dentist appointment before that dull toothache turns into a more serious situation may be the small act that allows you to stay on top of anxiety or depression.
Of course, we can’t control all the stressors in our life. But many of them we can, especially the smaller stressors.
Try setting aside 5 minutes each day to identify and attend to the small sources of stress in your life. It may be that bill that’s several days overdue. It may be your pet’s meds that you keep forgetting to order. Or, it may be that thank you card you’ve been putting off for weeks.
Taking care of these “small” things may not sound like much. But making the small stressors in your life a priority can go a long way toward helping you free up the energy and mental bandwidth you need to manage and improve your mental health and overall quality of life.