I’ve been out of regular therapy sessions for a while, but only because I’ve been maintaining a pretty disciplined practice of mental health exercises. (Now if I can just get motivated to get back to physical exercise, I’ll be extremely awesome…) For the last few weeks, I haven’t been doing my morning routine, and I can feel it in my brain the way I feel it in my body that I haven’t been exercising. When I work out, I feel stronger and healthier, and the same thing applies to my mental wellbeing. I try to maintain morning, afternoon, and bedtime rituals to keep me on track. Don’t get hung up by the word “ritual.” I am not performing animal sacrifices, I am just trying to perform the same behaviors in the same order every day, with enough frequency that they become habit and with enough thoughtfulness that they retain their meaning… like rituals.
My morning routine consists of three key parts – morning pages, prayer, and planning. While everything else may slide or be shortened, those three need to be done well for me to feel like my head is on straight the rest of the day. The other things on my morning list are drink water (at least one full glass before coffee), get inspired (some form of positive thinking exercise, whether it’s a guided meditation from the app I use or it’s a positive statement I can repeat all day), deep work (a timed work session I usually use for writing, but it’s a great tool for any type of work – just set a timer and ignore every other distraction for that block of time), and celebrate (it sounds silly, but I do a little happy dance and give myself a mental high-five when I finish my whole routine).
Morning pages is one of the best mental health tools I’ve ever discovered. The practice comes from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. The only rules are that you should write by hand first thing in the morning for three full pages. There is no wrong way to write your pages. You can write about anything that pops in your head. Cameron’s intent with morning pages is that you clear the junk rambling around in your mind, which frees you to think creatively. Also, it’s pretty impossible to write three pages of complete mess without hitting on something important or a good idea to run with. My morning pages are generally a brain dump of all the things on my to-do list followed by some actual reflection on my actions and the emotions running under them.
I always see something more clearly for having examined it longhand in my journal.
I usually see something new or from a different perspective. I have, on occasion, written the lyrics to the “Spongebob Squarepants” theme song before I could make any coherent words come out of my pen. I’m not a strict rule adherent in my morning pages journal. I rarely make it to three pages because I have to get the tiny human to school and myself to work, so I just write for a set amount of time instead. I can’t always write first thing in the morning, so sometimes I write third or tenth thing; sometimes I write evening pages. I think for my mental health, the important thing is just for me to write and reflect.
When I examine why I am doing what I am doing, I can see the behavioral patterns I need to work on, whether that’s to keep doing something that works or to quit doing something harmful.
Prayer is the next step in my morning routine. Maybe it should be first as a symbol of its priority, but I’ve learned I pray with much better focus if I do morning pages first. Once my head is clear, I process everything better, especially scripture that I pray through before I pray for other people. It may seem silly since I keep a handwritten journal for morning pages, but I actually use an app on my phone for my daily prayer time. “Prayer Prompter” is a free app that’s very simple, but extremely helpful. It has two sections: one is “Meditation and Prayer” that includes Bible verses and writings about spiritual discipline to pray through, and the other is “Petition/Intercession” that has some pre-filled prompts for suggestions. You can add prayer requests in the “Petition/Intercession” section, so whenever I tell someone, “I’m praying for you,” I’m adding it there. I really love this app and have used it more consistently than any prayer journal I’ve tried to keep.
I’ve tried doing my prayer routine at different times of the day, but I always come back to morning. It helps me remember to pray throughout the day, and it helps me feel connected in my relationship to Jesus before I get lost in the day’s business.
Planning is the last thing I do before celebrating and getting on with the day. I shared my planner a few weeks ago, so you can still see that on the blog home page if you’re curious. I work through the morning mindset questions and prioritize my tasks for the day, and then I write them on the schedule.
I have never, ever had a day go exactly the way I wrote it on the schedule, but the act of putting tasks in a time space forces me to think through how long the task will take and when I will best be able to accomplish it.
I tend to put too many things on my task list and my schedule, so this helps me be a little more realistic. I keep seeing articles about scientific studies that people who are always running late are really just optimists who think they can do more in an allotted time than they can; that seems to be accurate in my case. The planner definitely helps narrow my focus for a given day and time span.
It’s crazy that those three things would make such a difference in my stress level and mental health, but they definitely do. They’re probably the three most important tools in my coping toolbox. How about you? What’s the most important thing you do to keep mentally fit?