Language to Protect Your Mental Health


Social isolation. Work-from-home burnout. Public health-related stress. Political upheaval. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that mental health matters and has become a central issue for many. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily become easier to talk about.

In fact, according to Dr. Maysa Akbar, a clinical psychologist and chief diversity officer at the American Psychological Association, there’s another health crisis looming: the deterioration of mental health. She cites the compounding effects of the pandemic as well as ongoing racial reckoning in the US as among the major factors. While mental health doesn’t always feel easy to talk about, it’s become a more common concern; a longstanding historical stigma against open discussion of mental health issues is waning. 

“The data shows talking through our most difficult times, engaging in therapy, having conversations that are openly expressing the amount of psychological stress we’re going through . . . lead to healthier ways of engaging with our communities, our families, and our work,” Dr. Akbar says. Indeed, being upfront about what you’re going through helps normalize and destigmatize these issues. Through the pandemic, these issues have become more common—and therefore more relatable—than ever.  

With that in mind, here are a few expert-approved approaches to having these conversations:

How to request support

When asking for help, framing the conversation with language the other person can easily relate to is a useful way to ensure you’re heard. For example, here are a few openings Dr. Akbar suggests using:

  • I need your support right now.
  • I’m really struggling.
  • I’m having a hard time with X.
  • This is a really tough time for me.

“It’s sometimes easier to be able to describe what’s happening with you . . . than to open the conversation with a description of a mental health problem that people may have sensitivity to or may not understand,” says Dr. Akbar. “Stick to what you’re struggling with and what you would want from that person. Most people would be able to connect with that.”

How to ask for space

Spending more time with your partner and family members used to be a common goal—but social distancing has made seeing only those in your household mandatory. And being confined with someone for long periods of time can lead to tension in even the healthiest relationships.

“It’s OK to say, ‘this is a lot and maybe we need to find ways to replenish ourselves individually,’” says Dr. Jessica L. Provines, a licensed psychologist and director of Counseling and Prevention Services at Wichita State University. It can feel intimidating to bring it up, she notes, but it’s ultimately better to bring it up before things become a bigger deal than they need to.

“It’s important to not blame others for what we’re dealing with, but rather to share how you’re feeling and ask for what you need directly,” she adds.

Spending some time on your own can help you return to these important relationships in a more emotionally balanced, appreciative mindset.

>>Read More: How College Students Can Effectively Communicate Boundaries

How to address feelings of burnout

With so many people working remotely throughout the pandemic, individuals have been spending more time than ever at home glued to screens as many of their interactions happen virtually. For many, work has become a welcome distraction from the lack of outlets outside the home. Therefore it’s no wonder that a number of people are struggling with burnout

Asking for what you need to succeed is a great place to start combating that effect, says Dr. Regine Muradian, a clinical psychologist based in Southern California. Here are a couple of phrases she suggests:

When there’s wiggle-room in your deadlines

What to say: I’d love to get this done for you. I can have this to you by [TIME] on [DAY].

Why it works: You can establish a boundary that doesn’t require you to cut into non-work hours. And, it sets expectations.

When you have a hard deadline

What to say: I have a lot on my plate right now and it would help me if I could get X. If I get X, I’ll be able to do Y. 

Why it works: You can ask for what you need while providing an incentive (like maintaining a high level of quality in your work).

“It’s always important to be transparent and honest without putting yourself down and devaluing the work you can do,” adds Dr. Muradian.

>>Read More: Rethinking Our Self-Care Wins During the Pandemic

How to navigate triggering speech

Triggering comments (often made unintentionally) touch on a person’s trauma and negatively impact them in the moment. For example, someone who has depression may feel anger or anxiety when they hear someone say the condition is somehow a result of weakness—a sentiment that keeps people from getting help and places blame on those in need of it.

When triggering language comes up, addressing it can feel overwhelming. But doing so can lead to productive conversations and a deeper understanding of your experience by a friend or family member.

Here are a couple of useful options for approaching these conversations:

What to say in the moment: 

Direct approach: I’m not prepared to have this conversation right now. 

Deflecting: That’s interesting [and then change the subject].

Why they work: The direct approach makes it clear that the topic is something upsetting or off-putting to you and establishes a boundary. The deflecting technique moves the conversation onto something else if you aren’t comfortable or want time to think about what you want to say.

What to say after the fact: Start with something positive about the relationship, then discuss the triggering event and how it made you feel, and close with another positive and how they can help you going forward. For example: “I always appreciate how open and honest you are with me. But when you said X, it made me feel Y. I really value your friendship, and it would really help me if you could do Z in the future.”

If you find that you don’t have the benefit of a strong support system, there are things you can do to handle a triggering experience, says Dr. Akbar. Simple things, like taking a deep breath, counting to ten, or reciting a personal affirmation, for instance, are valuable tools. But the best thing to do is to identify what your triggers are in the first place. That way, you’ll be prepared if it happens again.



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