Cultivating Habits for Optimal Mental Health

Cultivating Habits for Optimal Mental Health
It is no surprise that teenagers today are feeling stressed out. In a recent poll conducted on behalf of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), 64% of teens reported feeling that the world is more stressful now than when their parents were their age. Furthermore, about 1 in 6 teenagers report experiencing negative emotions some or all of the time, with girls more likely to say they are often stressed out or anxious.
This poll also indicated that teenagers are comfortable talking about mental health and look to their schools for trustworthy information and conversation starters. At Roland Park Country School, the health and well-being of our students is a core value and we want all of our students to thrive. Therefore, we were thrilled to welcome Dr. Sue Varma, a board-certified psychiatrist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at New York University (NYU) Langone Health, as the featured speaker for the annual Doug and Carol Croft Linde, 1982 Health Colloquium on March 1. She spent the morning leading a professional development session with Upper School faculty and presenting to all Upper School students, before speaking with our adult community in the evening.
Considered the nation’s leading “go-to” mental health expert, Dr. Varma is passionate about empowering people to take a holistic approach to wellness through the four M’s of mental health: movement, meaningful engagement, motivation and mindfulness. Through scientific solutions and tangible takeaways, Dr. Varma engages, informs, motivates and inspires audiences to make actionable change. She can regularly be seen on multiple media outlets, including The Today Show, Good Morning America, ABC News and MSNBC, and has been an on-air contributor for CBS This Morning, 20/20 and NBC Nightly News, among other programs. Dr. Varma is also a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, the highest honor bestowed upon its members.
Coping With Stress
In Dr. Varma’s presentations to our community, she explained how mental health is about habits. While we all grapple with unique stressors, including external achievement, social media and influencers and a constant news cycle, not all stress is bad for us and the right amount can actually help us become more productive, engaged and focused. Dr. Varma discussed the importance of using good coping mechanisms, like sleep, a shower, laughter, or exercise can balance out stress. “When you’re practicing coping mechanism during times of stress, you’re tipping the scale in your favor,” she told the students. Dr. Varma also compared unproductive worry to sitting in a rocking chair or being stuck in the mud and encouraged all audiences to focus more on productive worry – things we can actually control in our lives to feel better. This will in turn, increase our confidence in our abilities to handle stress.
The Role of Social Media
While it is still unknown if social media really causes higher levels of anxiety or depression, Dr. Varma argues that the time people spend on social media can make people feel worse by taking time and attention away from good habits, like sleep, real life connections, and exercise. She described how the use of social media to relieve boredom, can lead to teens feeling the fear of missing out (FOMO) and comparing themselves to others, which can in turn lead to more social media engagement, therefore neglecting healthy habits and resulting in a negative impact on mood. Dr. Varma suggested limiting time spent on social media and provided advice for how to combat some of the negative thoughts and cognitive distortions that arise from social media overuse, including reframing and considering the bigger picture. “Will this matter five years from now?”
Practical Optimism
According to Dr. Varma, the good news is that we all have more control and more choices than we think. She defines practical optimism as a set of learned behaviors where we can determine what is in our control, recognize and reframe negative thoughts, practice self-compassion to address undermining emotions and build self-efficacy to cultivate positive habits and goals (and get rid of unhelpful ones). During each of her lectures, Dr. Varma expanded on the concepts and provided examples of the 4 Ms of mental health: movement, mindfulness, meaningful engagement and mastery. She also worked with the Upper School students, who performed a skit demonstrating what meaningful engagement is – showing compassion, humanity, vulnerability and kindness, and what it isn’t.  
By encouraging us to practice useful coping skills and cultivate healthy habits, Dr. Varma emphasized how we can reframe our situations and focus on what we can control. Our students, faculty and parent community felt energized and inspired by Dr. Varma’s visit and we look forward to incorporating practical optimism at RPCS.
About the Doug and Carol Croft Linde, 1982 Health Colloquium 
The Doug and Carol Croft Linde, 1982 Health Colloquium allows RPCS to engage nationally recognized wellness speakers and researchers annually to work in partnership with our students, employees and parents – as well as the local community. These academic seminars with industry professionals enable RPCS young women to explore their interests in mental and physical health while also equipping them and their families with the tools and insight needed to flourish across any stage of life. The Colloquium was originally funded by past parents Barbara and James (Jim) Robinson and supported through the Annual Fund.