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How to shift your approach to mental health and learn to regulate your emotions: a conversation with Dr. Bill Howatt (part 6 / 6)

Published on April, 12th 2018
By Greg Wells

This Q&A was adapted from my podcast conversation with Dr. Bill Howatt that aired on March 8th, 2018. You can listen to the interview here: As Chief Research and Development Officer at Morneau Shepell, Bill is an internationally recognized expert in mental health who has spent 25 years helping employees, patients and leaders achieve their potential. Bill has a PhD in Organizational Psychology, did post-doctoral training at UCLA, has developed programs with organizations like the Conference Board of Canada and the University of New Brunswick, and is author of numerous books and articles, including regular contributions to The Globe and Mail.

Dr. Greg Wells: Let’s say someone has been dealing with some mental health issues and they are beginning to realize that they are on their way toward a mental illness. Or they just begin to realize that their mental health is compromised. Or they think, “Oh my gosh, yeah, I’ve been feeling really bad for a long time.” What should they do to make a shift back towards mental health?

Dr. Bill Howatt: Great question. I’ll walk through a little bit of framework. Just like getting bloodwork done, the first thing to do is establish a mental health baseline. There are lots of tests to help you do this. It’s one reasons why I worked with The Globe and Mail to create Your Life At Work. It’s a free online tool that you use to get a baseline of your quality of life at work and at home. It’s similar to the Total Health Index we created at Morneau Shepell. It helps a person get a baseline of their coping skills.

GW: What happens next? 

BH: Step two is very much like what you did in school. There were skills you learned: your ABCs, reading and writing, the times tables. With mental health, these are what we call “developmental coping skills.” They are qualities such as interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy or locus of control – the notion that you are in charge of your life. There are about eight or ten of them that we all need to apply in our lives. Those developmental coping skills are a kind of a foundation.

GW: When people have those skills in place, how do they build on the foundation?

BH: The next step is what we call “sustainability coping skills.” If you think about oral hygiene, you clean your teeth every day. What’s the equivalent for everyday sustainability to support your mental health? It’s a set of skills that varies from person to person.

To get more space in the world, some people will meditate. Some people will become more mindful. Some people will journal. Some people will do diaphragmatic breathing. Some people will exercise. Some people might use golf or gardening. What all of these options have in common is that they involve micro-skills that contribute to what you might call “cognitive hygiene.” Basically, people need to ask, “What can I do every day to clear out that negative stuff between my ears?” It might be as simple as asking, “How do I give myself a break from the world to slow down so I can catch up?”

GW: That makes total sense. I talk to people all the time about the fact that they have to find their own answers to those questions. They have to design an optimal life that works for them.

BH: Yes. For example, lots of people forget that 30% of us are introverts who are living in a world created for extroverts. I’m an introvert. So I can go out and create the illusion I’m interested in being around people all the time, but eventually, I will need to get away from the stimuli so my brain has time to rest and process what’s happening. For extroverts, they need external stimuli so they can function effectively. They need that extra stimulation and interaction with their environment to help them cope. So part of the journey is learning about ourselves. Just because a person may not want to meditate, doesn’t mean they aren’t going to achieve a state of peacefulness.

GW: So how does all that tie back to steps people can take toward better mental health?

BH: Cognitive hygiene is a very personal thing. Ultimately, I think the answer to your question is awareness, accountability, and action. That’s why I wrote the book called The Coping Crisis. I believe that there are lots of folks who don’t actually have a mental health issue. They’re just struggling with this thing called being a human being. They just need help looking at how they can learn to get through each day and feel that they’re okay, to believe that tomorrow will be a better day. I think that’s what most of us are striving for.

GW: That’s really interesting. The idea of learning how to think differently and control your emotions is a pretty powerful one. I’m actually trying to learn not to think in order to control my emotions better, which is kind of backwards. But I’ve been doing a ton of meditation and learning how to quiet my mind and stop reacting and try to respond a little bit more instead of being so reactive.

BH: In the end, I think there is one main thing for people to try and keep in mind. Taking care of your mental health is a very trainable skill.