More than one in five people in the United States struggles with a mental health problem. So with more than 7 million workers in trucking writ large, you’ve got a potential 1.4 million of our peers dealing with the stress and uncertainties of living with a mental illness. You can be certain, too, that every day each of us encounters countless vehicles piloted by someone battling a mental illness.
And a few other statistics: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 34. It’s estimated anxiety and depression places an annual $1 trillion strain on the world's economy through lost productivity, with depression being a primary cause of disability.
While a mental health stigma persists in our society, we are getting better about understanding the issue. In fact, May is the month dedicated to that awareness. As a mental health practitioner, here’s my contribution to raising that awareness.
As I’ve written about time and time again, our mental health has a direct impact upon our physical health. Conditions can increase our chances of developing metabolic syndrome, heart disease, diabetes, migraine headaches, allergies, fatigue and muscle and joint pain.
[Related: What can we do about the physical and emotional violence of chronic stress made manifest?]
If you or someone you know is suffering with a mental health issue or simply need someone to listen, there are some very good resources to help with a simple search on your phone for:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255
- The Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741 for 24/7 support via text.
There are also things you can do for yourself to help get through the day, as well as establish some good mental health PM routines:
Get active. Too many of us don’t get the exercise we need with any consistency. We become so consumed taking care of business and taking care of others that we fail to take care of ourselves. We can get so wrapped up in meeting deadlines and maximizing miles that days evolve into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Then we realize we've missed a lifetime or become overweight, greatly increasing the risk of terrible health outcomes. Physical activity not only helps keep the weight in check, but it boosts your immune system and improves your mental health. Activity burns stress hormones, and helps us feel energized, focused, calm. Break up your day by cleaning the truck or walking around the truck and trailer. Run in place. Do some squats, pushups or jumping jacks. If you are up for it, go for a run. Or carry a bicycle with you and take a ride.
Immerse yourself in nature. Do you know about grounding, sometimes called earthing? Simply put, it’s contact with the earth’s surface as therapy. Merely walking barefoot in the grass for a bit will boost your mood and give you a greater appreciation for simple things. Several studies have shown that nature has a healing effect on our mind and body. One study has shown that just having a garden to look at can aid in faster recovery after surgeries. Park where you can enjoy nature, or build a little herb box you can sit in the window. Side benefits, of course: You’ll have fresh herbs for cooking! And it may well give you the motivation to eat better.
Focus on the present. We cannot change the past and have no control over the future. All we can do is learn from the past and make our best effort for the future. We tend to spend too much time inside our own heads ruminating on both. Over time, so-called automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) set up shop in our heads, increasing stress, anxiety and aggression – none of which any trucker needs more of. Be present in the here and now to avoid negativity taking hold. Consider keeping a journal. Sometimes writing down what is going on in our mind and body, and our external environment, can help us understand the emotions that may cause depression and anxiety.
[Related: Steer out of the ruts with mindfulness practice]
Laugh a little. Or a lot! It’s one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Laughter boosts your immune system, feels good and helps us gain new perspectives. When you are laughing with others, it strengthens relationships and, like smiles, it’s certainly contagious. When I need to laugh, I watch favorite shows, like “Big Bang Theory,” or listen to favorite comedians, like Robin Williams. And hey, who doesn’t know a trucker with a few thousand jokes running through their head? Connect with a friend and share a laugh.
Practice kindness. Often the path to healing is gaining a new perspective. There is no better way of doing that than getting out of your head and problems by helping someone else. During one of the darkest times in my life I found my way by serving others at the local food kitchen and food bank. Nothing brings people together more than food -- and serving those who do not have enough to eat will definitely give you a new perspective on your own problems.
Stay curious. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but nourishing your own curiosity can improve your immunity, boost your brain health and offer new approaches to the same old problems. The mind needs to be stimulated to stay healthy. There is a saying in psychology that many educational providers have adopted: Use it or lose it. If you do not challenge your mind and memory, it will wither up and die like a houseplant left unattended. Read a book instead of letting them pile up on your Kindle or in a cubby hole. Believe it or not, truckers have one of the best jobs for learning. After all, you spend 10-plus hours a day driving with nothing to do but think and listen -- and a 10-hour break every day when you're likely on your own. Listen to audio books as you drive. Take an online course. There are free and inexpensive courses on everything from hobbies to vocations taught on youtube and on more educational sites such as coursera.org and edx.org.
Practice gratitude. Write down three good things going on in your life, no matter how small, daily. Just being thankful for having good health can improve your health. Gratitude practices help you keep things in perspective when the day goes awry.
Connect with others. For professional drivers, isolation is an occupational hazard. Yet studies have shown that those who have rich social lives are happiest. I'm not just talking about social media, of course, which can help you keep up in some ways. But if you only sit on the sidelines and watch, you fail to participate in your own wellbeing. On the other hand, make the most of cell phone technology, such as Zoom or Skype. Can’t be at your son’s game? No problem – just Facetime your cohort and watch it via remote. Making such efforts will at least show your loved ones how much you care.
No matter how bad things appear, nothing lasts forever. We often experience growth through hardship and flourish in adversity. So be grateful for what you have and know that the simplest way to change your circumstance is to change direction. When a roadblock appears, take a new route. You may be isolated and feel very alone at times, but you are not alone in the fight.
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