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January Mental Health Memo: New Year. Skills for the job of living

About the authors: This month’s column is written by Joyce Becker, MS, OTR/L (left) and (R) Brandy Weier, OTR/L (right) who are two of the Occupational Therapy Practitioners at the SD Human Services Center that aid patients in learning and improving their daily lives through various interventions.

When we want to improve our daily lives, we may not look to Occupational Therapy (OT) as a source for solutions. OT is often thought of as relating only to employment.  However, the term “occupation” actually includes any tasks that we do during the day or in other words “skills for the job of living.” OT helps people to do the things they want and need to do to live life to the fullest despite injury, illness, or disability. 

To support your well-being, check in with your “jobs of living” as you begin the new year.  Ask yourself: Am I eating well? Am I spending time outdoors, exercising, and getting routine checkups? How am I sleeping and is screen time interfering? Am I finding ways to stay connected to people? What am I doing for leisure and enjoyment? If I could do one thing to live my life more fully, what might that be and what will it take to get there?

Change can be exciting and stressful at the same time. To help us cope, we can borrow some wisdom from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, a treatment approach used by occupational therapists at the Human Services Center:

  1. Be mindful. Mindfulness means being in the present moment, without judgment. It reminds us to stay focused, slow down, and pay attention to one thing at a time. This helps us be more aware of thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Be mindful when reflecting on what you want or need, planning changes, and setting goals. Be mindful of enjoying positive experiences too.
  2. Interpersonal effectiveness or communication skills. This is asking for what you need and communicating clearly, being respectful of yourself and the other person. Communicating effectively benefits everyone involved. This is especially helpful if your new year brings new goals that could use some support, like asking someone to join you for a walk.
  3. Emotion Regulation. Emotion regulation helps increase positive emotions while decreasing negative and unwanted emotions. Am I looking at the situation correctly or am I making assumptions? Am I making the situation out to be worse than it really is? All these things can drastically impact one’s emotions/mood.
  4. Distress Tolerance. Unfortunately, not all pain and distress can be avoided. It is easy to react without thinking it through when overwhelmed, which creates even more difficulty in our lives. Have a few ideas in mind ahead of time to prevent making things worse when emotions become too intense. Ask yourself, what can I do to distract myself or improve this moment in some way? Engage in activities that make you happy or give you a sense of peace like spending time outdoors or with your favorite person or pet.  This can make your problems seem less overwhelming and help you to manage them better.

By focusing on these four therapeutic skills, we can become more effective in our day-to-day lives. It allows us to engage more fully in meaningful activities, thereby living life to the fullest, which is after all, the ultimate goal.