I’m pleased to announce that I have recently begun writing a monthly column for Waco Today magazine. My column is called Mind Matters, and each month’s column will discuss different aspects of psychology and matters of the mind. My first article discuses what psychology is, and how our brains, thoughts, and emotions shape everyday decisions and behaviorsYour brain has more than 100 trillion neural connections, which transmit data throughout the brain within milliseconds. All of these connections help shape and are shaped by your emotions, thoughts and behaviors.

Your brain’s connections and functioning are more impressive than any computer, and much more mysterious as well. Psychology is the study of the human brain, emotions, thoughts and behaviors.

The study of psychology has led to advancements in mental health and understanding of human behavior. If you browse through any bookstore’s psychology section, you can see that there is a wealth of information about improving mental health.

You may not think much about your mental health, but it impacts every aspect of your functioning, including small or large decisions you make, your productivity at work, and your relationships with others.

Just as we can exercise to keep our bodies healthy, we can use positive psychology practices to stay mentally and emotionally healthy.

Mental health counselors work with people to improve coping, increase wellness and life fulfillment, and improve overall physical and mental health. The term “counselor” is generally used to describe any professional who provides mental health counseling. There are many types of mental health counselors, and each type has a different educational background and training.

Although I often refer to myself as a counselor, I am officially a licensed counseling psychologist. A counseling psychologist has a doctoral degree in psychology with a specialization in counseling.

Psychologists have many different treatment specialties, and it is important to find a psychologist whose experience and training matches your needs. Psychologists work in many settings, including hospitals, schools, college counseling centers and private practice.

People often confuse psychologist with psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with a specialization in prescribing medication to treat mental health symptoms. If you need medication in addition to counseling, you would likely see a psychiatrist for your medication while continuing to see a psychologist for counseling.

Addressing Stress

The most common reason for seeking counseling is stress, meaning difficulty coping with life’s various challenges. Stress can cause physical reactions, including physical pain, difficulty sleeping, high blood pressure, increased heart rate and stomach problems.

Stress can also cause emotional and behavioral problems, including difficulty focusing, procrastination, angry outbursts, relationship struggles and sadness.

We all experience some level of stress, but when stress symptoms are ongoing and interfere with school, relationships, occupational functioning or general well-being it may be time to seek help from a psychologist.

I often get asked: “What is the best way to manage stress?” The simple answer is this: The best way to manage stress is to recognize it early, and to consistently address the thoughts, emotions and behaviors caused by stress.

Different stress management activities are effective for different people. For some, talking with friends is a helpful way of addressing the negative thinking patterns caused by stress. Others may prefer journaling to understand their thought processes.

Stress also leads to a wide variety of thought processes. For example, one person dealing with stress may begin focusing on fears of failure, while another may be focused on fears of disappointing others.

Recognizing the specific stress-related thoughts is the first step in coping effectively with the thoughts.

Exercise Helps

Exercise is an important activity for anyone dealing with stress. Research has consistently shown the brain benefits of consistent exercise, including the role of exercise in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Simply engaging in 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week will provide significant mental health benefits and resilience against stress.

There are many ways to take care of our mental health, including participating in counseling, making time for self-care activities, and being proactive about managing stress.

Learning and consistently practicing positive coping methods can lead to greater happiness, better physical health, and increased productivity and goal achievement.

In this column I will discuss many ways that psychological factors impact our lives, as well as ways to improve mental health and well-being. If there are particular topics you would like discussed, please send an email with your topic request.