The User Manual You’ll Actually Read (and 6 Questions to Help You Write Your Own)

It seems that every single appliance we acquire comes with some kind of instruction manual.   I would hypothesize that about 97% of these documents are not read and then relegated to a corner of a broom closet or junk drawer.   (With this thought, I imagine an alternate universe filled with user manuals for blenders, vacuums, and curling irons, much like the other-dimensional world in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”.)

What if you had a user manual that you actually read?

One that was about:

  • Your mental and physical health
  • Your maintenance schedule
  • What kept you operating in peak condition
  • Instructions and trouble shooting for what to do when you started to sputter and stall

A personalized User Manual to map out our own mental well-being is not a novel concept (no pun intended).  The idea has stayed with me since my internship at a community mental health clinic where many of the clients were supported in creating such a manual. Clients were encouraged to carry this creation on them or give it to loved ones so that if they did find themselves in a mental health crisis, the people around them knew how to get them back on track.

But you don’t have to be in a mental health crisis to fully benefit from this idea.  We all want to be functioning at our best and feeling like our most vibrant, alive, and productive selves.  In some cases, you may not be aware of what you actually do to make this happen. If you wake up and feel great, you may not question it.  If you wake and feel bad, you might not be sure what caused it or attribute it to the incorrect reasons.

If you would like to explore the idea of creating a personalized user manual, the following prompts can help get you started.  Below are 6 questions that can provide the ‘table of contents’ for your User Manual.  It’s doesn’t have to be a book format. You can do a flow chart, a mind map, a video or a drawing. You can create your manual on paper, post-it’s, or a shared word document. You can use crayons, paints, or a big fat sharpie marker (my personal fav).

Most importantly, once you’ve created your manual – in whatever form – use it. Store it on your phone for quick reference, post on your fridge, put in a plastic sleeve and suction it to the inside of your shower.  (I say this in jest, but now I think it could be a good thing to read while I’m washing my hair.)

(For all you folks out there who love metaphors as much as I do, you’ll see cues below the following questions that help continue with the car/machine analogy as a way to think objectively about your mind and body.  If the idea of a car metaphor doesn’t jive with you, you can replace it with an analogous object, such as a bike, computer, building, or a plant.)

6 Questions to Create Your Personalized User Manual

1. How do I look, feel, and act when I am functioning at my best?

(How does your vehicle look and sound when it’s in tip top shape?)


  • I feel grounded and open to new experiences.
  • I feel connected to my family, children, partner, higher power, life philosophy.
  • I communicate effectively and assertively.
  • I am making daily choices that are in alignment with my values and goals.

2.  How do I maintain optimal mental and physical functioning?

(What keeps your engine running in peak condition? What are the tasks you do to maintain your car, such as oil changes or fueling up with gas?)

These are the tasks, activities, people that are essential for your optimal functioning and that you need to do on a regular basis.


  • Taking medication/supplements daily
  • Having meaningful contact with a loved one at least once a day
  • Eating three nutritious meals (or whatever your dietary needs are)
  • Cuddling with a pet at the end of the day
  • Journaling or creating art
  • Setting aside 1 day a week with no technology/screen time

3. What are some of the signs that I am not coping well with stress or things are piling up more than I can handle?

(It took a couple times to start the car, it’s making this funny clicking noise, the engine light is on.)


  • I notice that I get headaches near the end of my work day.
  • I feel overwhelmed and like I don’t have control over my life.
  • I withdrawal from my friends and snap at them.
  • I can’t concentrate and feel unusually forgetful.

Bonus: As you create a list of your own signs of stress, feel free to divide them into four categories: Emotional, Social, Physical, Cognitive. You may find a theme in how you respond to stress and can notice it sooner when you start to feel run down.

4. What are the skills and strategies I use to cope and feel better?

(What do you do when my car is sputtering and stalling? How do you fix a flat tire?)


  • I reach out to a friend, loved one, therapist to tell them how I’m feeling.
  • I make sure that I get an extra hour or so of sleep.
  • I take extra time for myself to engage in a hobby I enjoy.
  • I take some time to completely unplug from technology.

Please note: our coping strategies are unique, personal, and heavily influenced by culture and upbringing.  I hesitate to classify coping skills as either ‘healthy/unhealthy’ or ‘positive/negative’ because the ways we cope exist because they did serve us at one point to help us survive pain and trauma.  Classifying your coping skills as positive or negative may feed shame and judgement that make change even more difficult.

However, certain coping skills can be more productive than others depending on if they are harmful to ourselves and those around us, or if they are not in alignment with our goals and values.  If desired, a therapist or support group can help you increase your array of coping skills so you can choose ones that feel the best to you.

5. What does life look like when I have reached my “max” and am not coping well with the challenges I am facing? 

(The engine has completely failed and smoke is coming out from the hood. The windshield is completely busted and no amount of duct tape and industrial strength plastic wrap will fix it.)


  • Waking up every morning is a struggle.
  • I don’t feel joy about my job anymore.
  • I feel disconnected from the people that normally bring me love and joy.
  • I’ve stop cleaning up my home or taking care of my hygiene like I have in the past.

The answers to this can be on a spectrum. The way you present when you are not doing well can be both internal (your thoughts and beliefs) or external (your behaviors).

If you are experiencing a life threatening mental health emergency, including, but not limited to, thoughts of harming yourself or others – please call 911 or you can reach out to crisis resources.

6.Who do you reach out to when you are at the point that you need additional support in order to feel better?

(Who do you call for a tow?   How can you get into a mechanic?)


  • I call my therapist, sponsor, or friend.
  • I sit down with my partner/spouse to tell them how I’m feeling and develop next steps to help me get back on track.
  • I take a day off from work or take an extended vacation.
  • I go into my doctor to get my medication evaluated and adjusted.

You made it!  By reading these questions and giving them thought, you have already increased your awareness in ways that can support better mental health and well-being.  I can’t wait to see what you will create.

Was this idea helpful? Did you notice any patterns or themes as you answered the prompts? What gaps do you need to fill with additional support?

Need someone to look over your user manual? I can assist!  Learn about me here.  


Arianna Smith, MA, LPC, EMDR
















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