There has been a lot in the media this week about Mental Health as it was Mental Health Awareness Day on Tuesday 10th October. It is fantastic that Mental Health is highlighted at this time of year and awareness raising days can really help to reduce stigma.
However, what about the other 364 days of the year? It is so important that we discuss our mental wellbeing with our family and friends in the same way as we would discuss our physical health.
I really like the model below that shows how at different points in our life our mental health can fluctuate from being healthy, to being ill, and also being somewhere in the middle.
Our mental health can be impacted by difficult events happening in our lives, stress at work or in relationships, hormonal changes / imbalances and much more. In the same way as maintaining physical health means listening to our body, eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, so we can also maintain our mental health by embedding healthy strategies into our lives.
As we are all so unique and individual, different strategies will work for different people. It is important to spend time every so often taking stock of your life, and thinking about how much you are taking care of your mental wellbeing.
To maintain the right balance the following areas of life are important to consider:
Socialising and maintaining positive connections. This does not mean spending all of our time with others, but it does mean making sure that we do not isolate ourselves. We are social beings, and for some this may mean socialising every day, for others once a week is enough, but what is important is feeling connected to others outside of ourselves. Being with others, having fun and sharing common interests can help to reduce stress and lift mood. Research has even shown that spending positive time with friends and family alters the activity in our brain, releases more oxytocin which then supports your brains serotonin, which is the ‘feel good’ Neurochemical. Oxytocin also calms the Amygdala which is the part of our brain that is responsible for stress, and the fight / flight response. So, if we can maintain the right balance of social interaction it can help us to relax, feel good, combat stress, and reduce the risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders.
Being Active. This does not mean spending hours in the gym everyday (unless you want to), but finding the right activities for you is important. This might be finding YouTube videos that you can use at home to learn Yoga, dancing or aerobics. It might mean cycling, walking or running 2-3 times a week. It might mean dancing the night away with your friends or joining a Zumba or Pilates group. Again we know from research that exercise changes the hormones that are released in your body, decreasing stress hormones and increasing feel good endorphins. What could you try to add into your weekly routine that could increase your activity levels?
Gratitude and Noticing the Positives. Research shows that being able to notice the positives in our lives and being grateful for what we have can increase wellbeing and reduce the risk of developing problems with our mental health. We have a natural ‘negativity bias’ which means that our brain reacts more strongly to negative events than it does to positive events. So we need to put strategies in place to actively notice the positives, to compensate for our brains natural bias. Therefore a daily gratitude practice may be useful, writing down or spending some time thinking every day about what we are grateful for. Surrounding ourselves with reminders of positive events is also important either through keepsakes, photos or reminders in the calendar of positive events coming up to look forward to. It takes frequent small positive experiences and thoughts to counteract our natural responses to negativity. What changes could you make today to become more positive?
Being Mindful. Being mindful is about allowing yourself to be in the present moment, rather than spending time in your head thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Our thoughts, particularly if they are negative, or we are thinking about all of the things we need to do, can take us away from fully experiencing and enjoying what is happening right now. Of course, sometimes we need to think about the future to make plans, and to reflect on the past, but we don’t need to be doing this all of the time. If we spend too much time in our head we are missing out on so much of what is happening right now. Practicing Mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety, increase focus and concentration, and there is a lot of evidence that Mindfulness can prevent recurrent depression and low mood.
It is our responsibility to put positive strategies in place to keep ourselves as mentally well as possible, and reduce the risk of becoming unwell. It is also important to seek help when needed. Using the Mental Health Continuum Model you can assess what your needs are in each moment, and use this as a guide to take the appropriate action. Ask yourself what changes you can make today to improve your mental wellbeing for the next 364 days?
Do feel free to contact me if you are concerned about how you are feeling, or make an appointment with your GP.