You've probably noticed by now that this week has been Mental Health Awareness Week. Social, online, and traditional media have been awash with people telling us that 'it's ok not to be ok' and various celebrities speaking out about their own mental health difficulties. I wanted to write this post at the start of the week, however, I have been taking the time to look after my own mental health, predominantly by trying to strike a better work-life balance.
This year's theme has been kindness and I chose to focus on channeling kindness inwards, by prioritising my own self-care this week. What has that looked like? Mostly being boundaried with my time, so fewer evening appointments, more time spent outdoors, more Jo Wicks and the odd bit of baking...all the things that seem to have slipped during the past couple of weeks. Time appears to be even more precious living in lockdown. With no clear transitional spaces between work, school and home, it is so easy for these boundaries to become blurred...which means less time available for self-care, including having fun!
Mental health, like physical health, is something we all have and just like a car it requires constant care and attention in order to run smoothly. There isn't one thing that we can do in isolation to maintain our mental health; it is a careful balancing act involving a healthy diet, exercise, sleep, connection and a sense of purpose in life. Of course even if you pay attention to all of these areas you can still suffer from poor mental health and some people are more susceptible to episodes of poor mental health than others. Life changing events, trauma, loss and medical conditions can all result in mental health difficulties and seeking support from trained medical health professionals is often needed, particularly when you feel you are no longer able to manage your mental health by yourself.
I'm going to keep this short as you will have had so many 'top mental health tips' thrown at you this week. However, I do want to just list the ones that I find most effective below:
A balanced diet - I say balanced rather than 'good' as we all need little treats in our lives from time to time. The things I have found to have a definite positive impact on my own mental health have been eating oily fish such as salmon, tuna or mackerel several times a week, switching white rice/bread for wholegrain or brown, adding spinach and avocado to meals and snacking on whole almonds. Magnesium, found in green veg and almonds and omega- 3 (oily fish) plays a critical role in brain function and mood. The healthy, high-fiber carbohydrates found in whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and whole-wheat pasta help the body release serotonin, the “feel-good” chemical in your brain. Increased magnesium in your diet can also improve your quality of sleep.
Drink more water and cut back on alcohol - water hydrates our bodies and leads to improved cognitive functioning. Scientific research has shown that the greater the water consumption, the better the mood. Tension, depression, and confusion scores went down when water intake went up. Although alcohol improves how we feel in the short term, it is actually a depressant which means that after the initial high you are likely to experience higher levels of anxiety and low mood the next day. Cutting back or cutting out alcohol altogether can have a drastic impact for those who suffer from generalised anxiety.
Sleep - a positive and consistent sleep routine is essential for good mental health. Depriving your body of sleep by staying up late to binge on Netflix (easily done) or looking at your phone just before going to bed, can cause you to feel physically unwell as well as stressed and anxious and scientists also believe it contributes to heart disease and premature aging. Avoiding tea and coffee after midday, trying to go to bed at the same time each night and turning off all blue light devices at least an hour before bed, are all little changes you can make to help improve your sleep. If you are struggling to sleep ongoing then it is important to seek help from your GP.
Exercise - this is even more important now that most of us are confined to the house for large periods of time. Exercise can have a huge impact on mental health and many people use activities such as running as a means of managing depression and anxiety. It is also highly effective for those living with ADHD or trying to overcome an addiction. Physical activity relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy, and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins.
Connection - this can mean different things to many people. Feeling connected and supported is an essential component to good mental health and connection to self is just as important as connection to others. In fact it is vital to positive self-esteem and confidence. Improving our ability to connect to ourselves involves kindness and acceptance of who we are; the good and the bad. This often starts with the acceptance from those around us, which is why connection to the right people is also important. Those who put you down or constantly judge you will prevent you from ever being able to positively connect to yourself. Positive connection can also be achieved by spending time outdoors or with animals. This is especially true for some people on the Autistic Spectrum who may find connection with people overwhelming and exhausting. I believe that connection is a very individual experience and identifying the kind of connection and support that is right for you is an important component of maintaining good mental health.
Life goals - having a sense of purpose in life is another important ingredient in preserving good mental health. Having a defined role, setting goals or having a rough idea of what you want to do and achieve in life creates a framework to work towards and a sense of direction and purpose. People's mental health tends to take a nosedive when this sense of purpose is taken away from them. Life-changing situations when this may take place include when a loved one dies and you are forced to face a change in role within the family, when you lose a job or are made redundant or when adult children leave the family home. When trying to establish life goals it is important to strike a balance and the key word here is that they need to feel achievable. Unachievable and unrealistic goals create pressure and stress and contribute negatively to mental health. Life goals can be as simple as learning a new skill, creating a vegetable patch in the garden or offering your free time to volunteer for a good cause.
So as you head into the long, Bank Holiday weekend remember to be kind to yourself and others and it's ok to reach out if you are struggling and need support. In fact it is completely normal!