Taking care of our mental health is, in my view, the most important responsibility each of us have. The reason is that our mental health is the foundation on which the quality of our life is built. With poor mental health everything is compromised including the ability to have healthy relationships, earn a good living and to enjoy life.
One of the biggest misconceptions about mental health issues is that they arise with no cause. I hear it in the counselling room a lot. Clients often say something like “My childhood was great and everything in my life is going well, I just can’t understand why I feel like this.”
It is confusing for people because they’ve done everything society asked of them but are still not happy. The painful truth is that following societies norms very often does not lead to happiness. In fact it often results in a whole lot of stress and disillusionment.
The fact is that very few of us were taught how to take care of our mental health. We left school knowing how to say “Mister, where is the hotel?” in French but not knowing how to express anger constructively or maintain healthy boundaries.
Given that there was so little education about how to maintain good mental health it is no wonder that so many people are struggling currently. The good thing is that there are some simple activities that can make a big positive difference.
Our mind is in a sense our primary home. It is the lens through which we experience life. If our mental health deteriorates the quality of our life does too. So we need to take care of this home, and keep the lens clear so we can lead the life of happiness and fulfilment that we desire.
If you don’t feel good at the moment or are experiencing mental health issues try some of the suggestions below. They can help you to feel much better.
1. Find people who you can be authentic with
One of the biggest sources of mental ill health is hiding who we really are. Many of us have learned throughout our life that it is not safe to say what we really feel and think. We’ve received messages that we have to be a certain way to retain the love and respect of those around us.
While this can be a very good strategy at times, it can lead to a huge amount of frustration, anger and disengagement. We end up never saying what we really think, or asking for what we really want or doing the things we wish to.
What’s more, it can be a very isolating position to be in. If we never show people how we think or feel we never truly connect with people. No-one knows who we are because we have never shown them. They are interacting with a façade. In this way it is hard to feel accepted by others. The fear is always there that if they did know who I really was then they would reject me.
The façade can be so pervasive that at times we may not even know what it would look like to be authentic. We may know that we are not being authentic but not be in touch with what we really think, feel and desire. It is easy to see that in this state, depression can easily take hold.
All this means that it is so important to have at least one or two people in our lives who we can be completely honest with. It could be a partner, a friend, a support group, a mentor or a counsellor.
To be able to tell someone your fears, your dreams, your thoughts, your worries, your opinions and know that they accept you in all your messy inconsistency is so healing. Such people are like gifts in your life, so find them and use them deeply.
Meditation has been used by many cultures to keep people well for over 2000 years. More recently, numerous studies have shown that meditation can reduce stress, improve well-being, increase happiness and reduce mental health issues.
The gold standard would be to meditate twice a day for 30 minutes. Ideally this would be done once in the morning and once in the evening. This may be unrealistic for some so aim to do whatever you can. Every minute you meditate will improve the quality of your mental health so even a few minutes here and there is worth doing.
A very simple way to start is to sit in a comfortable upright position and follow your breathing. You can place a hand on your stomach and feel it rise with the in breath and fall with the out breath. If it helps you can say “in” to yourself on the in breath and “out” to yourself on the out breath.
A myriad of thoughts will inevitably arise to take your attention away from the breath and this is fine. It happens to everyone. As best you can notice when this happens and say “thinking” to yourself before returning your attention to the rise and fall of the stomach. Set an alarm for a duration you feel comfortable with and enjoy your sitting!
This same practice can be used to release stress during the day. If you get a spare minute between activities you can stop and enjoy a few abdominal breaths. Pausing like this helps to let go of the residue of each activity before beginning the next one. You can start afresh and prevent stress from building up throughout the day.
The metaphor is that if you don’t dip your paint brush into clean water before changing colours the brush will become murky and the painting will become messy. Likewise if you do not refresh your mind regularly it can very quickly become tired and murky and life can become messy too!
Regular exercise is crucial to maintain good mental health. The old phrase “healthy body, healthy mind” is very relevant here. Recent studies have shown that the nearest thing to a cure all is to take a brisk 30 minute walk each day. It reduces anxiety, depression, stress, blood pressure, risk of cancer, risk of heart disease and many other issues. And it’s free!
Throughout the day lots of nervous energy can build up in us and become trapped in the body. Stress, frustration, adrenalin etc can all cause havoc if not released. Over time unreleased energy like this can lead to anxiety disorders, panic disorders and insomnia. So it’s very important to find a way to discharge these energies from the body. Exercise is a great way to do this.
The first kind of exercise which can help is cardio-vascular. This is anything that gets your heart pumping fast like running, swimming, dancing and brisk walking. Many competitive team sports will include a cardio element as well.
Many people report feeling much better after a session of cardio. It helps to release excess energy stored in the body as well as to release feel good hormones into the brain. It’s recommended to do three 30 minute spells of cardio exercise each week.
A different kind of exercise which can help is flexibility and gentle movement. This includes yoga, pilates, tai-chi and similar activities. These exercises help to release stress from the body by stretching the muscles or moving the body gently.
Sometimes people can get a build up of tension in certain areas of the body such as the shoulders or behind the knees. Stretching and gentle movement helps to loosen these areas and leave them feeling more relaxed. For good mental health an exercise routine would involve cardio as well as some stretching/gentle movement each week.
4. Spend time in nature
There’s no two ways about it, being in nature is healing. People have long sought refuge in nature to receive her benefits. Residents of Glasgow used to escape the smothering city by going walking in the mountains. Fishermen use the rod as an excuse to dwell in nature for hours. Golfers too enjoy the sport but come back refreshed from hours in the countryside or by the sea.
To sit even for five or ten minutes in nature can change the quality of your day. You might want to turn off your phone or at least put it away and look at the trees for a while. Look at the way the sun light plays on the leaves or how the they sway gently in the wind. It is so calming and soothing on the mind to do this.
Water too is a great healer. If you can, take some time to sit by a pond, river or the sea and let your eyes rest on the moving water. This is a great tonic for restoring a frayed mind. It can help turn a bad day into a good one and a good one into a belter!
While it is advisable to get deep into nature as often as you can there is nature almost everywhere to connect to. I live in an urban area but on my way home there are plenty of trees around. Just being aware of them and letting them meet my eyes on my way home can improve my mood significantly.
5. Improve your emotional awareness
This is a big one and probably a lifetime’s work but it is so important. Much of the time we are experiencing a whole range of emotions but we are not aware of it. Every emotion that arises in the body has an impact on us even if we don’t notice it.
Over time unrecognised emotion is stored in the body as repressed energy and can build up leading to a hugely pressurised internal environment. This is often the hidden cause of many mental health issues.
This occurs because as children we were taught that it was not OK to feel certain emotions. In some families anger was not allowed, in others you may have been taught not to feel sadness. As a child of course you obeyed because you needed to retain the affection of your parents.
But all of us feel anger and sadness as well as the full range of other emotions. All the anger that you felt or all the sadness that you felt has to go somewhere. If not dealt with constructively it gets repressed in our bodies and ends up wreaking havoc with our nervous system.
One of the best ways to begin to improve emotional awareness is to begin to accept that it is healthy to have a rich emotional life. Emotions are there for a reason and they can help us achieve our goals in life.
Anger, for example, has evolved to help us set healthy boundaries and to defend ourselves. If we cut off our anger and our ability to defend ourselves we can become weak and passive. The other unfortunate thing is that if we repress our anger we also repress our ability to feel happiness and joy.
A simple exercise to do is to recognise when an emotion is present in us. We can acknowledge it by naming it when it arises. So if we are hurt we can simply note to ourselves “hurt is present in me” or if we notice jealousy we can say “there is jealousy in me just now”.
This emotions inventory www.cnvc.org/training/resource/feelings-inventory is a great tool to help develop emotional awareness. You can look through it at the end of the day and spot which emotions you felt but didn’t have the time to acknowledge.
Doing this helps to avoid the build up of repressed energy and begins to teach ourselves that it is OK to have these emotions.
The takeaway is that to take care of your mental health is one of the most valuable things you can do with your time. Please don’t wait until things deteriorate towards a diagnosis before taking action. If you take good care of your body and mind now you can significantly reduce the chances of ever having such difficulties.
So get out there and be authentic, meditate, exercise, spend time in nature and develop your emotional awareness. Doing so will improve all aspects of your life. What’s more your friends and family will benefit hugely from having someone around who is healthy, happy and well.