Mental health is a huge topic and there are many incredibly different ways in which each of us can come to have either good or bad mental health. This advice cannot adequately address underlying chemical or neurological reasons why someone may have a serious condition such as clinical depression, phobia or personality disorders, and people suffering such conditions will obviously need medical help.
What I want to look at are some of the ways in which we can all improve our wellbeing and mental health, both in terms of prevention and of strategies when we are struggling.
- Balance the present with the future. “Mindfulness” is about living in the moment, noticing how you feel NOW, and taking time to reflect and breathe while focusing on the present. But many people with anxiety and negative stress also forget that the future holds the hope that “I will not feel like this one day.” So, although taking time to notice our present feelings is important, it’s equally important to remind ourselves that one day soon today will be history. Everything passes. The rawness of today’s pain becomes a mere memory and that memory fades.
- Know where your support is. In these days of social media, we arguably have too many “friends”. But how many of these “friends” actually care about us? We need to know who they are so that we can turn to them when we need support. Last week, a very stressful thing happened to me, which really rocked me. It was such a help to be able to message two friends about it immediately, followed over the next few days by a couple of others. They helped me put it in perspective. And I watched my emotional response reduce over those days, noting the difference in how much and how painfully I was reacting. Now, six days later, I’m barely thinking about it and I can hardly believe how upset I was before!
- Make time-out. Today’s world is so busy, so noisy, so very frenetic. Switch off from external demands – particularly from the internet or your smartphone – at least once very day. Hear the silence. Feel your heart rate slow.
- Know your own needs. Some people (extroverts) love socialising; others (introverts) need quiet time. Think about the things you enjoy doing and make sure you do enough of them. Feeling down/exhausted/stressed? Make a list of things you’d love to do and see which of them you can do straightaway or as soon as possible.
- Set realistic goals. Perfection is not a realistic goal but it’s one many of us set ourselves without thinking. If you’re doing that, you’re doomed to failure. You’re setting yourself up to feel bad about yourself.
- Learn to breathe well. When we’re tense, we tend to breathe in a shallow way, high up in our chest. Try “belly-breathing” when you want to reduce your heart rate and stress levels. There’s a free audio here.
- Do one thing at a time. If you think you can multi-task, you’re wrong. It’s well established that if you focus on one thing you’ll do it better and faster than if you try to flit between activities. It’s also known that if you have your phone beside you (or your social media pages open on your computer) it acts as a small distraction, even if no message comes. Switch it off and remove from sight; do your piece of work; and then reward yourself with a look at your social media! You’ll feel the benefit, trust me.
- Foster a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed” one. Carol Dweck is the pioneer of this concept. A fixed mindset says “I’m not good at this – I can’t succeed at it”; a growth mindset says, “If I want to succeed at this I probably could, by doing X, Y and Z.” It’s about valuing effort more than innate talent – and I’m certainly one of those who believes that we are good at those things we have practised more, rather than having been born with a talent.
- Give and you will receive. There’s loads of evidence that doing something for someone else increases the wellbeing of the person doing the giving. It can be as small as saying something nice about someone, smiling at them as you hold a door, carrying a heavy bag for someone who looks as though they’re carrying too much, giving up your seat on a bus. Next time you have any interaction with a stranger – buying something in a shop, for example – try a smile and see what it does for you! I bet you’ll get a little buzz of positivity and you might even get a smile back. Humansare wired to respond well to things like that.
- Read for pleasure. There’s no better way to switch off from whatever’s bothering you. Read the science about this here and my list of benefits of reading for pleasure here.
Take control and learn to live well in our stressful world!