Over the last couple of years there has been increased attention on mental health issues and how they impact on individuals, their families and friends.
A lot of credit for this focus falls to the younger members of the royal family, who have been willing to talk publicly about their personal experiences. This in turn has encouraged others in the public eye to discuss openly how mental health issues have affected them, with the result being that both mental health and wellbeing should very much be part of a nationwide “conversation”.
A significant change in the general attitude towards mental health has been the examination of exactly what it is. Before recent developments most people – if asked what they thought a mental health issue is – would probably refer to something like psychosis, schizophrenia, bi-polar and anorexia. However, in the current environment, the public’s definition has considerably widened to include stress, anxiety, OCD, phobias, PTSD, substance abuse/addiction, sleep issues and more.
The Mental Health Foundation estimates that 16 million people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, while the UK Government report Thriving at Work¹ found one in four people will be diagnosed with a mental health problem during their lifetime. The same report also pointed out that individuals’ mental health isn’t as simple as ‘well’ vs ‘sick’, rather that it can be anywhere on a continuous loop – from ‘thriving’ through to ‘struggling’/’surviving’ before finally landing on ‘sick’.
So, with this greater awareness of the scope of poor mental health, what is it you do to maintain or improve your mental wellbeing?
Sounds simple – and it can be – but it takes a bit of focus.
Examples of how to do this include:
- understanding how you are feeling and how this is affecting your mood
- keeping a mood diary, which might help you identify situations and triggers that cause problems
- thinking about what might be causing any issues you are having – is it down to stress, money worries, relationships, something at work, etc?
Why take this time to think this way? Often, people fall into problems without fully understanding why, and sometimes a matter they believe they are dealing with or have even “filed away” can still be impacting on their wellbeing.
For example, financial issues could be causing restlessness, which in turn is impacting on mood in work, which in turn is resulting in workplace stress – in this case, workplace stress is a symptom of the financial issue rather than a problem in its own right.
Plus, once you understand the reason for the wellbeing problem you are having, action can be taken – even if some causes of problems may be unfixable, there are ways to cope with them that will lead to better overall wellbeing. Remember – you can only control your controllables.
- working on your self-esteem by encourging positivity in yourself and your attitudes – many people are their own worse critics. Identify people or situations impacting on your self-esteem, and either avoid/lessen them (if you can), or approach them with a different mindset
- avoiding personal negativity – avoid social media, for example, if it is likely to have a negative effect on you
- connecting with your friends and family – talk to people who care for you, as they will provide additional positivity and support
- being more assertive – learn to say no, and take control of your own decisions and how much you do for others. You need to make sure you have energy for yourself before giving it to others – especially if those people are not appreciative, thankful or deserving of it, or reciprocating the same
- setting yourself a challenge – try something new, but be realistic in your goals. Remember you don’t have to be perfect to enjoy yourself, and, no one ever got good at something without struggling/failing a bit to begin with. A new hobby or sport might not only help to lift your mood but may also widen your social circle
In many situations, mental health issues generate feelings of worthlessness and negativity. Therefore, it is important to focus on positivity and the people who love and support you.
There are a number of “self-help” techniques that can aid this,
examples of which follow.
Find something that helps you unwind – take a bath, walk the dog, watch a favourite movie, listen to your music. Disengage from work, people and noise.
Walk in the countryside or a park, spend time in the garden or tend your houseplants, play with your pets. Take the chance to clear your mind, and focus on what you are seeing.
Mindfulness is a therapeutic technique that involves being much more aware of the present moment – both external (in the world around you) and internal (your feelings and thoughts) – rather than thinking about what’s happening tonight/tomorrow/next week/on Facebook or WhatsApp, etc.
It has been reported that practising mindfulness may help you become more aware of your own moods and reactions, but it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.
The key is finding the approach that works for you. There are lots of resources on the internet that can assist you in working on relaxation techniques, and further details on mindfulness can be found on the NHS website (www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness/) and from various mental health charities.
There is also your physical health to think about – neglecting your sleep, exercise and nutritional needs is a sure-fire way of leading to poor mental health. So:
- try to get the sleep you require – if you aren’t, see what you are able to control/fix to make this possible
- avoid self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol – this may feel good/make sense at the time, but the after-effects often outweigh any short-term release, and will not make any underlying issue disappear
- keep active, even if it’s walking – there are established links between exercise and improved mental health
- eat as healthily as you can, prioritising vegetables, fruit and wholegrains over sugar, fat and over-processed foods – feeling low can encourage consumption of junk food, but wholesome food has been found to have clear links with better mental wellbeing. The process of creating such meals can be a good way of utilising mindfulness or relaxing techniques, too, and create a sense of achievement
We all are somewhere on the scale between thriving, surviving and ill – and this changes regularly. Therefore, it is important we all have an awareness of mental health and wellbeing, and how it can be helped or hindered.
By taking this personal control of our mental wellbeing, we can take steps to ensure we stay at the thriving end of the scale. However, we should also be aware that mental health is complex, and we aren’t going to be smashing it every single day. Therefore, should we need it, we should not be afraid of seeking professional help from our GP or other medical practitioner if required. There is help available, so make sure you use it.