Maintaining good mental health is something that many of us are having to think about. The World Health organisation said in 2012 that more than 350 million people of all ages are suffer from depression. However, being mentally healthy involves more than just looking after our minds.
There are 4 different areas to consider:
1) Physical Health
2) Mental Activities
4) Bigger questions in life
Firstly, our physical health: To have a healthy mind we also need to have a healthy body. Our society draws a false dichotomy between the body and the mind, but the two areas are so closely linked that one will naturally affect the other. When I am anxious I will get butterflies in my stomach. When I am hungry I am more likely to find it hard to concentrate or get snappy at people. One naturally impacts the other.
There are certain things that people will talk about to support our physical health.
a) Getting Enough Sleep
b) Eating Healthily
c) Getting Physical Exercise
d) Having Routines
These things also help our mental health.
The average adult needs between 7-10 hours of sleep per night but few of us remember what it means to be truly rested. This means turning off electronic devices, making the room dark. having the right temperature in the room, getting up at a reasonable time and going to bed at a reasonable time. It’s a good idea not to have cat naps during the day as they can make it hard to get back to sleep at a reasonable time.
Now I am guilty of checking my phone late at night and my husband is always telling me off about it. I recently heard a talk by a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. He had this to say, “with using our mobile phones late at night, we are streaming photons into our eyes, telling ourselves, it’s time to stay awake, it’s not sleep time yet. So we’re awake at 10pm, 11pm, 12am. We are telling our brains not to secrete melatonin yet- it’s not time to sleep and we keep checking Facebook, or playing games, checking emails.
When we get up at 6am- we haven’t gotten enough rest. The reason we need 7-10 hours is because it gives our active neurones a chance to rest, but more than that, it gives the chance for the supportive cells called Glial cells time to clean up the toxins that the neurons produced during the day. If we don’t get 7-10 hours sleep the toxins remain.
As a result our attention falters, memory becomes impaired, the ability to think through problems is challenged, your insulin even is turned upside down which controls your metabolism so you are more likely to gain weight when you eat and you are more likely to eat more. And it is toxic to the connections in your brains- so shut off your screens at 9pm!’
Next with Physical Health is Eating well. This means seeing food as fuel. What we put into our bodies effects how we concentrate, whether we get spikes of energy, whether we crash. Sweets and fatty foods can trigger the same pleasure centres in the brain as addictive drugs do. They make us feel good for a little while but in the end they do us more harm that good. In 2014 a study of more that 4,000 students in New Zealand found that a high-quality diet was associated with better mental health and a low-quality diet was associated with poor mental health.
Thirdly, the need for Exercise. Research has shown that exercise releases chemicals in your brain called endorphines that make you feel good. It can boost your self esteem by achieving new skills and goals, help concentration as well as sleep. It helps with us looking good and feeling better too. Taking part in a form of exercise is a great way to deal with frustration and anger. Some people talk about being able to tune out to the cares of the world while they exercise.
Now for those of us who struggle with anxiety, professionals often talk about relaxation techniques helping with the anxiety, but for 15% of people it works the other way and they get more anxious. Exercise is a great alternative for those people.
Finally in this area we need to look at routines. If we keep routines going it can help with muscle memory and keeps us doing some of the other things mentioned. If we have a routine for going to bed and for when we get exercise our bodies get used to expecting those things and can keep us doing them even when we don’t feel like we can.
The next area to look at is our MENTAL ACTIVITIES
There are ways that we can focus our attention and improve our mental health. One of the big areas is that of Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a big field and each counsellor or therapist will pick up on different aspects of it. Part of mindfulness is slowing down the mind to think about each action it is performing. So you can be mindful entering a room and thinking about sitting somewhere before you sit down. You can imagine how you will feel sitting somewhere before you do it.
You can be mindful in your breathing. You can sit and concentrate on breathing in and out, slowly like in yoga. While you are breathing it’s not unusual for thoughts to come into your head. With mindfulness you are encouraged to notice the thought but not to pass judgement on it. To look at the thought like it’s a train coming into a station. You let it come in and let it go out again. And bring your focus back on your breathing. It’s trying to take time to slow the mind and let it relax.
Another aspect of mindfulness is staying in the moment. It’s not unusual for us, when we focus on the past, to think more about the negative things that have happened. It’s much rarer to look back at the past and think of the good things that have happened. We tend to stew or brewed on things.
For example, I’m off to a party. And I am thinking about all the past parties I have been to where I have been tongue tied, or had an awkward conversation. Instead with mindfulness I try to focus just on what is going on in front of me. What is happening right now? Is there someone I could be getting into a good conversation with? is there something going on at the party that I could join in… or am I dwelling on all the negatives and stopping myself from enjoying what is happening now.
Often when we thing about the future we think about the things that might happen and get ourselves worked up. Say I am going for a job interview. I would usually think: what if I don’t get an interview? What if I get an interview and it goes really badly? What if I don’t have an answer to the question? Again if I change my focus and think about now it stops me panicking and working myself up into a state.
Being mindful takes practice. It isn’t natural straight away and can feel quite strange at first but it is a really helpful thing to practice. Mindfulness is the opposite to multitasking. Mindfulness involves slowing down and focusing on one thing at time, multitasking is the opposite.
Secondly, Mirror Neurons. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the 90’s when a team of Italian researchers found individual neurones in the brains of Macaque monkeys that fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object. Watching an action and performing the action can activate the same parts of the brain. Studies have since have been performed on humans and discovered similarly that the areas of the brain that watching an action and performing an action can activate similar parts of the brain. There is a theory that this is why second or third siblings pick things up faster than the oldest. They have watched and as a result have already lay pathways for that particular action.
From this information it’s important for us to think about what and who we are watching, listening to, and reading because we may be responding to it like it happened to us. For example, I may be watching a movie with depressed characters like in “the skeleton twins”. The premise of the movie is that the two main characters are unhappy with their lives and can’t see a way out. What I am doing is laying pathways through my “mirror neurons” that lead me to think I’m in that situation. So if I am watching these movies I am more likely to think “I am not happy, and can’t see a way out”. It’s the same for the books we read.
Since finding out about mirror neurons I’m working harder to think about the types of movies I watch, the books I read, and the music I listen to. It’s a relatively new area of science but one that indicates the stimuli we put into our brains effects how we think and act.
Thirdly, there is a movement in the States called the “thankfulness movement”. Every day they find 10 things to be thankful for and I’m all for it. It’s a way of setting pathways in our brains of being grateful for what we have rather than saying ‘Why me?’ It involves setting down positive connections rather than negative ones.
I watched a friend of mine practice thankfulness every morning for four years while we studied together. No matter what was going on for her she was always thankful for her blessings. She could always see the good in things and I would say it helped her get though some pretty difficult times. Sometimes she was thankful for the smallest things, a sunny day, getting out of bed, washing her hair. Kikki K has caught onto the idea by having a thankful book, where you write 3 things you’re thankful for each day.
Mental Illness makes it really hard to connect with other people. Anxiety and depression make us want to shut down and remove ourselves from friends or family. We either find it too hard or we think they won’t understand us, or we get caught up in what is happening to/for us.
As humans we are made for relationships. We are social creatures, made for deep connections with others. Relationships help us to stay other person centred, they help us to be more productive, they help us to feel more connected and cared for.
Hugh McKay is his book “The Good Life” asks what makes a life worth living? His answer is that a good life is determined by our capacity for selflessness and our willingness to connect with those around us in a meaningful and useful way.
For me, I feel most grounded and connected with my Bible Study Group. With them I am honest, and real. I can pray for them and know what is going on for them as well. It makes a huge difference or me and for them. We didn’t meet for about a month for various reasons and when we met again it was such a good reminder how important those real relationships are. Meeting with friends on a regular basis, and checking in with each other as to how we are really going.
THE BIGGER QUESTIONS:
Finally I would like to mention asking the bigger questions of life. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is it all about? Different religions have their answers. Studies have shown that having a religion is good for our mental health because it provides the answer to these questions.
Some Psychologists talk about the ’empty void’. They see people engage strategies so we don’t have to think about what is beyond the superficial in life. We distract ourselves so we don’t have to think about what lies beneath. We distract ourselves so we don’t have to feel that uncomfortable feeling of emptiness at working out why we are here? Two Psychologists, Clinton and Selby, talk about love being the answer to these questions. Both being loved and loving others are the reason we are here.
So my tips are – take care of your physical health. Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Ask yourself, ‘Am I putting food in my mouth that we be good for my body and mind?’, ‘Am I getting enough exercise?’ and ‘Do I have a regular routine?’
When it comes to my mind, can I practice mindfulness techniques? Can I practice being in the moment, concentrating more on the now rather than things that upset me from the past, or things that make me nervous in the future? What am I reading, watching, doing? What messages are my mirror neurons receiving? Am I laying pathways down for love and joy or self pity and misery? Am I able to see things that I am thankful for? Can I practice finding 10 things to be thankful for each day? Am I still working at friendships and relationships, even on days when I think it’s too hard? Am I willing to be real with my friends? And finally have I considered my purpose in life? Why am I here and what is it all about? If we are able to work at doing these things they go a long way to maintaining good mental health.
Narelle works as a counsellor for Perth Counselling Service in Northbridge. The information above is for a talk given to group of women asking about maintaining good mental health. Should you be reading this article and struggling with your own mental health please see your GP or a counsellor recommended to you.