There is no denying that quarantine has been tough on everyone. The importance of good mental health is constantly emphasises, but what does this mean?
We search the web for self-care only to find advice about face-masks, candles or my personal favourite advice just to drink more water lol. I don’t know about you, but if I am feeling hopelessly sad/lonely/insert emotion here, a face-mask is not going to act as a miracle cure. And I hate to burst your bubble, but being the most hydrated person on the planet will probably only help your skin, not your mental health.
Ok, ok, it’s all well and good to shit on these suggestions- but what actually works?
Well, I can only tell you about what has worked for me in my pursuit of better mental health, but I genuinely hope at least one of these suggestions works in some small way for someone out there. The suggestions I have listed below make up what I like to call my ‘Mental Health Toolkit’. I like to think of it like Bob the Builder’s tool belt personally. My Mental Health Toolkit is a number of various techniques I can call upon to keep my brain in tip top shape when things get a bit tricky!
So, no time to waste, let’s start with numero uno- vámonos!
1. Some form of exercise/movement practice
Now the connection between our physical and mental health is something I am so passionate about, and I will write another blog post purely dedicated to this. But to put it briefly, scientifically speaking, exercise releases endorphins. I know personally even if I really didn’t feel like doing the exercise to begin with, by the time I finish I feel good! I feel strong and able and like my body is doing what it wants to do. And any form of exercise will work- maybe you are a kareteka, a yoga nut, or you just love a good boogie. It really doesn’t matter. Whatever makes you feel empowered and like you are having a great time will work wonders!
Getting out of our minds and into our body is one of the best things we can do to help navigate tricky emotions. Personally I love to run when I feel stressed or angry. I like to listen to some Xhibit (BURPLE) and pretend I am doing army training embarassingly. It helps me channel that energy into powering through a really hard run and by the time I finish I am smiling. It really is amazing
Meditation is a mysterious thing. Everyone has their own thoughts about what meditation is, and when you try it you realise it was something completely different all along. I always used to think meditation would involve me floating in lotus pose, when in reality it is just me sat down breathing and wondering if my sinuses are blocked.
All jokes aside, I think meditation is helpful for two reasons-
1. Straight up- it’s relaxing
In our modern world we are constantly bombarded with ‘content’ left right and center. So to be able to sit down and just ‘be’ is a real game changer. No matter what style of meditation you do, meditation practice primarily focuses on trying to empty the mind and just breathe. If you are a naturally anxious person, sitting and thinking about nothing for even just 10 minutes can feel like a real respite. We can let go of these crazy thoughts running our head for a little bit.
Furthermore, a lot of meditation focuses on deep breathing. When we breathe deeply we send the message from our body to our brain that we are relaxed (versus that anxious rapid breathing we do when nervous). And when our brain thinks we are relaxed it sends signals to the rest of our body to also relax, meaning we finish our meditation feeling that much calmer.
2. It teaches us how to manage our thoughts.
Meditation focuses on looking at our thoughts pass by in the mind in a detached way. It teaches us we are not our thoughts, and we can chose what we give value to. And this skill of being more mindful about our thoughts is so helpful with mental health. For example, if you have anxiety, it is so easy to allow one unwanted negative thought to spiral and pretty soon you are left a nervous mess. However, if we utilize meditation techniques, we can think- do I want to focus on this thought? No. Ok I know I have the tools to try to let this thought pass instead of ruminating on it for hours.
I personally recommend the Calm app for some beginner friendly meditations to follow!
3. Nature and Mental Health
Scientific studies have proven again and again that being around nature is really beneficial for our mental health. According to the Harvard Medical School greenery helps to reduce levels of “stress, anxiety, and depression”. So get your shoes on, it’s time to get outside! And if you don’t have access the nature in your area why not create your own inside jungle with some house plants.
A fantastic way to utilize three mental health techniques at once is to go for a mindful walk out in nature. ‘Sorry what?’ I hear you ask. A mindful walk is basically just going for a walk out in nature with a total focus on your environment. So this means walking slowly and without outside stimulae like music or chatting. The idea is that you fully take in everything around you. When I first did this I felt sensations in a way I never had before. The wind brushing my hair, the sounds of the leaves crunching as I walked and the rough bark of the trees. It may look super weird to feel up some trees when you are walking, but give it a go- it might change the way you view things
4. Journaling or talking about your feelings with a real-life human
It is one of those cliches that really is true; talking about our feelings helps. We cannot sit there like a pressure cooker full of unspoken grievances and unresolved feelings without eventually blowing up. And I get that you might either have no-one to talk to, or, you might not want to talk to anyone around you about these things. But journaling is a fantastic way to talk about these emotions without anyone else ever having to know.
There is something about putting a pen to paper that seems to make everything make more sense. When I write things down, suddenly a thought that has been spinning round my head all day, slows to a stop. The thought has been documented and its like suddenly it can leave. I don’t know why this is, or whether this happens to other people, but its like when you write it down your brain can relax and forget about it.
And more than anything, talking or writing about your feelings validates them. So often we tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel a certain way, maybe it feels like we are being weak, or it’s embarrassing. But having the space to say how you authentically feel is so important. By expressing our emotions we are saying how I feel is important and it is valid, and this is a vital step to good mental health.
5. Getting enough sleep
“Sleep feels so boring. Why waste time sleeping when you could be doing something productive with your time. Pffff of course it doesn’t affect me at all. I can survive on 4 hours of sleep perfectly. Yes I did just forget this very vital thing but that is irrelevant”… Sound familiar?
This used to be me. I was convinced I was just someone who really didn’t need a lot of sleep and that it didn’t affect me, but how wrong I was.* I decided to read ‘Why We Sleep’ by Mathew Walker and I was dumfounded. As I had got older I had began to feel the creeping effects of my poor nighttime habits on my eating, my work performance and my athletic ability, but I had never thought about its effects on my mental health.
*shockingly my consumption of caffeine did not serve as a hint for me.
In ‘Why We Sleep’ Walker talks about how a lack of sleep can create greater extremes in our moods. It is common knowledge that not getting enough sleep can make us a bit grumpy. Having greater sleep vitally allows us to think more clearly and rationally about… everything really, even our feelings. Sometimes when we haven’t had enough sleep it is really easy to catastrophize. You begin to think maybe because someone didn’t say hello, that obviously this must mean everyone secretely hates you….obviously.
And then you have a nap and realise you were being a bit dramatic. There is a reason your mum tells you everything is better after a good nights sleep!
6. A gratitude practice
I know I know gratitude….
But in all seriousness gratitude is so important, so much so, gratitude practices are now used in CBT therapy. And there is a reason why. So much of how is experience the world is through our mindset. Yes, its not quite as simple as this, but by actively trying to think about the things you like and what you are thankful for gives you a better perspective over the slightly more shitty elements.
Of course, this is not about invalidating what you feel, sometimes we all feel discouraged, or upset or even angry. And we are allowed to feel that way. However, no-one wants to stay in those emotional states once these feelings have passed. It is easy to sometimes fall into a hole of negative thinking where your day just appears to get worse and worse. And a gratitude practice is a quick and easy way to get out of that funk.
Gratitude practises are easy to start. For example it could be as simple as finding one thing you are thankful for each day. And this act of thinking about everything we can be grateful for is great for our mental health. It can help us put things into perspective, or just put a smile on our face.
If this interests you why not check out my other blog about gratitude and Covid-19 here!
7. Trying new things
There is a lot to be said about what we can learn about ourselves when we escape our comfort zone. Personally, I loved to do this way through travelling solo but uh….. unsurprisingly this has become slightly more challenging in a national lockdown. That is, unless going to the bathroom alone is super scary. So I have had to improve, adapt and overcome.
I have taken this time to do the things I always told myself I couldn’t. I was always really bad at exercising, so I gave myself the challenge of learning how to run. At first it was fucking horrible, but as I pushed through and got better and better, I felt so proud. Trying new things and realizing I had completed this task that I had told was impossible, was so empowering. And this sense of power gives us the confidence to tackle other areas of our life, which if you are an anxious person, is a really important skill to have.
And new challenges don’t have to mean setting a physical goal. It could be setting the goal to become really good at cooking Vietnamese food, or to learn how to code, or even just to become kinder to ourselves. It really doesn’t matter what it is. Learning these new skills empowers us and teaches us so much about ourselves along the way!
8. Helping others
I am aware this one is significantly more difficult when we are basically only legally allowed in our houses (aside from essential needs). So this means volunteering at most charities is off the list currently. But this doesn’t mean we can’t give back in other ways. We could donate money or goods like old clothes to charities, we could give a friend who is struggling a phone-call, or we could even just make dinner for your housemates. Giving back is not a one-size fits all. Whatever we do, is not only beneficial for the person you are helping but to yourself.
Studies have found giving back to your community helped alleviate stress in people, and even boost their self -esteem. There is a saying ‘people with self-esteem do estimable things’. We feel good when we do things that we are proud of. So give your nan a ring, or put some cans in the food bank in the supermarket, do something that makes you proud 💖
9. Feeding your body well
I have been known to say that not eating enough fruits and veggies made me grumpy. This admittedly sounds so stupid, but I felt very vindicated when I learnt this was actually based in science.
And food is just the start of feeding our body. It is time to look at what you are letting into your life, whether it be the people around you or the media you consume. Our mind in a way is like precious garden with a big gate around it. When we watch something, or talk to someone we are opening the gate door to allow them freely into our mind space. We hope everyone will help to water the flowers and weed the garden, but some people litter.
For example, ‘Doomscrolling’ has become a new word in this pandemic for a reason. If you spend all your time voraciously reading these horrifying articles about how the world is ending, unsurprisingly it doesn’t do a great deal of good for your mental well-being.
Or maybe this litter is caused by certain people in your life. If you consistently leave interactions with someone feeling bad, unheard, or frustrated maybe this is a sign they are not a great person to be around. Sometimes our friends are really not our friends at all.
At some point, we need to accept that we control what, or who, we allow into our lives, and if these things make us feel shitty, maybe we need to be more careful what we let inside our garden.
Mental health is not static. Good mental health is not something that some people are born with and continue to gleefully have in their lives without ever having to do any work. Life is difficult sometimes, and it is completely normal to have an ebb and flow of emotions. And to maintain good mental health takes practice, work and perseverance. And this is why I cannot stress enough the importance of having a mental health toolkit. Maybe yours looks way different than mine, and that is great- whatever works for you is perfect!
It’s a great feeling to know that if you feel a certain way, you have all these techniques in your belt to help you out of your funk. Maybe it takes a while and you have to keep on persuing things without an immediate impact, but over time little by little I promise it will help.
Song of the day is ‘Girl from Ipanema’- it always make me feel so calm and content!
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