As a society we’re well aware of how important our physical health is but tend to brush our mental health aside. Yet at any given time one in six adults have a mental health problem, amounting to an economic cost of £77 billion a year.
We all strive to be happy and want the same for others; yet we tend to cower at the mention of anything to do with mental health. Why is that? In my experience it’s because:
– we’re scared to look too closely – we don’t know what we’ll uncover so we keep things shut away
– we misunderstand mental health – society encourages us to ‘be strong’, not to admit to feeling fear, sorrow or anything negative (which when you know how the brain works, is actually extremely unhelpful)
– we de-prioritize mental health – thinking “I’ll get to it tomorrow, it doesn’t impact my job, life, health as much as other immediate concerns”
– we think it’s common sense so doesn’t need our attention – but on the other hand we don’t know how to behave in a way that’s helpful.
So what’s the answer?
If you follow my blog (and general ranting) you’ll know that my main aim in life is to find answers, unfortunately there’s no quick solution. However, last week a friend and fellow psychologist Louise Jones introduced me to the Mental Health 5 a Day. It isn’t a magic bullet, but it does effectively pull together fundamental aspects of keeping our head healthy.
What is our Mental Health 5 a Day?
Our brain hasn’t evolved for 50,000 years and a fundamental need of our ancient brains is to belong. When we are isolated from other people it has a hugely negative impact on our brains dramatically undermining our well-being. However extensive research shows that social support can dramatically improve our mental health.
What you can do:
- Make a continued effort with your closest friends and family
- Listen and be in the moment with people rather than thinking of what you’re going to say next
- Pick up the phone rather than sending an e-mail
- Speak to someone you may normally rush away from
- Be Active
In 2006 I did a study (Bunce & Murden, 2006) which showed the impact of continued physical activity on protecting the frontal lobe of the brain, the bit that helps us to plan and organize and more importantly to regulate our emotions. Exercise has also been shown to ward off depression, decrease anxiety and rebalance the hormones in our bodies.
What you can do:
- Use the stairs, park your car further away from your destination, get up and move every 45 minutes
- Find an activity which you genuinely enjoy instead of forcing yourself to do something you hate – if you like gardening do that rather than going for a run, and remember that a little everyday is more effective than one big burst
- Set yourself a goal to train for – I recently met an inspiring mum who is doing a ‘white collar boxing match’ to raise money for the mental health charity Mind. Creating a goal that benefits others or even just sets a deadline for ourselves makes it much easier to get active
- Get a fitbit (or similar devise) to raise awareness of how much you’re moving
- Be Mindful
Mindfulness is about connecting with what’s going on around us, taking notice of sounds, scents, sensations and our breathing. Doing this quietens the constant chatter created by the interaction of our ancient brain and the modern world.
Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness, from emotional regulation to body awareness, emotional resilience, pain tolerance, reduction in anxiety, improved focus and heightened cognitive performance (Fox et al., 2014) and enhanced creativity (Colzato et al., 2012). See – more about mindfulness.
What you can do:
- Practice yoga
- Use the headspace app
- Make an effort to notice the sight, sound, smell and tastes you encounter in everyday activities. For example as you’re taking a shower feel the sensation of water on your skin, listen to the sound of the water washing away, feel your feet on the shower floor. You can do this when you’re eating, walking, sitting on the train, cleaning your teeth etc.
- Notice what time frame your mind is in – if you’re thinking about the past or future gently bring your mind back to the present (it’s critical that you are gentle – our mind doesn’t respond well to force).
- Keep Learning
We evolved to be curious beings; it’s one of the things that kept our ancient ancestors alive. Today continued adult learning has been shown to positively impact confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, life-satisfaction, capacity to cope and general well-being (Field, 2012). Learning also helps us to develop social skills, ultimately extending social networks, and promoting tolerance of other people (Schuller et al 2004).
What you can do:
- Watch a Ted Talk
- Ask people about their lives and really listen to what they tell you
- Try a new sport
- Take up a musical instrument
- Learn a new language
- Read, read and read some more or if you don’t like reading try watching and reflecting on everyday life – play the detective to keep your mind mentally agile
- Give to others
While we may seem like a selfish species researchers have found that altruism is ‘hard wired’ into our brain, just not supported by our modern world. Selflessness is closely linked to our well-being triggering the reward mechanisms in the brain. That’s why people such as Bill Gates are so philanthropic – because all the money in the world can’t buy happiness – happiness comes from giving to others.
What you can do:
- Compliment someone
- Say thank you
- Smile at someone you don’t know
- Offer to help
- Do something for charity or get involved in community service
- Let someone in front when you’re driving in busy traffic
- Stand up for someone if others are being unkind or negative
- Include the person who’s always left out
You may find it useful to write down your mental health 5 a day. And remember, although the general principles are globally applicable we’re all different, the individual aspects need to be tailored to what works best for you.
References and links:
Photo courtesy of Liz Waight Photography http://www.elizabethwaight.com
Bunce, D & Murden, F. (2006). Age, aerobic fitness, executive function, and episodic memory. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18(2), 221–233
Colzato, L., Ozturk, A. & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychology. 3, 116 18 April
Fox KC, Nijeboer S, Dixon ML, Floman JL, Ellamil M, Rumak SP, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. (2014) Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. Jun;43:48-73
Field, J. (2012) Is lifelong learning making a difference? Research-based evidence on the impact of adult learning John Field. Pages 887-897 in David Aspin, Judith Chapman, Karen Evans and Richard Bagnall (eds.) Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012
Schuller, T., Preston, J., Hammond, C., Bassett-Grundy, A., and Bynner, J. (2004). The Benefits of Learning: the impacts of formal and informal education on social capital, health and family life, London, Routledge