In the last couple of years the world has had a serious mental health wake up call. Barely a day passes now without a news article or social media post drawing attention to a problem that has existed since time began but has gone largely unnoticed.
Let’s make no mistake. Mental Illness has been a big problem for a number of years. What is driving the change in attitudes now is likely a greater awareness brought about because some very high profile individuals have spoken out and a greater understanding of the financial and personal costs of poor mental health. Regardless of the reasons, a greater awareness of our mental wellness and willingness to discuss it more openly can only be a positive thing in terms of wellbeing.
Mental Health or Mental illness?
I do think however that it is very important to make a distinction between mental illness and mental health. We tend not to use the word mental illness because it is surrounded by Stigma, substituting it for “mental health problems”. Unfortunately this muddies the water a little so let me set out how I see the language.
Mental health is something we all have. It is part of our overall health, separated at some point in time in medical terms, and governs how we think and feel about ourselves. The homeostatic place for our mental capacity is that we fluctuate gently between a range of emotions in a socially accepted response to a range of stimulus from the outside world. If for whatever reason the homeostasis is disrupted and a particular emotion starts to predominate we may start to behave in a way that is not considered socially normal or acceptable (I use this definition because, after all, who defines what normal is!). We may become irrational, withdrawn or even psychotic. At this point we are becoming mentally ill.
Mental health and Physical health
Like physical health, there are aspects of your mental health that are utterly beyond your control. Equally there are aspects of mental health that are influenced by lifestyle and adopting a healthier approach can reap benefits.
Of all the pillars of wellbeing, mental health is the one I have spent the most time contemplating, researching and engaging with. My understanding and opinion is ever changing but one of the things I feel most confident in asserting is that time spent figuring out what makes you tick is rarely time wasted.
What follows therefore is not a rule book or magic formula for zen level contentment. It is simply a collection of ideas that may help you to develop positive mental health.
1. Understand your own mental health
I am a firm believer that self awareness is the most important aspect of changing your mental health. For many of us, the first time we will become aware of our mental health is when it becomes a problem. Taking time to think about what makes you tick first however could help you to identify where your possible triggers may lie and help you to avoid them in the first place. This may seem like quite an overwhelming task but there are plenty of resources out there that can help. In his book, The Chimp Paradox, professor Steve Peters discusses the relationships between various parts of our brain that govern emotional and rationality thinking and how these develop in response to our experiences. I found it an extremely useful way to explore and understand my own psychology as the basis of my mental health.
Without understanding, your efforts at training are potentially shots in the dark. When we first visit a gym, we may have no idea of where our strengths and weaknesses lie. Once we’ve pumped a bit of weight or stepped out on the treadmill we will have a clearer idea and this can help to focus our training.
As a side note, I’m not sponsored to promote anyone’s work or product. I happened to find this book particularly useful but I acknowledge it may not be for everyone and there are a raft of other resources out there that may be equally useful.
2. Balance activity with rest
Any athlete will tell you that the harder you train, the more rest you require. Its a simple balance of Yin and Yang. When it comes to resting mentally I find people are generally less aware of what constitutes rest. TV for example is rarely relaxing. It is usually emotive or stimulating. After all, it is designed to entertain. We could be lulled into thinking we are resting because our bodies aren’t moving however all the while however our brains are ticking away, processing the information.
In my humble opinion, 21st century human beings are over stimulated. Information is fired at us left right and centre and for many, we have simply lost the art of being still. Because of this I strongly recommend developing a mindfulness practise. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows us to focus on what is happening right now as oppose to past or future events. It sounds simple enough but once you engage in a mindful practise you will be astonished at how much time is spent thinking in either past or future terms. If you need anymore convincing the mainstream media are frequently bestowing its benefits as seen in this well balanced article.
Mindfulness can help us to give the mind a break and in time that will become more than just something we do for ten minutes a day. It becomes a skill to manage some of the more difficult aspects of life.
3. Don’t expect overnight results
This is another casualty of our modern world where we no longer have to wait for anything. Our expectations have moved, often unrealistically. If I want to develop 32” biceps its going to take time. If I am recovering from a shoulder injury, its going to take even longer. Patience is the key. Its harder because we struggle to see the results however in time, if we stick with it we will start to feel the results.
4. Consider how the other pillars of wellbeing influence your mental health
This really harks back to my first post introducing the four pillars of wellbeing. Ultimately, wellness is not held up by one aspect of health. If we want to be resilient we will want to stand our wellbeing on four Saturday pillars, each of which is helping the load of the other. It can help us to consider our health in individual terms but there is plenty of cross over. For example, how we eat can have an effect on our mental health as seen in this link from MIND.
Mental health can affect sleep and sleep can affect mental health. The best way to approach your mental health is to sit down with a piece of paper and think about various aspects of lifestyle and how they may be affecting you. A few key areas to think about could be sleep routine, social media use, alcohol and caffeine consumption. This is by no means exhaustive but is a nice starting point.
Remember, we are all individuals
This reminds me of my favourite line in life of Brian where the entire crowd repeat this sentence. There is a tendency to think of our health in a one size fits all model. My training and career as a holistic therapist has taught me that no two people are truly alike. We all bring subtle differences so whilst I very much advocate open and honest conversation about mental health with the sharing of ideas, we never the less should be aware that what worked for one may not work for another. This doesn’t mean it or you have failed, just that you have different needs and should try something else.
Reach out for help if you need it
This is where our old friend stigma comes in again. I’m afraid it is also an opportunity for me to use another physical health analogy (yes repetitive but unapologetic, it gets the message across). My local green has someone training under the watchful eye of a personal trainer nearly every day at some point in time. Most of the people in my social circle engage in some type of regular physical activity under the watchful eye of a trainer, coach or professional. In my family it is Karate. In others it is Yoga or Pilates or whatever. For those who run or cycle the help may be less formal, working instead in pairs or small groups. When we take a bump we will ask someone to put a plaster on or give the area a rub. If the injury is more serious we usually seek professional help. What I’m saying is that we all understand that our physical needs are usually better met under guidance or with support.
Why then are we so reluctant to seek help for our mental health? Stigma. Its a tired line but in my opinion it cant be said enough. reaching out for help with mental health is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is a sign of common sense that you have recognised the limit of your own capabilities and need some help to either fix things or take you to the next level. Mental health support can take many forms. CBT, Counselling, Complementary therapy, Talking informally in groups like Talking FreEly What is important is that we feel able to reach out when we need it
Be mindful of the end goal
A few months ago I posted a blog on Happiness. To say it was highly controversial would be an overstatement but suffice to say it was divisive, some disagreeing with my assertion that we should not be striving for happiness.
I haven’t shifted my thinking here. If you see the epitome of mental health as perpetual joy you are going to be disappointed. Life can be hard. Its a series of obstacles and challenges, some pleasing, others not. Very few people navigate through life on a steady straight zen line. We are always moving between highs and lows. Its a natural process of life to experience a range of emotions according to what life presents us. Instead the goal should be improving our capacity to cope or recover from the knocks and equally, not to get too carried away with the highs
Tony is a qualified acupuncturist with clinics across east Anglia. He is also the founder and a director of Talking FreEly, an organisation campaigning to break down the stigma of mental illness through honest and open conversations.
If you are interested in learning more about how Tony could help you or your organisation please get in touch or book an appointment at one of his clinics.