Mental Health Week and beyond: How can you improve your mental health and wellbeing?
It was mental health week last week. Around Melbourne (and I’m sure further afield too) events to raise awareness were hosted by numerous organisations. While the week may be over, I’d like to continue to encourage all Australians to take positive steps in their lives to improve their mental health and wellbeing.
According to Beyond Blue, 1 in 6 people will have depression and 1 in 4 people will experience anxiety at some stage in their life. Yet, there are a number of things we can do to manage the risks to our wellbeing and stay mentally healthy.
Be aware of your own signs of stress…
The World Health Organisation defines stress as...
“the reaction people may have when presented with demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope."
Stress has become a pervasive part of our vocabulary and for some their daily existence. Yet not all stress is bad. When we do not have enough pressure we may feel bored or disengaged from the activities of daily life. In contrast too much stress leads to distress and feeling overwhelmed.
There is however, a sweet spot in the middle (eustress), between low and high levels of stress. Eustress is a positive flow state, where we are engaged, focused and able to perform the tasks of life, with a sense of wellbeing.
The signs of stress or distress are many and varied. Physical symptoms may include, tightening of muscles, headaches, racing heart, nausea, diarrhoea or trouble sleeping. You may notice feeling more tense, irritable angry or moody, or withdrawing from friends or social activities. At times it may be difficult to concentrate or you get easily distracted. Feeling overwhelmed, overloaded or that things feel out of control or are difficult to cope with.
It is important to notice the cues to your own wellbeing, recognise your limits so you can prevent or manage signs of stress or distress.
Are you depressed?
People can be down or sad from time to time, but when these feelings are ongoing for no particular reason, it may be a sign of depression. Physical symptoms include: having difficulty sleeping which results in feelings of fatigue during the day or lack of motivation to perform tasks, changes in eating habits where you’re either not eating enough or eating too much to escape feelings of boredom or sadness, feeling sick or just having an upset stomach. Feelings of worthlessness or like a failure, lacking confidence to perform everyday tasks that you use to manage easily, or loss of interest in activities you enjoyed and withdrawing from social activities may be other signs.
Is anxiety a problem in your life?
We can all feel stressed or worried from time to time, but when these feelings are ongoing for no particular reason, it may be a sign of anxiety. Physical symptoms can include: fast breathing, sweating, heart palpitations, tensing up and constant fidgeting. Obsessively thinking and not being able to just tune out from thoughts, not feeling as in control as you use to be, always thinking situations will result in the worst possible outcome or having difficulty concentrating or focusing on everyday activities such as work or study may also be signs of anxiety.
How can you improve your mental health and wellbeing?
One of the most helpful things you can do is to not avoid feelings of stress/distress, depression or anxiety, but face these feelings head on. Spending hours at the shops, zoning out watching TV, playing computer games, surfing the internet or using alcohol, smoking or drugs to escape these feelings are not helpful to your own wellbeing or the wellbeing of your relationships with others.
Be grounded and aware
When we are being mindful, our focus is on the present rather than the past or future. It is important to take moments to check in with ourselves throughout the day, to be aware of the cues to our wellbeing; take a couple of deep breaths, ground yourself and notice your thoughts (are they in the past, present or future?), feelings (I feel…), physical sensations (I sense…points of tension of physical sensation in our body) or behaviour (I do or respond….). The alternative is we operate in default mode and are not aware of our own sense of stress or wellbeing, while immersed in work, technology, other people or the events of daily life.
Be present to your senses
Our senses can also help us be mindful and manage our wellbeing; the things we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Notice what you;
See - the view from your window, notice the colours and shapes of your surrounds. Take a look at the sky, the clouds, sunshine or rain. Take a few deep breaths, slow things down and notice how you feel.
Hear - close your eyes or find a focal point wherever you are and just listen to the sound of birds chirping, the traffic outside or the silence or chatter of the room you are in. What do you need right now to take care of you?
Touch – feel the coolness or warmth in the air, notice you feet with each step or how your bottom, legs or back connect to the chari as you sit.
Taste - notice the flavours (sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami) and textures of the food you eat.
Smell - notice the scent of your morning coffee, the food being cooked or the aroma of the meal you are about to eat. Do you feel energised, nourished or nurtured?
By tuning in to our sensory experiences we redirect our attentional focus to the present. We start to notice the small details of life. Through these small mindful moments we savour the routines and rituals of daily life that contribute to a feeling of wellbeing.
Exercising regularly is important to our health and wellbeing. Research suggests exercise can lift our mood. BMC Public Health conducted a study involving 11,500 people across Europe and found that physical activity participation was linked to happiness. They also found increasing time spent on being physically active raised levels of happiness, for each additional hour of walking individuals reported being 2% happier and for each additional hour of aggressive physical activity individuals reported being 3% happier.
Exercise doesn’t need to be complicated. A walk, can be calming releasing neurotransmitters known as endorphins to increase feelings of positivity and relaxation. There is something fundamentally restorative about walking. Put your best forward.
Colouring books for adults? Yes, book stores around Melbourne and the best seller lists in Australia are currently filled with a range of colouring books for adults. Colouring can help develop mindfulness, by re-directing your attentional focus, you quieten and slow down the thoughts in your mind, decreasing levels of anxiety. If colouring is not your thing, find something engaging and creative that is.
We need someone who embraces us for our strengths and struggles – Brene Brown
We are wired for connection and relationships. Connecting in relationships with others where we feel seen, heard and appreciated, without judgement are the kind of relationships that nourish and provide strength and are beneficial to our mental and emotional health. Know who ‘your people’ are, the people in your life, you know you can reach out to for help and thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually. Letting go of the myth of self-sufficiency helps us buffer against the storms of life and overcome depression and anxiety.
If you have recently moved to a new city, are uncertain about who to turn to when faced with difficulty or a stressful situations in your life counselling may provide an unbiased way of connecting and identifying personal tools to include in your wellbeing tool kit. If you are experiencing self-harm or suicidal thoughts it is important to seek out professional support from your GP, counsellor or psychologist.
There are many positive steps we can take to enhance our mental health and wellbeing. We need to identify the tools and resources that will be most helpful to us.
Jean Hailes for Women’s Health 2015, Day 3 Dr Mandy Deeks, Psychologist, September, viewed 7 October 2015, <https://vimeo.com/137796284>.
Beyond Blue Ltd 2015, Signs and Symptoms, viewed 7 October 2015, <https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/depression/signs-and-symptoms>.
Beyond Blue Ltd 2015, Signs and Symptoms, viewed 7 Ocotber 2015, < https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety/signs-and-symptoms>.
Jean Hailes for Women’s Health 2015, Don’t worry, be happy: Psychical activity and happiness viewed 7 October 2015, < https://jeanhailes.org.au/news/dont-worry-be-happy-physical-activity-and-happiness>.
Jean Hailes for Women’s Health 2014, Family and Friends, viewed 8 October 2015, < https://jeanhailes.org.au/health-a-z/mental-emotional-health/family-friends>.
Ker, P 2015, ‘Australia’s biggest companies hand out colouring books to staff to foster mental health’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April, viewed 7 October 2015, < http://www.smh.com.au/business/australias-biggest-companies-hand-out-colouring-books-to-staff-to-foster-mental-health-20150408-1mh0ev.html>.
Richards, J, Jiang, X, Kelly, P, Chau, J, Bauman, A & Ding, D 2015, 'Don't worry, be happy: cross-sectional associations between psychical activity and happiness in 15 European countries, BMC public health, vol. 15, p. 53.
Williams, Z 2015, ‘Adult colouring-in books: the latest weapon against stress and anxiety’, the guardian, 27 June, viewed 7 October 2015, < http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/26/adult-colouring-in-books-anxiety-stress-mindfulness>.
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