We all know the drill for taking care of our physical health but when it comes to our mental wellbeing the instructions aren’t so clear-cut. The mind is the most powerful muscle in the body. It has the ability to make or break you in a heartbeat; determining how you think and feel on a daily basis. There are many methods to become more conscious of our thoughts as well as physical ways of improving how we’re feeling. Whether you’re looking to banish obsessive thoughts, break through anxiety, reduce feelings of stress or even come to terms with a mental illness, these six strategies have been scientifically backed as positive methods to improve mental wellbeing. However, if you feel you need medical help or further assistance please contact a health professional or one of the charities listed at the bottom of this blog post.
Mindfulness. It’s a straightforward word, but how can it help improve your mental health? This mind-body based practice uses techniques such as meditation, breathing, yoga and even sports to help people take a short pause and become more aware of their thoughts and feelings in order to help manage them.
Setting some time aside each day to unleash the inner-workings of your mind can be highly beneficial, particularly for those suffering from depression, anxiety or stress. In our busy modern lives, we spend so much of our time monitoring goings-on around us, making judgements and placing focus on deadlines, work pressures, packed schedules and other people that we often forget about observing our own minds. Taking the time to suspend these feelings and push the pause button on an otherwise rushed day can have big benefits for our mental health.
You don’t need any special equipment, guidebooks or training to be mindful, anyone can do it. Whilst meditation and breathing exercises are two excellent ways we can calm the mind, simply sitting or lying quietly in a comfortable, relaxed space and concentrating on becoming more aware of your feelings and emotions, paying attention to the present moment, can help separate the stress from the calm. Allow thoughts to crop up, make a mental note to come back to them later then practice gently bringing your mind back to neutral. As with meditation, yoga or breathing exercises, this method takes practice as it’s not easy to clear the mind without getting caught up in other thoughts, emotions, sounds and so on. Make yourself as comfortable as possible, close your eyes and focus on your breathing, the rising and falling of your belly and what your arms and legs are doing. This technique can relax the body just as much as the mind and can even be practised before bed to help induce a restful sleep. If lying still isn’t for you then why not go for a walk? Focus on a steady, slow pace of walking, bringing your attention to the way your feet hit the ground, what your arms are doing as you move and your posture. This method is a good way to squeeze in even five minutes of mindful behaviour each day.
Have a conversation
Getting your troubles out in the open by having a chat with a trusted friend or co-worker can make a huge difference to how you’re feeling. As we know from the advice of suicide prevention charity R U OK?, starting a conversation could change, or even save, a life. Just as important as talking is being able to listen. Feeling heard gives us a positive, affirming feeling but the art of listening and providing your undivided attention and interest without passing judgement is not always automatic. In order to fully check in with someone else you first need to check in with yourself. If your own problems or feelings could get in the way, try and address those first. When in conversation try and keep your full attention on the speaker, reflect on what you’re hearing and repeat it back to them to show you have listened and understood. Be friendly and empathetic and ask open-ended questions to gain more information. Acknowledge the other person’s point of view before introducing your own thoughts and ideas.
A good training session can go a long way to clearing your head. Exercise stimulates chemicals including endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood and the parts of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In fact, regular physical activity is one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health. Not only that but it can also reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness by putting you in touch with other people, whether in a gym setting, with a personal trainer or by playing in a sports team. Exercise can have some seriously good physical health benefits too, alongside boosting mood, motivation and energy levels. The Australian Government Department of Health recommends being active on most, preferably all, days every week. The guideline for physical activity for adults aged 18-64 each week is 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity, like a brisk walk, recreational swimming or dancing, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity, like jogging, cycling or sports.
Enjoy some brain food
Food contains many natural ‘feelgood’ chemicals that can boost our health and our mood at the same time. Let’s break this down. The human body has two different brain systems: the limbic system and the cortex. The limbic system produces neurochemicals that tell your body what is good or bad for you. Four of those ‘feelgood’ chemicals are endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, which all play varying roles in how we are stimulated. Chocolate, avocado, Brazil nuts and eggs are just some of the foods we can eat to help to boost the release of these chemicals and amp up those positive vibes.
Interact with an animal
A study conducted in 2017 found owning a dog may be beneficial in improving heart health as it provides social support and motivation for physical activity, whilst a BMC Psychiatry review on the 'Power of Support from Companion Animals for People Living with Mental Health Problems' suggests pets provide numerous benefits to those with mental health conditions. If you’re in a position to care for one, owning or spending time with a furry friend can have a whole heap of positive effects on our mental health and wellbeing. Not only do they offer a sense of purpose and commitment, but they bring us joy, companionship, encourage us to spend time outside, increase social interaction and provide unconditional love. Of course, pets come with a lot of responsibility, so you may find pet-sitting for a friend a little less taxing than owning your own. You could even volunteer at a local animal shelter or take up dog walking.
Research has shown that sleep deprivation can have a significant negative effect on your mood. Often sleep problems like insomnia occur as a symptom of a mental health issue but further studies have suggested sleep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders. Going to the bed at the same time each night and aiming for at least seven hours of sleep per day will encourage a good routine and better sleep quality. To truly shut down an hour or so before hitting the sack, try putting down or switching off your phone, avoid caffeine or eating a large meal and instead try reading a book or listening to relaxing music. Psychologists from the University of Warwick found that improving the quality of your sleep can lead to positive levels of mental and physical wellbeing on par with someone who has won the lotto!
If you know someone who is struggling, or you are facing difficulties yourself, you can reach out to any one of these charities for help and advice:
• R U OK?
• Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
• Black Dog Institute
• Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
• GriefLine - 1300 845 745
• Kids Helpline - 1800 55 1800