If our bodies sometimes falter, why not our minds? In our fast-paced, screen-addicted lives, we’re in danger of damaging our mental health because we never stop. But there’s lots of simple things you can do in a day to stay mentally healthy:
Find your people
US psychiatrist Robert Waldinger directed the Harvard study of adult development, so far the longest study of adult life that's ever been done. One big lesson from the study is that social interaction is necessary, as loneliness is a killer, he says. Even the expectation of isolation reduces our willpower and perseverance.
Making connections with new people through social interaction, in real life and online, is important. So get involved. Write a list of your favourite pastimes, be it hillwalking, salsa dancing or reading, and find some like-minded people to hang out with.
If you ever heard your mother say “be thankful for what you have”, it’s time to admit she was right. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly associated with greater happiness. One study asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.
One group wrote about things they were grateful for, a second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had annoyed them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them, with no emphasis placed on whether they were positive or negative. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to the GP than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
So start feeling grateful – it’s a healing tool that shifts mood and attitude. To get started, list three things morning and evening that you are grateful for, and watch your spirits improve.
Feeling strung out? Go give someone a squeeze. Hugging is powerful – PET scans show it can increase the production of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin in the brain.
All three are neurotransmitters. Dopamine is responsible for feelings related to love, joy, pleasure, reward and motivation. Oxytocin acts on the limbic system, the brain’s emotional centre, promoting feelings of contentment and reducing anxiety and stress. Serotonin helps to regulate mood and irritability.
If you need another reason, when we embrace we immediately reduce the amount of the stress hormone cortisol produced in our bodies. Hugs also make our bodies release tension and send calming messages to the brain.
Regardless of age or fitness level (yes, this includes everyone from walkers to marathon runners), studies show that making time for exercise provides some serious mental benefits.
Exercise releases endorphins which create feelings of happiness and euphoria. Studies have shown that some people who are feeling blue find exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant pills in treating depression.
Feeling anxious? Try a 20-minute jog. The warm and fuzzy chemicals that are released during and after exercise have been found to help people with anxiety disorders calm down.
Meditation has gone mainstream. Meditating can actually change your brain and, with it, the way your body responds to stress. One study published in the Lancet showed that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, a treatment that combines mindfulness meditation with traditional cognitive behavioural therapy, was just as effective at preventing recurrences of depression as antidepressants, even for those with a higher risk of relapsing.
To get started, try to do it every day for 10-12 minutes. Four to fives times per week is great too, if you really can’t get to seven. The key is to be consistent.
You don’t need a psychiatrist to tell you that partying all night or staying up until the early hours to watch a box set of the latest US TV drama series isn’t particularly good for your health.
Most people are sleeping a lot less than they did 50 years ago, which is a problem, as sleep is where the body and mind are repaired, reordered and readied for the next day.
Research has shown that, far from being unimportant, dreaming is vital to good mental health. Dreams seem to be where the mind processes the events of the previous day, and lack of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is associated with depression, anxiety disorders and other serious mental illnesses.
Since REM sleep happens at the end of a sleep cycle, getting only a few hours of rest in a night can mean missing out on this vital phase, which can have an impact on mental health.
Just say no
If you’re available for your boss and your friends 24/7, and you’re the kind of person who gets stressed and overloaded, try learning the power of saying no.
If you tend to say yes without thinking when you’re asked to do something, stall. Don’t answer straight away, and decide what’s right for you. Mental health experts recommend that when work demands are too high, you must speak up. Learning to say no confidently is important for your own self-care and overall wellbeing.
If you want more mental health advice, check out yourmentalhealth.ie and the #Littlethings national mental health and wellbeing campaign run by the Health Service Executive and partners.