We all need to look after the health of our minds as much as our bodies. Here are some techniques to help
Most of us know that, to stay fit and healthy, we should eat good food, exercise regularly and have the odd check-up.
But how many of us can honestly say we spend as much time looking after our mental health as we do our physical health?
Sadly, with everyone leading such busy, hectic lives, and setting such high expectations for themselves – “I must have a nice house, look good, spend quality time with the kids, have a good career” – levels of anxiety and stress are through the roof.
But increasingly experts are beginning to recognise that there is a strong link between the body and the mind – and in order to keep one healthy, the other needs to be nurtured too.
As a result, mental health care is changing. And with the focus more and more on happiness and wellbeing, there’s never been a better time to start thinking about how to look after your own mental health.
‘The mind is a phenomenally strong tool that we undervalue and underestimate,’ says Becky Willoughby from Willow Therapy in Tring. ‘But it can also be a really useful tool in helping to get things under control. Knowing you can control something is the first step to eliminating it.
‘It’s about having a toolkit you can reach into and find the tool you need for a particular moment.’
Here’s how to make sure you keep that toolkit replenished, and help yourself to improve your mental health and wellbeing.
Pause for thought
‘Many people assume that self care means taking a big chunk out of your day to meditate or do yoga practice,’ says Becky. ‘But, while there is a place for this, self care can take just five minutes out of your day, and make such an enormous difference.
‘It could be going out for a walk with the dog, or taking time for a stroll round the garden. Just putting the pause button on for a few moments to have time to breathe and give yourself space makes all the difference in the world.’
‘One of the most important ways of improving your happiness is to understand how important the use of language is,’ explains Becky.
Think about it. How many times have you said, ‘I should have gone to the shop and got some bread,’ or, ‘I should have tidied the kitchen’? But what if you changed that ‘should’ to ‘could’? So it becomes, ‘I could have gone to the shop and got some bread – but in that moment I chose not to because it wasn’t my priority.’
That sounds very different – and immediately takes pressure off you. It’s so simple, but it’s also very effective if you can remember to do it.
Don’t forget of course, that the use of language can affect your thoughts – so it follows that if you change your words then, in time, you also change your thought process.
It’s essential to spend time with people. This might sound simple enough, but thanks to technology and lack of time, we’re becoming increasingly disconnected from the world.
‘Many of the people I see spend much of their time alone, or with young children,’ says Becky. ‘I ask them if they’ve spoken to anyone recently and they might say “oh, I chatted to my friend yesterday”. But dig deeper and you realise that the chat they had was via email or WhatsApp and actually, they haven’t really seen anyone, or connected with anyone, in person all day.
‘But interaction with other people is key to staying happy. Even if you’re just travelling into work on the train with other people, or spending time in the office with them, connecting with others is essential.’
‘Try this technique,’ suggests Becky. ‘Go into a crowded place such as a coffee shop, choose a table and just sit there alone.
‘It terrifies a lot of people. But that’s because they’re out of the habit of being around people. The next stage is to strike up a conversation with a stranger. It might feel daunting, but the benefits of actually doing it are huge.’
‘It’s important to connect properly with your children too’, she says. ‘Parents don’t need any more pressure. I tell them to give themselves five minutes at the end of every day with their children where they just shut the door, and listen to what their child has to say without interruption. They always think it’s going to be easy but five minutes is a long time – and it makes the world of difference.’
Write a diary
If you’re feeling anxious or depressed it can be hard to see anything positive. It doesn’t matter what is actually going on in your life – you could have beautiful kids, a happy marriage, the house of your dreams – all of that becomes irrelevant when the darkness of depression descends.
A way to help lift yourself from that place – or to prevent yourself from getting there in the first place – is to write a gratitude diary. Every day, try and find one, two or even three things that you’re grateful for, or that make you happy. It can be things that you’re grateful for right in this present moment, or it can be something that made you smile that day, even if just for a moment. Think about it, cherish it, and write it down.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way of focusing entirely on the present moment; it clears your mind of other worries, and helps keep you calm. It’s about bringing all of your attention to what you’re doing right now, and really focusing on it.
The idea behind it is that, by learning techniques to bring your attention to the present moment, you can learn to let your thoughts come and go without letting them define you or your experiences in the world. It helps you notice your body and what it’s trying to tell you – for example, tight neck and shoulders could indicate stress or tension – and it helps create space between your thoughts so you can react calmly.
Try these mindfulness exercises, which are suggested by the mental health charity, Mind.
- Mindful eating
Pay attention to the taste, sight and textures of what you eat. For example, when drinking a cup of tea or coffee focus on how hot and liquid it feels on your tongue, how sweet it tastes or watch the steam that it gives off.
- Mindful moving, walking or running
Notice the feeling of your body moving. Notice the breeze against your skin, the feeling of your feet or hands against different textures on the ground or nearby surfaces, and the different smells that are around you.
- Body scan
Move your attention slowly through different parts of the body, starting from the top of your head, moving all the way down to the end of your toes. You could focus on feelings of warmth, tension, tingling or relaxation of different parts of your body.
- Mindful colouring and drawing
Focus on the colours and the sensation of your pencil against the paper, rather than trying to draw something in particular. You could use a mindfulness colouring book or download mindfulness colouring images.
- Mindful meditation
Sit quietly and focus on your breathing, your thoughts, sensations in your body and the things you can hear around you. Try to bring your focus back to the present if your mind starts to wander. Many people also find that yoga helps them to concentrate on their breathing and focus on the present moment.
Tips on getting the most from mindfulness exercises
When you do any mindfulness exercise, the key steps are:
- Pay attention – for example, when you shower in the morning, make an effort to pay attention to the feel of the water on your skin.
- Notice – when your mind wanders, simply notice where your thoughts have drifted to.
- Choose and return – choose to bring your attention back to the present moment, usually by focusing on your breathing or another sensation in your body.
- Be aware and accept – notice and be aware of emotions or sensations in your body. Try to observe and accept them with friendly curiosity and without judgement.
- Be kind to yourself – remember that mindfulness is difficult and our minds will always wander. Try not to be critical of yourself. When you notice your mind wandering, just gently bring yourself back to the exercise.
‘There are techniques you can teach people who have panic attacks, which basically involve taking the person out of the situation mentally for a few minutes’, explains Becky. ‘For example, if someone has a fear of flying, I tell them that, as they get on the plane, look around for someone who has red hair, glasses, flip flops and a bag. If they’re doing that then they’re taken out of it for a moment and they have no space in their brain to think about what they’re scared of. Take a moment, now. In the room where you are, find as many things as you can beginning with the letter C. Say them out loud when you’ve found them. Afterwards, think. While you were doing that you weren’t thinking about anything else were you? You stopped what you were doing and concentrated only on that. This is a great technique for people if they’re anxious or having a panic attack about something.
Often, particularly with children, this can stop them having a panic attack all together because it empowers them. It gives them the tools to know they can stop a panic attack in its tracks, and this can sometimes stop people having them at all. You know you can survive it.
For some people sensory things work too. For example, if you hold or press something to keep your mind off the anxiety. ‘Some people need sensory, some need verbal.’
For more help and advice go to: www.mind.org.uk, call 0300 123 3393 or text 86463.
Mind Hertforshire is on: www.hertsmindnetwork.org/ or call 020 37273600.
Willow Therapy is at: www.willowtherapy.org.uk, or call 07979 814007.