We all know about looking after our physical health by eating well, being active and getting enough exercise. But when it comes to mental health we’re less likely to think about the positive choices we can make when we’re healthy in order to stay healthy.
Yet mental wellbeing is just as important, and it’s fragile: one in four people will suffer a mental disorder at some point in their lives, says the World Health Organization.
“People talk about how healthy they are but they don’t talk about how mentally healthy they are. Yet mental health affects everything,” says Mark Williamson, director of Action for Happiness.
“Feeling positive and motivated enhances immunity and lengthens life; it’s fundamental to relationships, productivity, zest for life.
“There are many conscious things people can do for their mental health – they just don’t realise how important they are.”
The two things at the top of Williamson’s list are nurturing connections with people and spending more time doing things we believe in.
Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, agrees. She says, “Discover what makes you come alive – things that bring you more joy, a sense of peace, more deep curiosity. And give those activities higher priority.”
Professor Fredrickson believes positivity can be nurtured by breaking bad habits and establishing new ones: “We could all keep our negativity in check by questioning mental habits that may fan the flames, like jumping to conclusions or ruminating. Be open, be curious, appreciative, be kind – but above all be real.”
Nurturing good mental health also means developing the mental and emotional muscle to cope with life’s inevitable troughs. Mark Williamson says, “Happiness is about the sum total of what makes life worth living, and that includes dealing with adversity. It’s about finding ways to be more resilient, to cope with the downsides and make the most of the situation we find ourselves in.”
1 Put people before things: spend more time with friends and family. Nurture your relationships.
2 Be authentic: focus on activities you really believe in, whether it’s a hobby, a project at work, a cause.
3 Don’t measure success in how much you earn or what possessions you own.
4 Set yourself challenging but achievable goals, both short term and long-term.
5 When you achieve a goal, celebrate it.
6 Learn something new. (Get some ideas what you could learn online.)
7 Volunteer – or just do something simple to help someone. Studies show clear links between volunteering and psychological wellbeing. But don’t be a martyr: choose something you really enjoy.
8 Exercise outside every day.
9 Don’t beat yourself up when things go pear-shaped. Treat yourself with the same compassion you’d treat a loved one. Accept that everyone mucks things up sometimes.
10 At the end of every day make a list of three things you feel grateful for, or things that went well that day.
In an environment where stress is the norm it’s important to be aware of warning signs that anxiety is beginning to slide out of control. Sleeping badly, for example, or drinking more than usual, or flying off the handle for no good reason.
It’s easy to assume you’re the only one who isn’t coping with stress – and that you should be coping.
“So many people carry on striving to avoid facing up to the fact that they’re under constant pressure,” says Mark Williamson. “Just giving yourself the space to stop and notice can help.”
Then you can take action to prevent anxiety escalating. Simple steps like cutting down on caffeine and alcohol, setting aside 30 minutes a day for yoga or meditation and reassessing your priorities can be highly effective in tackling stress.
When things go wrong, what matters is how you treat yourself. Recent research into self-esteem found that people who have ‘self-compassion’ cope more robustly when things go wrong.
They still feel bad, but they treat themselves kindly. They don’t agonise or disparage themselves, but instead accept that everyone makes a mess of things sometimes.
Professor Richard Layard, author of Happiness, discusses mental health and purpose in life
Ultimately, getting through it requires a sense that you’re not powerless, that there are steps you can take that make a difference to mental health. That’s surely why mindfulness techniques and cognitive therapy have struck such a chord: they help people realise they have more control than they thought.
A new way of thinking about mental health would also help, according to Williamson. “When people hear the words ‘mental health’ they often assume it means ‘mental illness’,” he says. “We all have mental health to a greater or lesser extent.
“So rather than thinking of mental ill-health as this dark thing that some people experience, we should recognise that we are all on a continuum which varies between people and across an individual’s lifetime.”
1 Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.
2 Remember, stress affects each person differently.
3 Find a stress-relieving practice that works for you: yoga, tai chi, meditation, breathing exercises. Experts recommend setting aside 30 minutes a day.
4 Talk to a friend or therapist. Choose someone who won’t dismiss your anxieties, but equally won’t encourage catastrophising.
5 Avoid triggers that make you anxious, such as friends who love telling stories about disasters and terminal illness.
6 Learn techniques to challenge intrusive thoughts. CBT may help.