Mental wellness has been receiving a lot of publicity lately, with mental health awareness week in October. Mental illness used to be treated with shame, with sufferers being locked away in mental institutes to keep them from harming themselves or upsetting others. This article is written with the intention of providing some information about various self-help strategies for mental wellness, not to diagnose or replace current mental health treatments. If you’re under the care of a professional, I encourage you to continue prescribed treatment, and add in some of the strategies mentioned if possible.
Mental health issues were an unspoken problem in my family when I was growing up. My father suffered from depression, and had outbursts of rage and violence. Mother was always anxious and stressed, and was diagnosed later in life with bipolar disorder. I had a brother who suffered from mental health issues who committed suicide at age 24. I have a tendency to become stressed and anxious, and after many years of experimenting with different things, the strategies I’m presenting in this article are a short summary of some of the practices that I know are effective based on my own experience.
Some of the factors that contribute to one’s state of mental wellbeing include:
- Upbringing and early programming
- Past traumatic events
- Lifestyle habits and activities
- Social environment
- Workplace culture
- Physical activity
- Spiritual beliefs and practices
I believe that a healthy mental state is a result of right living – having a philosophy and lifestyle practices that work to keep you emotionally stable, calm, and in a positive frame of mind. This may take some assistance and personal effort to achieve.
Nutrition has a big part to play. Getting the right nutrients you need for healthy brain and nervous system function is essential. Eating poor quality nutrient deficient food – deep fried, full of sugar or additives such as MSG, or artificial colours and flavours – does not fuel healthy brain function and will make you feel sluggish and tired, or irritable and agitated.
Sunshine is important too. Getting outside in the sun increases the amount of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin keeps you calm and happy. Staying indoors, or worse, in the dark keeps melatonin levels high. Melatonin, while necessary for getting a good night’s sleep, has a ‘doom and gloom’ effect if you’re awake, which is why your problems are magnified when you’re lying awake in the middle of the night.
Spending time in nature is beneficial for mental health, in fact the theme for this year’s mental health awareness week was ‘Let nature in, strengthen your wellbeing – Mā te taiao kia whakapakari tōu oranga!Green spaces in urban environments are places for recreation, relaxation, and social connection to help improve wellbeing. The colour green is said to be calming and relaxing. Some studies suggest that a bacteria that lives in the soil is beneficial for mental health, and that gardeners who regularly have their hands in the soil, are less inclined to depression.
Positive social connections are important. Think about the people you associate with, and how you feel when you’ve been with them. Some people have a positive effect on your mental and emotional wellbeing and others have a negative effect. Who would you rather spend time with? What qualities do these people have, and how can you also be a positive influence for other people’s mental and emotional wellbeing?
Alcohol, although it may give an immediate boost of happiness, the after effects are depressing to the nervous system. Alcohol also depletes certain nutrients, causes weight gain, and increases risk for cancer – all good reasons to minimise consumption.
Exercise – as Nike says ‘just do it! Exercise has been proven to improve mental health, reducing both depression and anxiety. Different types of exercise are beneficial in different ways – high intensity exercise is invigorating, whereas going for a long slow walk is more calming and rejuvenating. Try going for a walk/run/cycle in the sunshine with a friend and notice how you feel afterwards. I take my dogs out for long walks most days, and have a number of friends and gym buddies to keep me motivated to exercise.
Mindfulness is a buzzword in mental health. Being mindful is the opposite of being absentminded. It’s about being fully present mentally in whatever you’re doing – noticing how you’re thinking, how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally, and being aware of sights, sounds, smells etc. Being mindful is about first of all noticing the rose, and then taking a moment to observe, smell it, and notice how it makes you feel. Practicing mindfulness helps you to become less reactive to both internal and external stimuli.
Meditation is also spoken about a lot to help with mental health. Personally it’s a practice I find very helpful, but it’s not a first aid solution when you’re out of balance, it’s a daily practice. Meditation is a state of calm mental alertness. Pranayama or breath/energy control techniques are helpful tools to attain the state of meditation, in which feelings of love, joy, peace, lightness, stillness, or expansiveness naturally arise.
Herbal medicines can definitely help to balance one’s mental state. There are herbs that act as nerve tonics, stimulants, and relaxants. Each person will have different requirements, and knowing your genetics can be helpful too. It’s also very important to understand the interactions of herbs with prescribed medication. Some work together well and can have a synergistic effect, while others are not a good mix. St John’s wort and Kava are two of my favourites. I also prescribe a lot of Bacopa, passionflower, motherwort, Withania and oatstraw. I would recommend seeing a qualified herbalist (such as myself) for an appropriate blend of herbs, especially if you’re on medication.
Journaling can be very good for mental health. It helps you to express your thoughts and feelings, organise and plan out your days, and reflect on your experiences. There are different types of journaling for different purposes. My bullet journal helps me to be organised (which makes a huge difference to how I feel), prioritise my day, and remember everything. I still don’t get everything done, but I do get the important things done – which also makes a huge difference to how I feel.
The last point, which also makes a huge difference, is to always have a project to work on. This may be work related, or non-work related, but having something positive to focus on, think about and work on is very important. Just as idle hands are the devil’s workshop, so too is an idle mind. When I say have a project to work on, finishing projects is the key. It’s easy to start 500 different projects full of vigour and enthusiasm, but finishing can be a challenge. Working on a project all the way to the end can be difficult to achieve, but it’s very good for your mental and emotional wellbeing.
There’s a lot more to mental health than this, but these steps are a good place to start. Please comment below if any of this has resonated with you, or has helped you in your own health journey. Please forward this article to someone who you think could benefit from some of these ideas.