12 Ways to Look After Your Mind
Updated: Apr 5, 2019
1 in 4 people experience a mental illness each year. 1 in 8 people suffer with an Anxiety Disorder in their lifetime. 1 in 10 people suffer with Depression in their lifetime. 1 in 9 people suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in their lifetime. 1 in 20 people suffer with some form of Personality Disorder in their lifetime.
Interestingly, it is said that these current statistics do not demonstrate a significant increase from those recorded in previous years. What is increasing, however, is suicide and self-harm.
1 in 15 people make a suicide attempt in their life.
Suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49.
This suggests that it is not necessarily a rise in mental illness that we need to be worrying about, but a decrease in our ability to cope with them.
*Disclaimer* I am not here to preach or to tell you what you need to do to be a healthier, happier person. These are just 12 things I do to manage my mind and cope with anxiety.
1. Meditation Meditation is very much misunderstood. It does not have to involve sitting in silence trying to stifle the thoughts passing through your mind. Although this can be effective, and one of my favourite meditative tricks to create some real pause in my day is seeing how long I can go without thinking (usually about three seconds), meditation is more about allowing thoughts to pass through but without any judgement or attachment to them. With practice, this acquired mindfulness allows you to approach tricky aspects of life with more rationale and control over how you respond. I personally use Simple Habit to meditate. I even have a favourite coach, Cory Muscara. I recently finished one of his podcasts on the app, 31-Day Fresh Start Audio Therapy. Each session, no longer than ten minutes, takes you through a different topic to reflect on yourself and become a better you. If you're new to meditation I would definitely recommend this app as a starting point.
I'm not going to patronise you, we all know the amazing benefits of exercise, both physically and mentally. But that doesn't mean we are all practicing it. My personal experience is that when I find myself having a particularly anxious week, confused about its source, it's often the case that I haven't found the time to exercise. So, for me, exercise really is a fundamental part of managing my mental health. It creates an hour of space, three times a week, where I think about nothing but the immediate physical challenges I'm creating for myself. I come away from it feeling rejuvenated, productive and with my mind seeming a little clearer.
3. Escapism - reading I guess reading is not so different to meditating. It's not going to fix any of the issues that may be going on, and it certainly wont cure my anxiety, none of the things I mention here will, but it's a fairly reliable way of getting some relief from reality. The Harry Potter books are my current favourite forms of escapism. When Harry is being plagued by Dementors and hunted down by Sirius Black, my daily worries about getting through a long shift at work or producing a great blog post don't seem quite so pressing.
4. Gratitude Before I go to bed I often like to list three things I am grateful for that happened that day and three things I am looking forward to tomorrow. I find it's important, even after a rubbish day, or before a day you are dreading, to find some goodness within it to appreciate, however small and indiscernible.
5. Music My favourite part of every day for me is when I get the chance to put my favourite songs on, turn the volume right up and sing and dance around like nobody's watching. Or, if I don't have the energy for that, I just put on anything; whatever mood I'm in, I play something which will harness the unique and incredible human capacity to feel something. It's when we allow ourselves to sit in numbness that things become really problematic. Neurologically speaking, music has incredible effects on the brain, such as releasing dopamine or activating various brain structures- hence why music therapy is now a well-established type of therapy (e.g. Melodic Intonation Therapy). Its transformative healing power can help people with mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and even schizophrenia.
6. Utilising strengths As a self-deprecating nation, we all know what our weaknesses are, but do we really know what our strengths are? I've come to realise that rather than dwelling on my so-called-weaknesses and trying to quell their existence, it is more helpful to establish my strengths and do things to utilise them. Science proves that one way to find greater happiness and wellbeing is to use our signature strengths in new ways. I recently took a test on 'The Via Institute' to find out what my strengths are. My top three were kindness (yay?), prudence (great?) and judgement (oops?), and although these are not strengths I would necessarily choose for myself, I know that using these more in my day-to-day life will be beneficial for me. Whilst challenging ourselves is always great, it makes sense that doing something we are good at, rather than struggling at something we are bad at, would be rewarding, whilst allowing us to be more in tune with our authentic selves.
7. Setting weekly goals and to-do lists
This year I've started writing out weekly goals and daily to do lists. Come Sunday evening, I sit down and plan what four things I want to get out of the week ahead, and I plan what each day is going to consist of. I find this a great way of managing stress and ensuring productivity. For me, productivity equals positivity. However, some days, weeks even, I'll find myself lacking any motivation whatsoever, and that's fine too. I've felt like that this week. I've left starting this blog post until the day before it's supposed to go live because I've felt so uninspired and unmotivated to bother writing anything. I was going to skip a week altogether. But really, I knew that the only thing that was going to get me out of this cloudy rut was doing the work; putting fingers to keyboard and writing.
8. Breaks and balance.
And this is where creating balance comes in. Sometimes, like myself this week, the motivation isn't there, and forcing it isn't feasible. In those cases, I've learnt to take some time out and not feel guilty for it. The same applies in the workplace. According to a recent study, 68% of people don't take their full lunch break. Without taking these precious breaks at work to actually leave one's desk and pause, the brain's resources begin to run low and in turn stress levels actually rise. With this in mind, it can be argued that breaks don't inhibit productivity, they boost it! It is in this way that many of us need to be kinder to ourselves. I often use the trick where you treat yourself like you would a child - I wouldn't force them to work all day without taking a break, so why force myself to? Adulthood need not consist of continual punishment.
9. Vent your feelings – talking or writing.
As I mentioned in a previous post, 'We Don't Talk Anymore', I believe talking is the best medicine when it comes to stress and mental health struggles. Being truly heard and understood by someone is immensely powerful, but, if like me, you aren't at a point where you feel comfortable speaking aloud about your problems, I've found it incredibly cathartic to write them down instead. They say the first step to addressing any problems you're facing is truly understanding and accepting them, so I've found that taking the time to comprehend them by articulating them can be quite transformative.
10. Sunshine This is the only one of the 12 methods which isn't always available to us. But when it is, I urge you, like a cat, find yourself a patch of sunshine and sit in it. I find that, even if I'm sitting inside, feeling the sun blasting through and warming my face is such a life-affirming sensation. More scientifically speaking, sunlight exposure is known to increase serotonin release, the mood boosting hormone, hence why so many people are more prone to depression during the winter months (aka Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)). With that in mind, it becomes even more important to make the most of the little sunshine we do get as we battle through the cold of winter and the rain of spring.
11. Digital detox.
Every once in a while I like to do a little digital and social media detox. The relief I find in spending a day where I don't feel compelled to check my phone every minute is quite amazing. In between these detoxes I make the most of the new iPhone feature in which you can not only view your screentime, but also schedule 'downtime', where your phone restricts you from using certain apps and sets daily time limits for app usage. If even the iPhone developers are trying to urge us to use our phones less then you know we're in trouble. Research has shown that disorders such as anxiety and insomnia are often linked to excessive digital usage. Then there's the actual content we are consuming on our phones which can be equally damaging - unrealistic depictions of perfect lives, perfect bodies; fake news and triggering material. I can't help but feel we are wasting away on these things, and yet it seems impossible to get away from it. It honestly crushes me to see a room or a train carriage full of people on their phones, so I try to make a conscious effort to be the one person who stops, looks up and takes some time to give my brain a rest from the constant consumption by engaging with my surroundings and the present moment.
12. Trust the universe. 'When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, "Let it be".'
Who knew that in the 60s The Beatles were so far ahead of us in promoting what has become this 21st century, mindfulness concept of equanimity?! Check out my previous posts, 'Embracing the Imperfect' and 'Let's Talk About Failure', for more on how I've learnt to deal with things going wrong and my constant need for perfection.
With all this being said, I would like to reiterate that I am not perfect. I do not practice these 12 things unfailingly. And even when I do, it does not guarantee that my mind is all fluffy clouds and rainbows. But, I've come to realise the value of looking after my mind like I do my body. The only thing I feel comfortable preaching about in this post is that mental health is physical health; the mind and the body are invariably connected and of equal importance, so neither should be neglected.