Five self-help tips to support your mental health

World Mental Health Day is an awareness-raising day that promotes discussion and understanding of mental illness, and gives us the opportunity to stop and reflect and consider ways we can improve our mental health.

One of the key definitions of good mental health, by the World Health Organization, is the ability “to cope with the normal stresses of life”. So much of life can feel like a drain, and you can feel worn down by all the demands put upon you. Yet I would add to this definition that it’s vital to know what stressors you can change – and which ones you can’t. You won’t be able to change what other people say and how they behave. But you do have the choice over whether to let things bother you. You also have the power to change the way you respond to people.

If you’d like to find some ways to feel better mentally and emotionally, but you’re not sure where to start, then here I suggest some practical self-help tips that can help build your resilience to cope with the “normal stresses” of life…

  1. Stop comparing yourself with others

Comparing yourself with others – whether favourably or unfavourably – in itself can imply that at heart you don’t feel enough. Perhaps not tall enough, pretty enough, rich enough. Social media makes it so easy to follow the lives of others – celebrities, friends, family, distant acquaintances – that life can easily become full of likes, retweets and photo-edited posts. Research has shown that too much social media – especially comparing your life with others – can lower mood and self-esteem and basically leave you feeling bad about yourself. You might fear you’re missing out, or that other people are simply having a better time than you. A first step towards self-acceptance, and therefore less stress, is to catch yourself when you compare yourself to others. Swap the ‘less than’ thoughts with a mantra: “I am enough.” Over time you may come to believe it.

  1. Tune into how you talk to yourself

We can be incredibly cruel to ourselves when we allow an inner critical voice to have its say.

  • “You stupid idiot.”
  • “You’re so clumsy.”
  • “You should be way better than this.”
  • “You’re useless. Give up now as you’ll never get the hang of it.”

If we spoke to others in the same way we speak to ourselves, we wouldn’t have many friends left. If you fear you may speak in a derogatory way like this, I’d encourage you to tune into this self-talk. Note how you speak to yourself. For every critical word, find a kinder phrase to balance it out. Try replacing ‘should’ with ‘could’, and ‘must’ with ‘might’, and see how differently you feel.

  1. Allow yourself some ‘down time’

Having time off doesn’t mean being lazy or selfish or a waste of time. The always-on culture means your life is likely to be spent clutching your phone, checking emails so you’re on top of things, and rushing between meetings. Home0time becomes work-preparation time instead of the opportunity to relax and unwind. Yet that lack of space in your life can lead to overwhelm and burnout. No one can thrive on the perpetual stress we put ourselves under. Try reframing down time as the opportunity to enjoy time, and see relaxation and reflection as a change to invest in your mental health.

  1. Express how you really feel

There’s nothing like speaking your truth to make you feel better. Expressing how you really feel – and having your truth heard and acknowledged – can be uplifting and a relief. Not speaking your truth can leave you frazzled and resentful, and can lead to behaviours that you don’t really mean to do, but end up coming out that way because your truth is trapped inside. I’m not suggesting you spout everything that comes into your head, but if there is something important you need to say then find a way to say it. Journaling can be a way of checking in with your true feelings, and gives you an opportunity to express your thoughts in a way that won’t be judged or thrown back at you. Using your journal can be an outlet to support you through daily stresses.

  1. Complete a task

Yes, any task will do. Whether it’s tidying up a drawer, signing off a document, booking a holiday, cleaning the bathroom. Completion is the antidote to chaos. Life can feel overwhelming to the point that home, work, family, friends, relationship all need something from you. Lots of loose ends – from unfinished projects to unmanageable clutter at home – can leave you feeling depleted. Give yourself back a sense of agency and purpose by picking a task that you can complete and tick off your list. Note how much better you’ll feel when you do.

Swimming has buoyant benefits for mental health, says study

Regular trips to the pool can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to research.
(pic credit: scusi)

A major study into swimming and mental health has revealed that regular trips to the pool can make life feel more manageable – and can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The YouGov research, on behalf of Swim England, shows that 1.4million people have reported improved mental wellbeing thanks to swimming. These improvements for nearly half a million people include fewer visits to their GP for mental health reasons, and a reduction in (or no further need for) their mental health medication.

Of the 3.3million UK adults with mental health problems who swim at least once every couple of weeks, when questioned how swimming impacts their everyday life, responded:

  • 43% say swimming makes them happier.
  • 26% are more motivated to complete daily tasks.
  • 15% believe life feels more manageable.

Ian Cumming, chair of the Swimming and Health Commission, said: “Physical activity in any form can have a positive impact on a person’s mental health, but swimming is unique because the buoyancy of water ensures everyone is able to take part at a pace that suits them. Research shows that simply being in water can be restorative, particularly swimming outside.”

The benefits of any exercise whatsoever have been shown to benefit mental health. Swimming is said to offer versatility, whether you want a leisurely lane swim or to set yourself time and distance targets. All the while being supported by the water.

Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity at the Mind mental health charity, added: “We all know that doing physical activities like swimming is good for our bodies. But our physical health and mental health are closely linked and being physically active can also be very beneficial for our mental health too. If you’re more active there’s good evidence to suggest that, at most ages, there’s a trend towards lower rates of depression. One study has found that by increasing your activity levels from doing nothing, to exercising at least three times a week, you can reduce your risk of depression by up to 30%.”

Perhaps worth digging out your costume and heading to the local pool.

How mentoring can boost mental health

A mentoring relationship can lower anxiety for both mentor and mentee.
(pic credit: Rabia Elif Aksoy)

Mentoring junior colleagues can boost the mental health not just of the mentees but of the mentors themselves, according to a study by the University of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Anxiety, in particular, was seen to reduce in a mentoring programme for high-stress roles in the English police force (which was the main context for the study). Mentoring was shown to take a role that facilitated further discussion of tricky issues, and could involve other stakeholders and managers across the organisation, in a positive and meaningful way. While some officers may not want to speak up for fear of the mental health stigma, mentoring was able to help them deal with anxiety and other issues.

The study says: “Mentoring provided reassurance to the mentors by illuminating how other, often junior, officers also experience anxiety – thereby normalising their own experiences. By acknowledging that anxieties are common, both the mentees and mentors in this study appeared to be more comfortable discussing such issues and therefore in developing different coping mechanisms.”

Mentoring “fills a void”, says the study, and effectively helps to prevent mental health concerns from escalating. Above all, mentors and mentees reported the importance and relief of being listened to – and to recognise that other people were going through similar issues, helping them to feel more supported and consequently more effective in their role. Even more than that, the mentors found more meaning and purpose in their jobs.

Study co-author Dr Thomas Roulet, University Senior Lecturer in Organisation Theory at Cambridge Judge Business School, concludes: “The study suggests that a relatively inexpensive practice such as mentoring can help reduce anxiety among both senior and junior staff, and this could help organisations address the serious and costly workplace issues of anxiety and mental health. While the study focused on high-stress roles in the public eye, we believe that the findings may also apply to other occupations that also have anxiety-provoking pressures.”

The study is called Mentoring for mental health: A mixed-method study of the benefits of formal mentoring programmes in the English police force and is published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

How adult colouring-in can support your mental health

Daily colouring-in can help reduce anxiety and depression. (pic copyright: neydt )

Adult colouring books have been all the rage in the field of mental health for the last few years, said to decrease stress and increase mindful living by encouraging the person colouring-in to slow down and enjoy the moments of life. As well as being a pleasurable activity, new research has shown that daily colouring is becoming a creative way of helping to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

In a new study called Sharpen Your Pencils by the University of Otago in New Zealand, published in the Creativity Research Journal, the researchers set out to prove whether adult colouring books really were ‘living up to the hype’ of promised therapeutic value.

To carry out the research, they randomly assigned 115 women participants with either a booklet containing 10 pictures to colour in (including abstract shapes, nature images and mandalas) or a booklet of puzzles, including logic problems, Sudoku and word searches. They all filled out an inventory of their perceived levels of depression, anxiety, stress, resilience and mindfulness. They filled in this survey again a week later, after doing puzzles or colouring-in for 10 minutes a day.

The results showed that while both groups had become more mindful, there was a difference in mood for the group who did the colouring-in. The participants showed reported a reduction in their depressive and anxious symptoms, suggesting that the activity of colouring-in has more mental-health benefits than had previously been believed.

Study joint author Dr Tamlin Conner said: “Our findings bode well for the potential psychological benefits of colouring-in. In this way, colouring-in could be considered an act of everyday ‘little ‘c’’ creativity, in much the same way as gardening or gourmet cooking. With its low risk and accessibility, we feel comfortable adding colouring-in to the growing list of creative activities for improving mental health outcomes.”

Exercise in a group to lower your stress levels, says study

Group workouts are better for your mental wellbeing. (pic credit: Adrian Hillman)

Exercise is known to boost your mood and make you feel better: it’s hard to feel low or anxious when you’re working up a sweat in the gym or fitness studio. Exercise builds resilience and helps you release negative stuff you’ve been holding onto. Yet recent research has aimed to quantify this feeling by examining how you exercise and the way it links with your emotional wellbeing and quality of life.

The study – published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Foundation – found exercising on your own means you try harder but won’t necessarily feel any fitter or any less stressed. Work out in a group, however, and this can bring your stress levels down and improve your quality of life. The research was carried out among 69 medical students, a group known to suffer higher stress levels – though the results of the study can be applied to a general population.

Participants chose either a group or individual exercise programme over 12 weeks. Every four weeks they filled out a survey regarding their levels of perceived stress and quality of life in three aspects: mental, physical and emotional.

At the end of the 12 weeks, those participating in structured weekly group exercise showed a 26% reduction in their stress levels. They also reported an improvement in all three quality of life measures: mental (13%), physical (25%) and emotional (26%). They also reported a 26.2 percent reduction in perceived stress levels. In contrast, those who chose their own fitness regime and worked out whenever they wanted – by themselves –  saw no significant changes in any measure, except in mental quality of life (11% increase).

Drawing a conclusion from the findings, Dr Dayna Yorks from the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, and lead researcher on this study, said: “These findings should not be interpreted as a condemnation of individual exercise. We believe much benefit can be derived from physical exercise of any kind, but the addition of group fitness classes may have additional benefits. The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone.”

How forgiveness is the antidote to stress

davanti counselling forgiveness

A forgiving mentality can reduce your stress levels to zero, says study (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

There’s an old adage that says holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. The refusal to forgive another for the perceived wrongs they’ve done against you may keep you on the moral high ground, but ultimately you could remain stuck, stressed and strung out. Forgiving the other means letting them off, and so you hold on tight to your sense of what’s right and wrong.

Yet not forgiving can lead to a lifetime of stress, which can affect your mental and physical health. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the antidote to stress. That’s according to research published in the Journal of Health Psychology, and reported in Time magazine’s article Forgiving other people is good for your health.

Researchers from Luther College analysed the stress exposure, lifestyle factors, propensity to forgive, and physical and mental factors among 148 people. They concluded that people who are more forgiving are also more able to handle stress, and that “stress degrades and forgiveness protects” health. They added: ” Developing a more forgiving coping style may help minimise stress-related disorders.”

How so? More research may be needed to determine exactly how forgiveness provides a buffer from stress – but there is something healing about letting go of painful and resentful feelings regarding a situation. It’s not about letting the person get away with it. It’s about not letting your feelings consume your life.

Lead researcher Professor Loren Touissant from Luther College said: “More forgiving individuals may have a more adaptive or extensive repertoire of coping strategies that mitigate the negative effects of stress on health… People with higher levels of forgivingness also have a greater tendency to use problem-focused coping and cognitive restructuring, and are less likely to use rumination, emotional expression and wishful thinking.”

In summary, forgiveness means making the decision to let something go instead of torturing yourself by over-thinking it and wishing life could be different.

How writing a poem can make you feel better

davanti counselling rhyme and resilience

Writing down your emotions can be a route to healing. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/surasakiStock)

Today is World Poetry Day, set up by UNESCO to “recognise the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind”. You don’t have to be a poet to write a poem. You can just sit down and let fragments of thought and feeling tumble onto the page. Writing a poem is a unique way of connecting to feeling, and can boost your wellbeing. Research has shown that the act of writing about emotional experiences has physiological and psychological benefits. Here’s how writing a poem can help you feel better:

  • Giving emotions to the page can release you from them. The page can hold the feeling so you don’t have to.
  • The structure and discipline of poetry can offer containment for overwhelming emotions.
  • Putting your feelings onto paper or screen is like having your own personal therapist whenever you need to be heard and understood.
  • Writing about your experience can help make meaning from chaos.
  • Writing can help you understand and reconstruct the part of you that’s been hurt, shamed, stressed or depressed.
  • A metaphor can work with difficult feelings without re-traumatising.
  • If you feel stuck, write about your stuckness to release the energy.
  • Writing things down helps you dis-identify from your emotions: you can HAVE emotions but don’t need to BE them.
  • Having a piece of writing to look back on reminds you of the distance you’ve travelled between now and when the pain was experienced.

Happy World Poetry Day!

Related articles:

How to express your true feelings in words on World Poetry Day

How to use a poem to contain overwhelming emotions