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.

Couples: why you should hug and make up after a row

Hugging after conflict can reduce stress levels.
(pic credit: mnsantoshkumar)

After any conflict with your partner, giving them a hug might be the last thing you feel like doing – especially if you’re prone to stropping or sulking and need time to lick your wounds after having a row. Very often couples come into counselling wishing the other person would make things better after they’ve rowed, but in practice it’s better for the wellbeing of your relationship to make the first move and offer a hug to your partner.

And this is backed by science: apparently giving your partner a hug after you’ve had a falling out can help reduce the impact on mood and minimise the stress caused by the conflict in the first place.

Research carried out by Carnegie Mellon University and published in the PLOS ONE journal has found that receiving a hug after an argument acts like “a buffer against deleterious changes in emotions associated with experiencing interpersonal conflict”. A post-argument hug can protect psychological health and can lead to better relationships over time, say the researchers.

They carried out the study by interviewing more than 400 adults for 14 consecutive days about their conflicts, receiving hugs, and the positive and negative emotions associated with the conflicts and the hugs. They found that receiving a hug on the day of conflict was linked to a smaller decrease in positive emotions and a smaller increase in negative emotions. The impact of a hug can have a longer-lasting effect too, with study participants reporting that a positive impact on their mood on the day following the conflict.

The researchers concluded that a hug after an argument helps manage stress by showing you still care: “Interpersonal touch behaviours such as hugs may buffer against stressors such as conflict because they increase perceptions of social support availability by tangibly conveying care and empathy without communicating to receivers that the receivers are ineffective.”

So, for the benefit of you, your partner and your relationship: after a row, aim to hug and make up.

A psychotherapist’s perspective on achieving work-life balance

Establishing your priorities and sticking to them can help you balance your life.
(pic credit: pixelbliss)

It’s National Work Life Week, an initiative created to raise awareness of the challenges facing working families and to encourage more measures to support their wellbeing. Though the stats aren’t great: separate studies show that a third of employees are happy with their work-life balance – and three-quarters of working parents say they’re suffering stress and anxiety from the lack of work-life balance.

I see a lot of people coming into my therapy practice on the verge of burnout because they’re trying to meet the relentless demands of other– and the high expectations of themselves. The drive to ‘have it all’ is leaving them depleted and satisfying no one. They find themselves constantly running towards deadlines, and having no time to enjoy the journey along the way. Before they know it, another year has passed and they still haven’t achieved what they long for.

While many work-life balance initiatives are aimed at changing the way employers structure the working day – for example, allowing for flexi-time and home-working – I believe there are some steps you can take as an individual to achieve more balance in your life:

Know your purpose

Why are you doing this? Why are you setting the alarm early to tick off all points on your routine and run ragged through your day? What are you getting out of work? Is this how you want to be spending your time? Do you feel joy and satisfaction in what you do? Having a purpose is what bounces you out of bed in the morning. Having work that is aligned with your core values feels effortless and is worth all the inevitable juggling you have to do. Your purpose may be to have a job that is a means to an end so you can enjoy your family life. Your purpose may be to achieve promotion and to climb the corporate ladder. Whatever your goal, it’s being clear on why you’re doing this that can remind you to keep going through the frazzled times – and it can help you make decisions that are tagged to your purpose.

Keep firm boundaries

A boundary is a counselling word, in effect, that means the lines you put around yourself that show the limits of where you’re prepared to go. In the workplace, a contract would outline the professional boundaries within which you’re expected to work. Personal boundaries are more about the way you operate and how much you give and take. And deciding where indeed you draw that line? How are your boundaries? Are you on time, focused, and good at meeting deadlines? Or are you rather slack in your timekeeping and end up rushing to complete projects because you’ve been distracted along the way? A key step to achieving work-life balance is to do work at work, and be home when you’re at home. Be fully present where you are. Aim to keep work and life separate so you can live them both as fully as possible.

Wait a heartbeat before saying yes

It can be so easy to get into the habit of saying yes to everything, especially if by nature you’re a people pleaser. Yet your work can mount up and any hope of balance flies out the window because you’ve said yes to that extra project. Saying no can be challenge: it can feel like a rejection of the person, and you may fear the repercussions on your career by saying no. Yet, if you’re tuned into your purpose, and are clear on where your boundaries lie, you will have more clarity as to which tasks you say yes to, and which you turn down. Say yes to what will enhance your life. Say no to what will burden it (and this is the same for things you take on in your home life as well as at work). Waiting a heartbeat before saying yes can help you assess your priorities and make the right decision for you and your work-life balance.

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 dancing can help keep your brain young

Tap your feet to the beat to stay younger for longer.
(pic copyright: Nataliya Gvozdeva)

Any form of exercise can help stop the brain declining with age. Yet a new study shows that dancing beats other forms of fitness activities for its impact on slowing down the process of brain ageing. Varying the kind of dancing you do – especially if learning new, complicated routines – can enhance that impact.

The research, published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Journal, asked two groups of elderly volunteers (average age 68) to engage in dancing or in endurance and flexibility training over a period of 18 months. The aim was to observe how these activities would affect the area of the brain that declines with age – the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory, learning and balance, and can be affected by dementia. The endurance training volunteers repeated the same exercises each week, while the dancers had a new routine to learn.

Lead author of the study Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, based at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, said that the dancers were given routines from dance genres such as Jazz, Latin and Line dancing, and they had to remember their routines without being prompted or helped by their teachers. This extra challenge – remembering, not just working out – showed a greater degree of improvement in balance among the dancers than among the volunteers on fitness programme.

The researchers concluded: “Only the dancers achieved a significant increase in the balance composite score. Hence, dancing constitutes a promising candidate in counteracting the age-related decline in physical and mental abilities.” Not to mention the mood-boosting qualities of being swept across a dance floor in tune with your favourite beat.

How creativity today can boost wellbeing tomorrow

Creative pursuits such as knitting can boost your emotional wellbeing. (Copyright: Oleksii Rashevskyi)

Indulge in creative activities today, and you could well feel more joy, enthusiasm and uplift tomorrow. That’s according to research into the relationship between day-to-day creativity and wellbeing by New Zealand’s University of Utago.

Psychology researchers analysed the daily diaries of 658 university students, where they logged their experiences and emotional states over 13 days.

Patterns emerged showing that participants felt more enthusiastic and had higher “flourishing” in the days after they had been creative. Flourishing is a concept that determines overall wellbeing, happiness and potential for growth.

Lead researcher Dr Tamlin Conner said previous research had focused on how emotions can hamper or support creative activity. However, in this new study, rather than positive feelings predicting next-day creative activity, it was actually previous day’s creative activity that predicted the next day’s positive feelings and wellbeing.

Top creative activities for wellbeing include:

  • Songwriting.
  • Creative writing (poetry, short fiction).
  • Knitting and crochet.
  • Making new recipes.
  • Painting, drawing, and sketching.
  • Graphic and digital design.
  • Musical performance.

Dr Conner concluded: “This finding suggests a particular kind of upward spiral for wellbeing and creativity – engaging in creative behaviour leads to increases in wellbeing the next day, and this increased wellbeing is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day. Overall, these findings support the emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning.”

Time to get those knitting needles out…