Every day should be a mental health day, but while we have the chance for global recognition of the importance of mental health, we should take it. The World Health Organisation recognises the importance of mental health each year with a day dedicated to spreading recognition and education.
Wellbeing is an active, participant led experience. We can’t passively wait for wellbeing to improve (although time may help), instead, when we have the opportunity, we can make small changes and take small steps to improve mental health and all-round wellbeing.
What should you be doing on World Mental Health Day? You will see lots of campaigns all with different mental health themes highlighting action, education and impact studies on mental health. Here, I’d like to highlight some small things that you can do for yourself or with someone who may be experiencing mental health struggles to make a difference today.
If you don’t feel ready for practical action, remember to show yourself kindness and compassion. We are good at looking after ourselves when we have the flu or a broken bone, but often berate ourselves internally when our thoughts or negative states of mind get the better of us. Mental health needs as much care and compassion as physical health. Try to reconnect with the moment through breathing meditation and allow yourself to ‘be’ rather than constantly trying to ‘do’. It’s ok to not be ok…
Try going outside
We have been lucky that the weather this WMHD is sunny and warm. Try sitting outside and taking a few moments in mindfulness. Tune into what you can hear (whether you are in the city or countryside) in the moment. Are the sounds near or far? Loud or soft? Natural or man-made? Next try noticing what you can feel – the sun on your face; breeze in your hair. Just being outside for a few moments can bring an appreciation for the beauty of life that is often lost when your mental health is affected.
Read a good book
It’s often hard to focus the mind or hold down thoughts when our mental health is suffering. Starting a simple task like reading a book can help relax the entire body and direct your thoughts into the present instead of the negative or ruminative thoughts that can occupy our minds. If you don’t enjoy reading, try mindful sketching or colouring, listening to music or playing an instrument. Even activities like baking can really bring you back to now, where your mind and body can rest.
Talk it over or write it down
Easier said than done I know, but when you are experiencing mental ill health, it’s important to maintain contact with family and friends. If you are experiencing difficulties, it’s important that you don’t try to struggle through on your own. It’s easy to stay at home alone under the duvet, but as I said at the start, wellbeing is an active process. Even a few words spoken in the gym or the shops can help you feel better. If you’re not ready to speak in person, try journalling your thoughts. Writing down your thoughts helps to rationalise them and gives context. What you may have spent all day worrying about could take on a new perspective when it’s before you in black and white. Writing or talking about how you feel helps you to let go of the grasp that we sometimes have when rumination kicks in. Turning thoughts into words can be a great release.
I’ve done a lot of ‘gratitude diaries’ over the years and I admit to being skeptical almost every time. However, they are a very useful activity for changing negative or unhelpful thought patterns. We can tend to get lost in our struggles or feel like we have a mountain to climb every day. If you spend a few moments throughout each day to list everything that you are grateful for, you will start to see that there are many things that can lift your mood each day: the sunlight coming through the curtains, the sound of birdsong, a good night’s sleep, an excellent cup of coffee on the way to work, the laughter of colleagues, a small kindness from a stranger, a good news story in the press, a good movie on TV, a long soak in the bath.
When your mood is low or life feels like a struggle, it often seems that when you wake up in the morning, the day seems to loom over you like an insurmountable obstacle. Try to break your day up into smaller sections so you can tackle each one with more energy and a lighter mood. Try to stay focused on the immediate activities that you are doing instead of casting your mind ahead with what-ifs and rumination. Stay present and let go of the weight of the future and the past.
I visited a primary school in Warwickshire recently and was pleased to see a display promoting wellbeing through 5 practical steps that are now promoted as basic steps to wellbeing all over the world. The ‘5 ways to wellbeing’ outline simple steps that we can all take to improve our wellbeing and are now advocated by the NHS in order to help people actively take control of their wellbeing. Starting small and building to a holistic approach to wellbeing can help us lessen or avoid more long-term conditions such as depression or anxiety that can effect physical and mental health for many years.
But what is wellbeing exactly? What are we trying to improve? Undoubtedly our mental health and states of mind, but wellbeing is a whole of life experience. An improvement in our overall quality of life and experience through practical, active steps to increase our levels of enjoyment, self-worth, physical and mental health and interactions with others.
This sounds like a big challenge, right? Definitely. But luckily the 5 ways to wellbeing really do work and are a great start to improving wellbeing.
The 5 Ways to Wellbeing
- Connect – There is strong evidence that being around others (friends, family, social groups) not only increases our all-round wellbeing, but also increases our longevity. Talking is the best therapy. You don’t have to share everything with others; start small. Make a meaningful connection instead of living in the digital world all the time. When you ask someone how they are, actually listen and pay attention to the answer. Speak to a stranger or make conversation while waiting in a queue. Try car sharing with a colleague; they might even become a friend.
- Be active – We have all read the decades of evidence that shows being physically active improves our mental health…so why do we still doubt it? Because it’s not easy to get active and stay active. But it’s not hard either. There are small changes we can make on the way to becoming more active and improving wellbeing. Take the stairs instead of the lift. Take a class after work with colleagues or organise a new sporting activity for all work colleagues to try. Go for a walk at lunchtime. Get off the bus a stop earlier and walk to your destination. If you feel like more of a challenge, take up a regular class that is proven to aid concentration, inner peace and help sleep…yoga is the obvious.
- Take notice – The basics of mindfulness; notice your surroundings. Be present in the moment and just ‘be’ instead of always ‘doing’. The only moment that exists is right now, so try to pay more attention to what is really going on instead of living in your head thinking about what has already happened or what might happen. Being mindful increases our awareness and knowledge of the self. If we know what we spend our time thinking about, we can start to change our thought patterns for the better. Living mindfully is a difficult task for the novice, but we can all try small steps. Choose a mindfulness cue; a sound or sight that whenever you hear/see it reminds you to take 60 seconds to be mindful and notice what’s going on in the environment.
- Keep learning – Not only is the mind kept active, but there is the chance for social interaction, being mindful and being active all rolled into one here. Continued learning can enhance self-esteem, motivation and can help you to prioritise goals and your own happiness. This doesn’t have to be a formal class to count as learning. You can try learning a new word each day, try reading the news in a foreign language, listen to classical music, join a book club.
- Give – By giving to others we develop our compassion which in turn increases our compassion for ourselves. Engaging in acts of kindness helps us to gain perspective on our own internal struggles and gain an understanding of the greater good. Giving your time, expertise or just random acts of kindness to others can greatly increase your wellbeing and decrease your attachment to seeking happiness through material gain.
I challenge you to try the 5 Winning Ways to Wellbeing for one week and track how you feel in body and mind. Leave a comment below about your experiences and check back to see my review of a week of Winning Ways to Wellbeing.