Mental Health Top Tips – What’s Top and What’s Not

NEWSFLASH: Today (10/10/2016) is World Mental Health Day. I’m ashamed to say that Facebook had to inform me and it almost completely blew past me.

You may have noticed the mental health is very close to my heart. Today, 1 in 4 people in the UK have been diagnosed with some kind of mental health problem.  I personally have never been shy or retiring about the fact that I am one of those people. I have been through CBT, I feel far more in control of my low moments; but from personal experience, the truly bad days never really go away.

This is not the case for everyone. I know people who have been in therapy for years and it has done nothing for them. I know people who believe there is no help for them and therefore refuse to seek help altogether. Around a year ago I wrote an article regarding the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 and the stigma surrounding depression (to be found here), so I won’t return to those issues in as much detail here.

The other thing that cropped up on my Facebook was The World Mental Health Foundation (who sponsor World Mental Health Day) stating 10 Top Tips for looking after your mental health. These tips appear to be ubiquitous; most of them are listed in every single self help book, mental health leaflet, motivational poster and God knows what else that one can find in any relevant charity or GP office. However, this doesn’t mean they should be discounted.

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Because I can rattle for England and in the interests of keeping this post both readable and digestible, I’ll post five tonight and five tomorrow.So, let’s have a look at the first five:

  1. Talk about your feelings

The oldest one in the book, but nonetheless a goodie. Talking can be massively cathartic, and ‘guided talking’ (which is how I like to think of counselling) can lead you down mental pathways which are very illuminating.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. There is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ in mental health therapy – which is a good thing – but not everyone responds to them, not to mention that a significant proportion of people relapse following completion of treatment. Add this to the fact that most people don’t want to talk about their feelings. In spite of the advent of the internet,(where any idiot can post their opinion – case in point; me), we live in a very insular society.

Do not get me wrong: talking about your feelings is healthy, particularly in those feeling isolated and scared. It’s up to the individual, however, to decide whether, and indeed when, to talk and when to stay silent. You shouldn’t push someone into talking if they don’t want to; it helps nobody.

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      2. Keep Active

This is one I am a big fan of. I know not everyone is into fitness, but I love going for a run or a cycle if I’m feeling down or stressed. There is a literal stack of evidence that exercise improves mental health; it releases endorphins (the brain’s internal pleasure hormone) which promote general wellbeing, not to mention the physical health benefits. I could sit here spouting them all day (but I won’t, because that’s not why I’m here).

It’s not an alternative to therapy, mark you. At the height of my depression I was cycling and riding almost every day and I still felt like hell – in fact, it shut my background noise up so that I had more time to focus on the crappy thoughts – which arguably made it a lot worse. However, walks can help on a down day (or night, but if you’re going to go out walking at night, please be careful). Runs as well, if you are that way inclined. But for serious mental health issues, therapies (both pharmaceutical and psychological) are recommended. Exercise is not a cure-all.

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      3. Eat Well

I think this one is a little bit nebulous, to be honest. Laying aside the fact that people on special diets such as coeliacs or lactose-free are perfectly capable of living on these diets and being perfectly fancy-free, it’s a very under-researched area. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some merit – logically speaking, if eating the right diet is an aid to weight loss/gain, healthy skin, the improvement of general body functioning – why not improved brain function as well? An article written by Nutritionist Resource (here) links food consumption habits to conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. As with all mental health issues, however, it is never this simple; for example, there is evidence to suggest that most psychological disorders have some kind of genetic component. Don’t panic – these gene variations are small and not particular heritable, but their presence alone is enough to complicate matters when it comes to predicting and managing mental health issues.

I think that eating the right diet is important anyway, but when it comes to staving off or preventing mental disorders, I think that there is too much going on in the brain to ascribe a major significance to this approach – yet. As for the future…who knows?

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      4. Drink Sensibly

The World Mental Health Foundation classes this particular tip under ‘Don’t drown your sorrows in alcohol.’ Not arguing with this at all. They’re right – alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant, no matter how crazy and alive it might make you feel when you’re out with your friends, dancing on the table with your shoes on your head or something equally odd (I maintain to this day, the video does not exist). Alcohol dependence is not a fantastic coping mechanism and adds a whole new dimension to treatment. Unfortunately, it does tend to co-occur with issues such as depression – keep a sharp eye.

I’d like to add a another dimension to this tip myself however – drink enough water. The average human needs up to 2.5 litres per day to maintain a good level of functionality (link and link). This is surprisingly hard to achieve (or maybe I’m just lazy), but it does make a difference – it aids digestion, brain function, cell function…it’s an all around good idea. Personally, I feel much better in the morning if I’ve drunk enough the day before, and like sh*t if I haven’t.

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      5. Keep in Touch

I would really like to class this under ‘talk about your feelings,’ but I feel this pertains more to having a social life than to talking to a professional or having good ol’ rant to your best friend. It’s also about maintaining good relationships, and being able to recognise if someone is toxic for your mental health. I’ve had to back away from friends sometimes for a good long while because they’re simply not good for my state of mind at a given point in time. There is nothing wrong with this. If they care, they should understand. If they don’t, they’re not worth your time.

Humans are inherently social animals; no matter how much of a misanthrope you might make yourself out to be, as a species we don’t react well to being alone. There have been studies which have shown that social isolation (real and perceived) activates the same region of the brain that processes physical pain; the cortex begins producing a painkiller. Being left out literally hurts. It therefore makes sense that keeping in touch with friends should help with mental health issues. It’s often not easy, however; on a bad day, the idea of being in the same room as someone else can be the worst thing in the world. It’s made worse if you live alone or with people who you don’t know terribly well (like a house-share or a student flat), or if you have to go into work when the last thing you want to do is be social. Having the support network certainly helps, but that same support network should understand if you need some alone time as well.

Okay, that’s it for this half. I hope that’s been at least partly interesting an informative, and I’ll see you tomorrow for the rest.

Stay awesome!

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Note; if anything discussed above has affected you, or you feel like you need to talk to someone, below are some links to sites which can take you further or give you more information. These will be specific to the UK (as I know most about this system) but there will be similar sites for people living in different countries and continents. Help is out there somewhere, promise. 

http://www.iapt.nhs.uk/about-iapt/

http://www.mind.org.uk/

Brain and heart picture source

 Yin-Yang picture source

 

 

 

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