School of thought

I eat well, but drink and smoke oc­ca­sion­ally. And, if I’m hon­est, I’m not the fittest. I feel like a ma­jor life­style up­heaval would boost my mood, but can’t seem to com­mit to any­thing. What small thing would make a dif­fer­ence?’

Grazia (UK) - - Contents - Eleanor Mor­gan is au­thor of Anx­i­ety For Begin­ners: A Per­sonal In­ves­ti­ga­tion and is train­ing to be a psy­chol­o­gist An­jula Mu­tanda is a psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of How To Do Re­la­tion­ships Email your men­tal-health ques­tions to feed­back@ graziamagazine.co.uk a

eleanor says:

Let’s be clear off the bat: you, I and mil­lions of oth­ers can fan­ta­sise, but there is no sin­gu­lar rem­edy for men­tal dis­tress. Why? Be­cause we all have such wild variations in our genes and life ex­pe­ri­ences, all our brains work slightly dif­fer­ently. This is one of the most im­por­tant things to re­mem­ber when we talk about men­tal health.

Cen­tral to your ques­tion is how easy it is to get lost in the tyranny of ‘shoulds’ that abound in our so­ci­ety that’s ob­sessed with op­ti­mal ‘well­ness’ – what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ eat, for ex­am­ple. Do­ing what we can to re­sist these ideals is a life­style choice that re­quires pa­tient, com­pas­sion­ate self-ex­am­i­na­tion. Your brain is the con­trol cen­tre for your en­tire be­ing.

Let’s re­frame men­tal health as ‘health’ full stop: mind as body, body as mind. Re­search tells us that, when our men­tal health is suf­fer­ing, a com­bi­na­tion of ge­netic, bi­o­log­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors are at play in ways that can’t re­ally be iso­lated. What helps keep one per­son on an even keel might not work for an­other.

You men­tion ex­er­cise. Sci­ence tells us that get­ting out of breath a few times a week boosts crit­i­cal neu­ro­trans­mit­ters (chem­i­cal mes­sen­gers that mod­u­late our emo­tions) in the brain. It re­duces lev­els of stress hor­mones and stim­u­lates pro­duc­tion of en­dor­phins, our nat­u­ral mood el­e­va­tors. How­ever, what we’re told in the me­dia about the ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise of­ten ig­nores a cru­cial truth: when our mood is very low, or anx­i­ety lev­els very high, ex­er­cise can feel like an im­pos­si­ble con­cept. A more re­al­is­tic ‘choice’ is to strip things right back. Build­ing from a 10-minute walk one day to a 15-minute walk the next can be a help­ful strat­egy. All the bor­ing tropes about eat­ing, drink­ing and sleep­ing hang around for a rea­son – we re­quire a cer­tain bal­ance of things to help us func­tion op­ti­mally. Com­ing to an ac­com­mo­da­tion with what gen­uinely makes us feel good within those pa­ram­e­ters is a harder task than it seems. So, ex­per­i­ment. Write things down. Try and work out what gives you, the in­di­vid­ual, a sense of men­tal equi­lib­rium. If eat­ing a mas­sive pile of chips twice a week is part of that, ar­gu­ing with your­self makes as much sense as a choco­late teapot.

an­jula says:

You’re not alone in feel­ing over­whelmed. Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures, about one in six peo­ple are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing com­mon prob­lems like de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. Yes, a lit­tle bit of what you fancy might seem OK, as a quick fix, but when you feel like this, the wine, cigs and sugar may be con­tribut­ing to your low mood. Al­co­hol, for in­stance, is a de­pres­sant; too much sugar can have your moods peak­ing and crash­ing like noth­ing else; and cig­a­rettes can be both a stim­u­lant and a de­pres­sant. But just mak­ing one change might help get you back on track. Many well-re­garded stud­ies show the pos­i­tive ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise on men­tal and phys­i­cal health. The body not only re­leases feel­good en­dor­phins, but this can be­come your healthy cop­ing strat­egy. Re­search shows mod­er­ate lev­els are ef­fec­tive for most peo­ple – so get­ting a bit flushed but not wring­ing your clothes out with sweat should do it. The trick is do­ing it reg­u­larly and try­ing to keep it feel­ing pos­i­tive and em­pow­er­ing.

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