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?’
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.
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.