MAR­GINAL GAINS

Wash­ing your win­dows, air­ing your throws, giv­ing the oven a proper scrub: a se­ries of small tasks that, com­bined, make your home sparkle like new. Is your men­tal health in need of some­thing sim­i­lar?

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS FLORENCE MITCHELL AND SOPHIA AN­DER­SON

15 small steps that add up to a calmer, hap­pier you

The blos­som is in bloom and you’re so full of the joys of spring that you’re ba­si­cally a liv­ing Dis­ney char­ac­ter. Well, this is how the sea­son is sup­posed to look. In re­al­ity, your res­o­lu­tions went AWOL at some point around Pancake Day and the ‘stuff to sort’ list you keep mean­ing to make a dent in is mul­ti­ply­ing be­yond rea­son. Brain fuzz is start­ing to spawn into le­git­i­mate angst – bet­ter stop it be­fore it takes you down. En­ter mar­ginal gains the­ory – the idea that in or­der to achieve some­thing in the long term, you need to fo­cus on short-term changes. Put sim­ply, clean away the cob­webs now to safe­guard your men­tal health for the rest of the year and be­yond. The the­ory was pop­u­larised by Bri­tish Cy­cling to turn around the for­tunes of the be­lea­guered na­tional team in 2003. The aim was to im­prove mul­ti­ple as­pects by 1% to ac­cu­mu­late grad­u­ally into an over­all im­proved per­for­mance; start tiny, achieve big. Mi­cro-up­grades in­cluded the use of hand sani­tiser to avoid the spread of germs. The suc­cess of the strat­egy made house­hold names of the cy­clists (Chris Hoy and Vic­to­ria Pendle­ton, any­one?). But this the­ory can do won­ders for am­a­teurs, too, ar­gues Dr Jes­samy Hib­berd, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist. ‘It’s a com­mon­sense ap­proach to well­be­ing, as op­posed to a clin­i­cal one,’ she ex­plains. ‘Mak­ing small shifts has an ac­cu­mu­la­tive im­pact on your over­all well­be­ing. You’re giv­ing your­self a bet­ter chance of things go­ing well, lead­ing to a greater pos­si­bil­ity of suc­cess.’ So in­stead of try­ing to climb Ever­est (ain’t no one got the time nor the in­cli­na­tion for that), im­prove your men­tal health by mak­ing these small, science-backed tweaks. Re­mem­ber: start tiny, achieve big.

1 LIST THE GOOD STUFF

They might not have had a doc­tor­ate in psy­chol­ogy, but Monty Python had it right when they said some­thing about look­ing on the bright side of life. And if writ­ing about the things you’re grate­ful for sounds like the kind of ad­vice doled out by a mar­ket­ing exec at a sta­tionery com­pany, get a load of this: a Uni­ver­sity of Mi­ami study found that peo­ple were more op­ti­mistic and felt bet­ter about their lives af­ter writ­ing in a grat­i­tude jour­nal for 10 weeks. So next time some­thing gen­uinely nice hap­pens – your boss praises a job well done, you de­cide you do de­serve that Ap­ple Watch or your Fri­day night drinks es­ca­late to danc­ing – park your cyn­i­cism and put pen to pa­per.

2 SWERVE SOME SUG­ARS

You’re well-versed in the joyride that is the su­gar train; a 3pm choco­late bar spikes your blood su­gar, giv­ing you a tem­po­rary boost, fol­lowed by a sharp crash. But re­cent re­search from UCL found that a con­sis­tent in­take of re­fined su­gar can in­crease your risk of de­vel­op­ing anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion. No need to stick your birthday can­dles in a pot of hum­mus, it’s ha­bit­ual su­gar in­take that’s prob­lem­atic, so just be more dis­cern­ing come snack time.

3 SWEAT AROUND YOUR CY­CLE

No, not your bike – we’re talk­ing about the monthly kind. When you buy a box of su­per tam­pons, head to the gym and can’t quite crush it like you usu­ally do, blam­ing your bi­ol­ogy will get you nowhere. Pe­riod. When it’s your time of the month, book a yoga class in­stead. Save HIIT for the first two weeks of your cy­cle when you’re feel­ing more en­er­gised, and sched­ule strength train­ing for the week be­fore your pe­riod.

4 FLY SOLO

Whether you’re sin­gle or not-at-all-sin­gle, time spent alone is a proven con­fi­dence-booster and stressre­ducer – head­phones in on the com­mute doesn’t count. You don’t have to dive in at the deep end and book a ta­ble for one (al­though, more power to you), but choose ac­tiv­i­ties that al­low you to soak up the solo-ness. Pe­ruse an art gallery in your lunch hour, take your­self off for a cof­fee and chill, or block out sin­gle time just as you would date nights.

5 STA RT THE DAY LIKE A CEO

There’s a rea­son they’ve got where they are: they get shit done – even though that be­gins when most of us are still in REM. Anna Win­tour is on the ten­nis court by 5.45am and Oprah is al­ready mid-sun-salu­ta­tion at 6am. Hal El­rod has writ­ten the book on the sub­ject, The Mir­a­cle Morn­ing. He ar­gues that, by ris­ing just one hour ear­lier to ex­er­cise, med­i­tate or even just to r ead a book, you can feel more en­er­gised and lower your stress lev­els. The early bird...

6 GET A PET

Im­por­tant pet news: some of the coun­try’s great­est minds have put their heads to­gether to find out once and for all whether dogs re­ally are man’s best friend. Aca­demics at the univer­si­ties of Man­ches­ter, Southamp­ton and Liver­pool re­viewed 17 stud­ies on the im­pact of pets on the men­tal health of their own­ers and – from re­duced feel­ings of lone­li­ness to a height­ened a sense of pur­pose – the over­all im­pact was pos­i­tive. If you’re sans pet be­cause of, you know, life, hit up bor­rowmy­doggy.com to walk some­one else’s dog or trust­ed­hous­esit­ters.com to look af­ter a cat. Or just get a gold­fish.

7 GIVE SOME­THING BACK

If you haven’t sur­ren­dered your time for a good cause since you earned a Brown­ies badge for do­ing so, you’re hu­man and that’s cool. But with a large amount of ev­i­dence link­ing vol­un­teer­ing to men­tal well­be­ing, help­ing oth­ers could be a le­git way of help­ing your­self. The the­ory goes that peo­ple who vol­un­teer reg­u­larly ex­pe­ri­ence spikes in oxy­tocin (the cud­dle hor­mone). Need some in­spo? We googled a0nd vol­un­teer­ing as a puppy so­cialiser is a gen­uine thing.

8 PUT YOUR TECH ON TIME OUT

If an ac­tual hu­man was pes­ter­ing you ev­ery few sec­onds with pics of cute an­i­mals, Kar­dashian gos­sip and Brexit up­dates, it would prob­a­bly be time to have The Talk. So why do you put up with it from your phone? A re­cent study found that smart­phone in­ter­rup­tions cause inat­ten­tion and hy­per­ac­tiv­ity – and you don’t need science to tell you how easy it is to fall down a What­sapp worm­hole when you’re on dead­line. A smart­phone breakup is ex­treme, but some ground rules are a good start. Stick your phone on air­plane mode while at work and mute group chats if you’re stressed. If it’s re­ally piss­ing you off, throw it in the wash­ing up bowl.

9 GET SOME D

Minds out of the gut­ter please, we’re talk­ing about the vi­ta­min. Re­searchers from the Uni­ver­sity of Ge­or­gia stud­ied the link be­tween vi­ta­min D and sea­sonal af­fec­tive dis­or­der (the aptly named SAD) and found that the nu­tri­ent played an in­te­gral role. One the­ory is that vi­ta­min D is in­volved in the syn­the­sis of sero­tonin and dopamine within the brain – low lev­els of which are linked with de­pres­sion. The good news is that, be­tween March and Oc­to­ber, get­ting out for 20 min­utes – with a bit of flesh ex­posed – should be suf­fi­cient to get all the D you need. (In win­ter, look to a sup­ple­ment to get your fill.) For a well­be­ing bonus, com­bine your sun­light stroll with the proven mood-boost­ing ef­fects of be­ing in na­ture by walk­ing through a park or chill­ing in your gar­den, for ex­am­ple, and you’re laugh­ing.

10 SWITCH YOUR FO­CUS

Med­i­ta­tion has been around for, oh, about 4,000 years or so, but science has fi­nally caught up and dis­cov­ered that just 10 min­utes per day can ease anx­i­ety and stress, re­lieve chronic pain, in­crease cre­ativ­ity, boost em­pa­thy and make you cog­ni­tively sharper. The real ques­tion is what doesn’t it help? Start by sit­ting in a com­fort­able po­si­tion – you don’t need to be in a yogi lotus – and fo­cus on your breath, not a whis­per of an om. Take in the sounds and smells around you – some peo­ple pre­fer to close their eyes, but the choice is yours. Tune into how your hands are rest­ing and how your feet are planted un­til you’re re­laxed and your mind is clear. It’s not a sim­ple as it sounds, but prac­tice makes per­fect.

11 GO WITH YOUR GUT

The mind-gut con­nec­tion gets more press than Meghan Markle – and with good rea­son. While re­search into the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween the brain and the gut mi­cro­biome con­tin­ues at pace, re­searchers are al­ready sold on up­ping your in­take of pre­bi­otics (think as­para­gus, leeks, onions) as well as pro­bi­otic foods (think live yo­ghurt, kom­bucha, miso) for fu­ture-proof­ing your brain health. So be sure to get your fill.

12 TRY A LIT­TLE METACOGNITIVE THER­APY

A thought is just a thought; it does not re­flect re­al­ity. This is the the­ory be­hind MCT – the new kid on the cog­ni­tive ther­apy block that’s evolved out of some 20 years of re­search by sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­sity of Man­ches­ter. Stud­ies sug­gest it has prom­ise in treat­ing anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion when ap­plied by trained clin­i­cians. But the prin­ci­ple can help you even if you don’t have a men­tal health con­di­tion. Next time you have a neg­a­tive thought (or, you know, a whole bunch of ’em), recog­nise (talk­ing to your­self can help here) that it’s just a thought and that it is sep­a­rate from you and your sit­u­a­tion. Have the thought, then move on.

13 SWITCH OFF THE NEWS

Some­times, watch­ing the news/ read­ing a pa­per/pe­rus­ing Twit­ter can leave you feel­ing like you’ve gone three rounds with Ni­cola Adams. But wor­ry­ing about the state of the world will do you no good. Re­search con­ducted af­ter the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ings in 2013 found that re­peat­edly en­gag­ing with trauma-re­lated me­dia con­tent pro­longed view­ers’ stress. We’re not say­ing you should go and live un­der a rock, but turn­ing off the news alerts on your phone is a good start.

14 CHAN­NEL THOSE CHORES

If one more per­son tells you to do some­thing mind­fully, you’ll prob­a­bly tell them to do one. But be­fore you throw the dirty dishes at us, mind­ful chores are a le­git thing. It’s all about re­fram­ing some­thing you think of neg­a­tively as an op­por­tu­nity. Me­nial it may be, but fo­cus on the warmth of the wa­ter when you’re wash­ing the dishes, the tex­ture of the plates and the sounds of the suds and you might find that you can take small de­light in the dull-as­dish­wa­ter job. Re­peat for things like hoover­ing, bill-pay­ing and your Sun­day batch cook and you’ll ba­si­cally be boss­ing life.

15 BREATHE CLEVER

If any­one is an ex­pert on main­tain­ing their game face while scream­ing in­side, it is surely Hil­lary Clin­ton. Now, she’s re­vealed the se­cret to her on-stage com­po­sure dur­ing her 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Block your right nos­tril with your right thumb and in­hale through your left, pinch both nos­trils for a few mo­ments, then ex­hale through your left. Re­peat on the other side us­ing the ring fin­ger of your right hand. Have a google to see HC in ac­tion and get the tekkers to be as chilled as her in your next pre­sen­ta­tion.

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