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?
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.