Ahead of World Mental Health Week, Ailin Quinlan finds out 15 ways to boost your wellbeing and longterm happiness
DEPRESSION affects about one in 10 people, and some 450,000 people in Ireland, according to the mental health support group, AWARE.
Anxiety is estimated to be even more common — according to Mental Health Ireland, a national voluntary organisation which promotes positive mental health and wellbeing, about one in six people experience it every year.
We talk to the experts about 15 ways to boost your mental health in advance of World Mental Health Week, October 7 to 13.
1. Recognise the need to prioritise your mental health
Dr Harry Barry, GP, mental health expert and author of a range of books on topics ranging from depression to stress warns:
“The biggest mistake that people make is to think that prioritising themselves is selfish. They don’t understand that if you don’t look after your own physical and mental well-being, you won’t be able to manage.”
Self-care, says Dr Mark Rowe, GP, expert in lifestyle medicine and author of A Prescription for
Happiness, is vital. “Self-care is a gift to you and to who matters in your life,” he says. “It’s about appreciating the importance of looking after your physical health and your mental health, your emotional fulfilment, your relationships and your sense of purpose in the world.
“Self-care is not selfish,” he says, adding that research has shown that “every happy friend you have will increase your own happiness by 9%.
2. Get your priority pyramid straight
The priority pyramid is a crucial strategy to help with emotional resilience, Dr Barry believes it shows how you prioritise aspects of your life.
A person with an “unhealthy” pyramid, for example, will put work on the first, most important level — and self on the last level.
If your priority pyramid is significantly out of whack, warns Dr Barry, you’re “doomed” to toxic stress.
In contrast, he explains, a healthy priority pyramid looks as follows: on the first level is self, on the second is relationship. Children come third, your wider family network fourth, work fifth and lastly, other things.
“If your health and wellbeing and relationship is strong when problems come in terms of children, family or work you will handle them better,” he says adding that he encourages patients to draw their pyramid on a weekly basis, to see if they’re keeping their priorities straight.
“At the end of three months the’ve learned that skill of prioritising the self and the relationship — and that is a wonderful antidote to stress and great for emotional resilience.”
Have regular coffee-cup conversations with people who matter
“This is about the power of connection,” << Listening to music, exercise, enjoying a cup of coffee with friends, and doing yoga are all vital tools to good mental health . explains Dr Rowe.
“We need to connect and we need people in our lives who strengthen, support and listen to us. Don’t isolate yourself — loneliness is a terrible poverty and social isolation is a big issue and a major factor for vulnerability to depression and suicide.”
3. Examine your stressors
Do this regularly, advises Dr Barry: “Look at what is a cause of stress in your life and deal with it by writing each stressor down. “Then try to sort out your stressors one by one.” In other words, don’t try to deal with a jumble of things all at once:
“I get everyone to write things down, because when you get a worry out of your head and down on paper your rational brain can often solve what is the problem,” he says, adding that this can apply to everything from relationship to financial or workplace difficulties - and that it’s important to seek appropriate help.
“Taking things one by one is a very practical problem-solving approach,” he says.
4. Identify your personal sources of joy
What are the things you love to do the things that make you feel happiest?
“Identify these things and carve out time in your week to allow yourself to unplug and to do those things you enjoy, whether it’s playing golf or bridge, gardening or meeting friend,” suggests Dr Rowe.
5. Be honest with yourself
“As a GP,” explains Dr Brian Higgins, a familiar face to many through his regular appearances on TV3 as the station’s in-house doctor, “the two things I see most of are anxiety and depression.” The important thing for patients, he says, is to differentiate between the causes of a particular mental health condition.
“Is it a lifestyle issue or issues that are causing you anxiety, for example, not studying for an exam and then getting anxious that you are going to fail it? “Or is at a medical problem? “Sometimes people come in and tell me they just need a tablet to help them manage.”
However, he emphasises feelings of depression or anxiety may sometimes be caused, not by a medical problem but by your lifestyle:
“It’s always important to look at your lifestyle and ask yourself whether you are doing something that can contribute to anxiety or depression, for example working too hard or not socialising with your friends.
However, he adds, a large proportion of the population will suffer from psychiatric problems such as anxiety or depression, which are not linked to your lifestyle:
“When you are having symptoms of anxiety or depression that are really affecting your overall quality of life or your daily productivity, when there is no discernible cause such as problems at work or home, for example, it is important to see a doctor.
“You may be put on a course of medication, and it may also be recommended that you try cognitive behaviour therapy, which should go hand in hand with any medical treatment.
“This is a form of counselling that involves behavioural change. It is an essential part of the management of any mental health issues.”
6. Recognise the need for emotional resilience — and cultivate it
“Many of us lack key personal social and life skills to deal with the issues that inevitably arise,” explains Dr Barry.
“We often don’t have the necessary equipment to deal with a problem. People may become very anxious because they cannot cope with uncertainty. People who do not know how to handle hurt can carry it on their back and it weighs them down.
“Many of these skills can be learned if you are prepared to put the work in,” he says.
“You can learn a skill like this in three months.”
7. Emotional resilience
“Many people become anxious because they are certain they can control their life,” Dr Barry explains, who believes a fear of uncertainty is a major stress for many people.
Many people expect to have 100% certainty in their lives, he says, and if something bad and unexpected happens they can start to ‘catastrophize’.
“This is very damaging for your mental health,” says Dr Barry who recommends below coin exercise as a way of teaching yourself how to deal with uncertainty.
8. Make a list of things you genuinely enjoy doing
For the next four weeks you must toss a coin — heads or tails — to determine whether you can enjoy that activity, whether it’s the next episode of your favourite TV series, a yoga session or even just a glass of wine.
Do this exercise on every possible occasion for four weeks, and you will find yourself adjusting better to the vagaries of life, he says.
“People learn to adapt to change and uncertainty, especially negative change, when things don’t go their way.”
9. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
“Mental Health issues are very common. But one of the biggest problems is that people so often do not look for help,” says Dr Higgins.
Remember, he says, help is available.
10. Assess your sleep habits
“This is a simple but important thing - get sufficient sleep, ideally around eight hours a night,” Dr Barry recommends.
“There is evidence that the less sleep we get the more our mental health begins to disintegrate,” he says, adding that he believes that part of the reason so many adolescents are struggling with mental health issues nowadays is that they are not getting enough sleep.”
He recommends instating a house rule that all phones and devices belonging to teenagers must be switched off by 10.30pm.
11. Express gratitude
“This is a word which we can use to enhance our inner sense of wellbeing. It’s about appreciating all the good things in your life, for example, your health and relationships,” says Dr Rowe.
“The habit of writing down three things each day that make you feel grateful is a very powerful way to enhance your well-being and it can be a game changer in terms of more fulfilment and inner peace.
“It can help to dissolve feelings of negativity, stress or anxiety when you do it every day. I try to do this myself every day”.
12. Work up a sweat
“Physical exercise is the greatest pill of all,,” says Dr Rowe.
“Exercise is something which can dissolve feelings of negative stress and dampen the amygdala, which is the brain’s ‘red button’ for feelings of stress, fear and anxiety.”
Exercise increases the level of ‘feelgood’ hormones in the body, he explains.
“It increases your levels of serotonin which make you feel more positive, of oxytocin which makes you feel more connected and dopamine which makes you more motivated.”
13. Take time out
Spend time in silence and stillness, Dr Rowe urges.
“Spend a little time in quiet time, for example, take a walk in the woods, sit quietly, or build the habit of meditation.
“When we can quieten the business of the ‘monkey mind’, we are more able to move to a more chilled-out and relaxed state,” he says.
14. Listen to music
Music can really get to parts of your mind that other things cannot reach,” Dr Rowe explains.
“Music is a great way to bring on feelings of inspiration.
“There is a lot of evidence and science backing up the benefits of music for mental health.”
A 2013 study published in PLoS One journal showed listening to music helped reduce stress — participants reported that listening to music had an impact on the autonomic nervous system. The study found that those who had listened to music tended to recover more quickly in the wake of a stressful incident.
15. Cultivate a sense of spirituality
This may involve investing in your sense of personal faith, Dr Rowe explains.
“Nurture your spiritual wellbeing,” he advises.
This can be done, he adds, in a number of ways, for example in terms of helping others through volunteering as well as investing in your own personal faith in a higher power. The choice is yours.
need to connect and we need people in our lives who strengthen, support and listen to us. Don’t isolate yourself...