Mind mat­ters

Ahead of World Men­tal Health Week, Ailin Quin­lan finds out 15 ways to boost your well­be­ing and longterm hap­pi­ness

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Feature -

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...

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