Practical changes you can make that will genuinely help your mental health
It’s World Mental Health Day, which means everyone’s talking about mental wellbeing and what needs to change in the world to make everyone feel better.
But anyone who lives with poor mental health will know that – while those big societal changes are hugely important and absolutely need to be discussed – mental illness is not just a one-day-a-year issue, and when you’re struggling, you’ll often want practical changes you can make right now to get you feeling just a tiny bit less rubbish.
I’ve lived with OCD and depression for well over a decade (which makes me feel very old. Let’s not discuss it), and I know that medication and therapy is crucial in managing my mental illness – but so is the overused term of self-care; which, no, is not just buying candles.
These are things everyone can do that are proven to boost mental health and overall happiness.
I’ve tried them and they do work, even if when I’m in the depths of depression they feel like impossible tasks.
If you’re struggling with your mental wellbeing amid the pandemic and beyond, I urge you to seek professional help. But I also urge you to give these tiny lifestyle tweaks a go, even when they feel stupid or like they’re not going to make a difference, and see how you feel.
Actually have a routine
The first change to make to your daily routine: actually have one.
This doesn’t need to be super rigid or the exact same thing every day, but adding some structure to your life can make you feel more grounded, more in control, and less like you’re becoming a formless blob that just bumbles through life crashing into whatever 2am TV show you can find.
Have a wake-up time and a bedtime. Plan out what your days and evenings look like, from how you’ll fill your weekends with activities you actually enjoy to making a commitment to go on a walk outside every day after work.
Write down three things you’re grateful for every day
There have been so many studies linking gratitude to better mental wellbeing, increased life satisfaction, and a lower risk of burnout.
An easy way to bring more gratitude into your life is to make it a habit. Every evening before bed, take some time to reflect on your day and write down (writing it down is important, so do that rather than just thinking about it) three things you’re grateful for. They can be big things, like ‘I’m grateful for the existence of my cat’, or small things, like ‘I had a great cup of tea today’.
The bonus of doing this is that once you’ve built up the habit, you can look back on all the things you’ve been grateful for – really useful when you feel like everything’s terrible.
Add in the ACE technique
The ACE technique is a simple way to structure your day and make sure you’re ticking off your needs.
It stands for achievement, closeness, and enjoyment, and the idea is that you get a bit of each part of ACE every day.
How to make ACE part of your day:
A is for achievement: Do something that makes you feel accomplished, tick something off your to-do list.
C is for closeness: Chat with a friend! Social interaction, even from a physical distance, makes a big difference.
E is for enjoyment: Do something that makes you feel good without worrying about being productive.
Track your moods
Get into the habit of tracking your moods throughout the day and listing any possible triggers.
This is a good idea for a number of reasons. First off, research has found that mood-tracking apps (I use one called Youper, but anything that lets you keep a log of how you’re feeling will do the trick) ‘can assist in the self-management of mental illness’, making you feel more in control of your own care and increasing your understanding of how your mood changes.
Secondly, when you do talk to a professional about your mental health, whether that’s a GP or a therapist, it can be incredibly helpful to have a log of how you’ve been feeling.
Get a mood-tracking app or pick a notebook for this task, then, whenever you can, get into the habit of writing down how you’re feeling and any reasons why you might be feeling this way.
Reconsider your social media use
Look, I’m not going to tell you to quit social media, because that would be extremely hypocritical given my own hours spent on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.
Plus, there are benefits of social media in terms of social connection and a sense of community, especially in lockdown when we might not be seeing as many people IRL.
But we do know that unhealthy use of social media isn’t good for your mental health. If you’re coming away from hours of scrolling feeling worse – whether due to insecurity due to all the comparison, anger over all the hot takes, or sadness from doomscrolling – then it’s time to reflect on what you’re doing and adjust where possible.
This might mean setting a time limit on how long you can scroll, vowing to never use social media after 9pm, or simply reminding yourself, over and over, not to compare your life to the ‘best bits’ of someone else’s online.
Make a social connection
Feeling connected to other people boosts our mental wellbeing. As often as possible, get some genuine social interaction, whether that’s ringing up a family member for a catchup, having a Zoom meeting with your coworkers instead of just Slacking each other, or arranging a dinner with a few close friends.
Make sleep a priority
We can’t overstate the importance of sleep when it comes to mental wellbeing… which makes it incredibly frustrating when mental illness negatively affects your ability to get a good night’s rest.
It’s not always as simple as just ‘getting eight hours a night’, but one thing we can all do is take sleep seriously and treat it as a priority.
If you’re having longterm sleep struggles, talk to your GP and reset your routine.
If you’re able to sleep through the night but just keep staying up and out, getting up super early, and running yourself down… stop it. Give yourself a bedtime and take it seriously. Make the changes you need to ensure you have a solid sleep routine, because simply put, you cannot feel your best if you’re permanently exhausted.
Practising mindfulness is associated with lower stress and increased life satisfaction, so if you haven’t already given meditation sessions and mindfulness guides a go, you really, really should.
Headspace is the go-to because it does the trick. It’s quick, easy, and you can do the guided meditation sessions anywhere, meaning there’s no excuse for not at least trying it as part of your day-to-day routine.
Spend time in nature (or just outside)
Time and time again we’re shown that time in green spaces does wonders for our mental health.
If you can, head to your local park and hang out with some trees. If you have a garden, just reading for a while out there or watering the plants will help.
There’s something mentally healing about being out in the fresh air and seeing the natural wonders of the world – if only because this means you’re not stewing in bed, unshowered and in a blocking-out-the-world duvet cocoon.
Do some exercise
I know, I know, when you’re depressed, going for a run or hitting the gym sounds like literal hell.
But all that chat about endorphins is, annoyingly, true.
While a full weight-training session absolutely has benefits for your mental health, it’s worth noting that just doing any exercise will make you feel a bit better, if only because you’ll get that sense of achievement from dragging yourself out of the house.
If you’re up to a jog or a gym trip, wonderful, do that. If you can just about manage a stroll to the corner shop and back, that’s brilliant too.
Ditch the alcohol
Alcohol and depression are another one of those tricky things where one causes the other and the other then causes the first thing right back.
If you’re feeling terrible, it’s tempting to drink more alcohol. But if you drink more alcohol, you’ll very likely feel worse; if not immediately, then definitely the next day, when your depression fug has the fun addition of a hangover to make life even harder.
Either quit drinking booze entirely or at least significantly reduce the habit. If you’re one of the many whose drinking has increased in lockdown, it’s high time to get some control and have a sober mindset more often.
That might mean setting yourself a drinks limit on pub trips or skipping the nightly glass of wine with your dinner. Whatever you can do to cut back, do – you’ll feel so much better for it.
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