Mental health is something that has become much more talked about in recent years – and this can only be a good thing. However, I find that most of the discussion is around helping people who already have poor mental health. In fact, it could be argued that the entire mainstream approach to health is patching up the problem after it has occurred. That works really well for a broken leg or something, but for many conditions, prevention would be much better than cure.
Most health messaging – for both mental and physical health – seems to me to be focused on how to manage an illness or condition once it is there. Personally, having been down that road before and had to claw my way back to some semblance of normality, I prefer to focus on ensuring I am well enough, both mentally and physically.
When I spoke to my GP recently, he talked about four pillars of mental health, and how we need to pay attention to all four of these in order to remain healthy:
As it happens, the food we eat can have a massive impact on all areas of health – including mental health. I recently learned that humans have more neurons in the tract that goes from the oesophagus to the anus, than are found in the brain of a cat. A full 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels. It’s important, then, to ensure we have good gut health.
Boring but true: eating less sugar and processed foods, and more things that come without a label can help to maintain both mental and physical wellbeing. We need a healthy diet with all essential nutrients for healthy brain function. Apparently one of the best things anyone can do for their mental health is to learn to cook proper meals from scratch.
We all need good sleep, and there are lots of things we can do to promote that. It’s not very sexy and exciting, but keeping to the same sleeping and waking routine is a vital part of ensuring we get enough good quality sleep each night. Did you know that the difference in our sleep routines at the weekend can cause similar effects on the body as jet lag? And one night of poor sleep can affect our insulin levels in a negative way.
I really love my sleep and do my best to ensure I get around 7.5-8 hours each night. If I’m going through a period of insomnia where I wake for a few hours in the night, I will ensure I go to bed ridiculously early, to ensure that even with those few hours awake in the middle, I still get enough hours over all. I am convinced this is what has kept me going through some quite stressful times lately.
This is not just about going to the gym in the morning and then spending the rest of the day slumped at your desk or on the sofa. Rather, it’s about aiming to be active throughout the day. I try to move my body in some way every day. That’s easier when my daughter is in school, because I walk up and down a big hill twice a day for the school run. I also do workouts in my dining room, and will often try to take a lunch break during the day for a walk too. I have my Fitbit set to remind me to move every hour when I’ve not taken 250 steps, and this encourages me to stay active through the day. I used to make an excuse to head into town for a bit of shopping therapy in order to increase my step count, but this article gave me pause for thought and now I try to walk around the outskirts of town for half an hour rather than going to the shops.
Social and community
I am an introvert and quite unsociable. I can easily go for days without really talking to anyone – but then I start to feel rubbish and find that I need to talk to someone, just for that bit of social interaction. Human beings are social animals, and it’s important to have that interaction with other people on a regular basis. We all joke about how tedious school gate conversations can be, but this sort of social interaction can actually play a massive part in people’s mental wellbeing. Feeling that we are connected to the people around us makes a massive difference.
There’s also the element of touch and how that can soothe us. In her book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful Sarah Wilson talks about how when she is feeling really anxious she will go and get a cheap massage. She also tells a story about how one time she was feeling really anxious and had nobody around her whom she could ask for a hug – so she walked into a sports shop and told the assistant that she didn’t know what size her feet were. She knew he would then have to get out one of those measuring devices and measure her feet – thus touching them.
Luckily I don’t usually need to find excuses to get a shop assistant to touch my feet – because I have a small person who loves to cuddle. We have a rule that we don’t get up in the morning until we have had our “big cuddle” and will have cuddles throughout the day too. This helps both of us to stay healthy and connected.