Why Mental Fitness Matters and How to Find It

October is Mental Health Month and October 10th is World Mental Health Day so it’s a good time to be reminding ourselves of the importance of staying mentally well.

Perusing through WHO’s mental health action plan 2013-20 recently I noticed their current focus is on the following four major objectives to:

  • Strengthen effective leadership and governance for mental health
  • Provide comprehensive, integrated and responsive mental health and social care services in community-based settings
  • Implement strategies for promotion and prevention in mental health
  • Strengthen information, evidence and research for mental health

 

All very relevant. However, with rising levels of anxiety and depression and an estimated economic cost of US$1trillion pa to the global economy, something tells me we’ve got to get better at stemming the tide, which is where prevention comes first and foremost.

Because with all the good will in the world and the ernest intention to do better at speeding recovery from mental illness, the only sustainable approach for an already overloaded and overburdened medical system that is no longer able to provide adequate and timely care is to reduce the risk.

Prevention is the key.

This can be achieved by addressing those lifestyle issues long recognised as essential contributing factors to health and wellbeing, and performance.

 

1. Sleep

Lack of sleep contributes to a worsening mood and loss of emotional regulation. While those already diagnosed with anxiety, depression or other mood disorder will frequently report sleep disturbance that makes is hard for them to have the energy, motivation or inclination to function normally.

Whichever way you look at it, addressing sleep problems is key to better decision-making, retaining perspective and overcoming our negativity bias.

If you’ve ever felt sleep deprived yourself you may have noticed you are more irritable, angry and frustrated and at risk of “flying off the handle”. This is because the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes incoming sensory information and determines our mood is disrupted by sleep deprivation. We lose cognitive control of emotion.

This is where keeping to a regular sleep schedule can be a life saver. Keeping to a regular getting-up time is a good start and avoid bedtime procrastination by switching off from all technology at least 40 minutes before bed and follow a wind -down schedule to best prepare for sleep.

 

2. Physical exercise

Being active enough across our day can make a big difference to our mood. Exercise not only helps to clear the mind of all those worries, it elevates the release of our feel-good hormones dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. Even a short burst of physical activity for 10 minutes has been shown to reduce stress levels, boost the immune system and lower inflammation, improve your mood and yes, it aids sleep too.

It can be hard to find that motivation to exercise when feeling low. The good news is that even a small amount activity will lead to a positive effect. Find an activity you’re willing to do, that you will hopefully find enjoyable – walking is ideal as a start, schedule it to happen, find an accountability buddy if necessary.

 

3. Healthy eating

What you eat has a big impact on your mood, memory and cognition.

Around 95% of serotonin your happiness hormone is produced in the gut by the biome, the trillions of bacteria that inhabit our gut and are in direct communication with the brain.

Eating foods that are high in fibre such as oats, pears and legumes, beans, and peas feed the good bacteria in the gut, slow down the absorption of sugar and boost serotonin levels

Avoid processed foods high in added refined sugar. Research by Felice Jacka and her team at the Mood and Food Institute at Deakin University has revealed sugar lowers our mood. While it tempting to reach out for those comfort foods when we feel down, they actually contribute to that depressed state of mind. So, maybe just have one or two of those biscuits to cheer yourself up rather than the whole packet.

It’s not uncommon for appetite to swing to off or full speed when our mod is low. What counts is to eat regular small and nutritious meals with plenty of green veggies, lean protein smart carbs and good fats.

 

4. Relax and have fun

Do you know someone who just can’t switch off? They’re constantly on the go, always busy ‘doing’. They appear “wired” and the thing is their over stimulated exhausted mind has been left on high alert and at risk of burnout and depressed mood. It’s as if someone forgot to switch off the alarm after the fire drill and they are still acting as if everything is on red alert.

We’re not designed to operate like this. Taking time out to refresh and recuperate is essential to our mood and wellbeing just as every athlete takes time out after training to be best prepared for the next session.

That’s why taking holidays when they are due and scheduling in mini-breaks such as a long weekend to break the cycle of busy can make all the difference. One study showed how six days away will boost mood and elevate well-being for up to a month afterwards. Adding in some meditation practice or yoga during this time also produced significant positive effects.

So, what are you waiting for? With only 31% of Australians taking all their holiday leave each year, that’s a lot of missed opportunity to do something positive for yourself and your loves ones.

Spending time in a green space for 10-15 minutes every day – even if it’s out of the window has been shown to reduce stress and elevate mood. Whether you work indoors or spend a lot of time outside, greenery has been shown to be essential for mental wellbeing, which is why attending to our working and living environment can make a positive difference to our thoughts, mood and behaviour.

 

5. Be Social

Loneliness is a killer. It’s different from being alone. Loneliness taps into our core, sapping our reason and purpose for being. It damages our physical, mental and cognitive health and shortens lives. Spending time with others, forming relationships has been shown to be as important to our survival and thrival as having access to food, water and shelter.

This is about staying curious to what’s going on around you, engaging with the world, and trying out new things. While technology has enables us to connect with each other to a level previously unimaginable, it’s proved a double-edged sword as we have increasingly sought refuge with our online connections, at the expense of spending time with our living breathing counterparts.

Sharing a laugh or a moment with a friend or loved one is priceless in terms of the value it provides our mental wellbeing. A high level of social connectedness is as good for you as quitting smoking. An ongoing 20-year longitudinal study in NZ has confirmed the benefit of social connection and mental wellbeing. Whether you choose to join a Men’s Shed, book club, voluntary association or choir it’s the time spent in the company of others that will provide you the lift required to sustain your ongoing mental health and wellbeing.

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