It was World Mental Health Day recently and I couldn’t help thinking that there has never been a more apt time to be reminded of its importance. Here in the UK, it is difficult to describe what it has been like living through the past seven months of the Coronavirus pandemic and its effects without resorting to using too many swears. But it has been said more than once by far too many politicians that these times are ‘unprecedented’. Certainly, the stress of living through the Covid pandemic has been felt by most. Whether you are a healthcare worker caring for Covid patients while trying not to bring it home; a student returning to uni who is facing virtual classes and lockdown measures while taking the blame for Covid outbreaks; a worker who is trying to keep their job or their business afloat or still adjusting to months of isolation while working from home; or like most people, just trying to navigate themselves and their families through these strange times when changing government strategies seem to fail and only delay the return to normal life even further; it would be fair to say that most people’s mental health has been tested in some way.
However, rather than focus on the bleakness of the statistics that reveal the increasing rates of poor mental health resulting from this never ending pandemic I think we should take a page from Mind, the fantastic mental health charity campaigning for awareness and access to support. Mind have marked World Mental Health Day by encouraging everyone to do one thing for better mental health because even a little change can make a difference. With this in mind I am going to offer 3 possible suggestions that are relatively easy to follow that will help to improve your mental wellbeing.
The benefits of exercise to our physical health are very well known but numerous studies have also shown that doing regular physical activity has a positive effect on our mental health, too. Specifically, exercise helps to reduce stress, feelings of depression, anxiety and negative moods; increases self-esteem and cognitive function and improves our sleep (more on that, later). If you physically exert yourself enough to get your heart rate going for example, by walking or running, then your body will also release endorphins which produce an overall feeling of wellness, aka the ‘runner’s high’. It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do as long as you get yourself moving and you do it often enough. If you do something that you enjoy then you will be more motivated to repeat it again. How much is enough? Try to do something every day. Government guidelines recommend doing a minimum of 150min/week of exercise for adults.
Perhaps it is no surprise that I would suggest something nutrition-related but there is much evidence to show that good nutrition really does promote better mental health. It may seem simplistic but there are plenty of ways a bad diet can influence how you feel. For example, eating a healthy balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates such as wholegrains will ensure that your energy levels stay steady and you feel well. If your diet is high in sugar or you skip meals then your blood sugar will quickly drop very low, making you feel tired, irritable and down.
If your diet is low in Iron then you will feel tired, out of energy and have difficulty coping with daily life. You will also be more at risk of illness which hardly promotes your mental health. If your diet is low in Vitamin B12 you will feel extremely tired and out of energy, have problems with memory, understanding and judgement; and suffer from confusion and feelings of depression.
If your diet is very high in caffeine you may have disrupted sleep, feel irritable and anxious. Caffeine also inhibits iron absorption. It is worth saying that caffeine withdrawal can also make you feel down so if you decide to cut down, do it gradually.
Lastly, if your diet is low in fibre then you may have problems with digestion such as constipation. Although this may not seem to have anything to do with mental health, our gut is particularly affected by how we feel and stress and anxiety can make our digestion slow down or speed up. Therefore, eating a healthy diet that includes sufficient fibre will ensure that our gut works regularly which will improve mood and general well-being. Now that you know how a diet can go wrong and affect your mental health you may want to know how to get it right. Look no further than the Eatwell Guide https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/
Get enough sleep
Everybody will at some point in their life have experienced a lack sleep and will know that not getting enough makes you feel rubbish and puts you in a bad mood. So it should come as no surprise that sleep and mental health are closely linked. Poor sleep will lead to tiredness, difficulty coping, lower self-esteem, increased feelings of stress and worrying. Although this does not mean that you cannot simply sleep off your worsening mental health, ensuring that you are getting enough sleep will promote feelings of well-being and help you cope with the stresses of life. How much sleep is enough? Everyone is different but for the majority of adults aim for 7-9 hours/night.
Lastly, as we enter the second wave of the pandemic it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless while living with so much uncertainty. But this means that it is more important than ever to take care of yourself and keep your mental health in check. Because however dire things may seem at times, just doing one small thing for better mental health will help you ride the storm.
With promoting better mental health in mind, I have a good recipe for something that is easy to make but very useful for getting out any angst. It has to be bread, of course, because kneading dough is practically therapeutic. Try these Banana walnut Chelsea buns for an amazing (but healthy) treat.