Do you ever feel that there must be more to life?
I am writing this in Mental Health Awareness week, where the Mental Health Foundation are promoting the need to care for our mental health better across the U.K. I have given various seminars, talks and workshops with this same title.
Many clients come to see me with the desire to change for the better, but are unsure what it is that they want to see changed specifically. There is often a misconception that feeling good, feeling well, feeling emotionally OK, felling happy etc should just happen. That it should be our default setting. Yet we wouldn’t just expect our physical health to be good, without working at it.
Let’s imagine a situation where Karl ate junk food every day, never exercised, drove everywhere, smoked, drank too much alcohol, used drugs, stayed up playing video games all night and never bothered to keep himself or his home clean. It would not be surprising to us, or his doctor if he was frequently unwell with infections and also developed long-term health problems. We know that to keep our bodies fit and well we need to eat healthily, drink lots of water, take moderate exercise and get enough sleep. If we do not do those things, and start to gain weight or feel unwell, we say “I know I should exercise, cut down on chocolate etc.” There is a clear expectation amongst most people that we need to do something to be physically well.
Yet, there is not such expectation in general about our mental and emotional health. I frequently hear my clients say that they feel depressed, anxious, stressed, worried, upset and so on, without necessarily feeling they have any significant trigger to this feeling. We can often spend the first sessions exploring what’s going on in their lives, only for them to realise that things are generally “fine” and they are surviving, but this does not feel good enough to make them feel well.
So what’s going on?
The importance of Thriving . . .
Just like Karl needs to focus on the physical things he should do to keep his body fit and well, we all need to actively take steps to keep our minds fit and well. If there is one thing I want everyone to know, it is that good mental health does not just happen. We need to work at it.
I firmly believe that when this is an expectation for us all, we will then start to see the rates of depression that we have in the Western world begin to fall. We need to strive for more in life than just getting by, and feeling OK. Yes, life always has its problems and hassles, but if we take care of our mental health, these are so much easier to cope with. We need to work towards feeling amazing, every day.
So how can we do this? Firstly, Karl needs to know that there is a major link between our physical and our mental health. When we start to improve our physical health by doing all the things we know we should, we will start to feel better about ourselves too. So . . .
- Take moderate exercise every day, preferably outside
- Eat a balanced and varied diet
- Drink enough fluid each day
- Aim for between 7-8 hours sleep every night and go to bed/get up around the same time
- Drink alcohol only in moderation and avoid other non-prescribed drugs
- Stop smoking
Then, when we’re on the right track with this, we should start to focus specifically on improving our mental health by taking more active steps.
Tips for good mental health
- Find a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. Do something that makes a difference and is mentally challenging. Examples could be volunteering in children’s activities, helping elderly or disabled people, looking after a relative or neighbour. The aim is to feel that someone needs you and would notice if you did not go where you were meant to be that day. Your local church, mosque or synagogue are likely to have activities you can help with and become involved.
- Connect with other people. Very few people can go through life being happy on their own. Develop meaningful friendships, where you know other people want you in their lives. This might take time but there are often activities in local areas advertised in libraries, supermarkets, post offices etc. If this is hard, start slowly and work on developing social skills eg in shops whilst being served by the cashier.
- Take responsibility for areas of your life that feel out-of-control or unsafe. It could be that you dislike where you are working or living, or you are unhappy or afraid in a particular relationship. Focus on what needs to happen to change those areas and seek support to make those changes happen. If you are frightened in a relationship, you never need to stay in that relationship. Your local council will have details of who can help.
- Achieve things and work on being known for those achievements. We all need to feel successful in at least one area in our lives. What are you good at? Develop that further into a specific role, purpose, job, hobby etc. If you do not know what you’re good at, ask someone. You might be a great baker – so bake cup-cakes to give to other people, you might be good with plants, so offer to help someone with their overgrown garden. Watch out for community classes and related activities to develop your interests further.
- Take time-out for relaxation and rest for at least 30 minutes every day. Try to increase this to an hour over time. Aim to physically slow down and mentally unwind by simply sitting and thinking about something completely unrelated to work or other daily activities. You might like to pray, meditate, recite poetry to yourself, read a book, take a bath, take a gentle walk, day-dream, imagine pleasant future events etc.
- Monitor the people you spend time with and the things you pay attention to. There is no point in doing all of the above, if you spend time with people who drain your motivation, optimism and focus. There are too many so-called on-line ‘support groups’ whose purpose seems to be to maintain each other’s suffering. I monitor these groups regularly and I am astounded by how unhelpful many of them are to vulnerable, mentally unwell people. If you find that people tell you that life is awful, people are evil, there’s no hope of things ever changing and that you’ll always be depressed and unwell, as it is a condition you’ll have for life, avoid these people like the plague. Spend time with those who want you to thrive, live well, and enjoy life instead.
Above all, remember that we need to keep working on developing our mental health. Great mental health won’t just happen and you deserve more than feeling OK. You should try to feel amazing, every day and there are ways you can make this can happen.
Watch out for my future blogs that cover each of these areas specifically.
All names and identifying details of clients have been changed to protect confidentiality