Thinking about the future can be intimidating for many, and now more than ever, thanks to the ever-present threat of COVID-19. When planning for the future, mental health should be a priority. Try this mental health toolkit for starters.
The saying “healthy body, healthy mind” could not be more true, especially when it comes to planning. “Physical health can affect our mental health,” says Dr Seranne Motilal, Vitality’s clinical wellness specialist, who specialises in mental wellbeing. “By ensuring we take care of our bodies, we can help our mental wellbeing too.” Add these simple self-care tools to your routine on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to help you stay focused and in control.
One of the first steps in your waking-up routine should be a stop at the kitchen cupboard, where you keep your drinking vessels. And we’re not talking about the coffee cups – grab a glass and fill it with water. Drinking water is key when it comes to mental clarity.
Years of research have found that when we’re dehydrated, we have more difficulty keeping our attention focused. Dehydration can damage short-term memory function and the recall of long-term memory. Studies have also found that mild dehydration affects women’s moods in particular, and they are more likely to suffer from headaches and have difficulties concentrating.
We know that there are plenty of benefits to exercise. In terms of mental health, exercise produces endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that can help reduce stress. A recent meta-analysis study found that in people with depression, exercise had a large antidepressant effect when compared to non-active control conditions. Overall, the study found convincing evidence that exercise can be considered an evidence-based treatment for the management of depression1-2.
Dr Motilal says: “Attending a spinning class, going for a run, and doing yoga are great ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. If that’s too much to start with, take the stairs instead of the lift, go for a walk during lunch, or do some light stretches at your desk. There are many different ways to move your body every day and improve your mood while doing so.”
Choose brain-healthy foods:
What we put into our bodies can directly affect the way we think. Studies have shown that certain foods can boost our brain health. Dr Motilal explains that the human brain operates at a very high metabolic rate, and uses a significant proportion of what we eat to support its structure and function. “Evidence is growing to support an association between dietary quality (and nutritional deficiencies) and mental health3.”
Studies have compared ‘traditional’ diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical ‘Western’ diet. These studies have shown that the risk of depression is lower in those who eat a traditional diet. Scientists account for this difference because these traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruit, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, and contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They also don’t include a lot of processed and refined foods and sugars, which are common in the Western dietary pattern.
Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids (walnuts, flaxseeds and fatty fish), anti-inflammatory compounds (tomatoes, berries and leafy greens), and antioxidants (pumpkin seeds, broccoli and grapes) are all great options for improving mental wellbeing.
We know how essential sleep is for boosting immunity and physical wellbeing. Sleep may be as important as diet and exercise in maintaining our physical and mental wellbeing too. Not getting enough sleep at night leads to the obvious problem of sleepiness during the day. Related to this are difficulties with mental processing, including problems with working memory and holding attention. Insomnia has a bidirectional relationship with mental disorders such as depression, which means that depression can cause insomnia and insomnia in turn worsens depression.
How to get it right? Regular exercise, a balanced diet and restricting meal size, particularly at night, are key interventions to improve sleep. Mind-body activities such yoga have been shown to reduce physical and psychological stimulation and improve sleep quality. Then there are the three no-nos: no caffeine, no alcohol and no screens around bedtime.
Start a gratitude journal:
Because plans can always get off track, it’s great to get in the habit of writing down what you are grateful for. This helps shift your brain to focusing on what’s going right in your life, rather than what’s going wrong. Start each week on a positive note by listing seven things you are grateful for in a journal every Monday morning. They can be small things, like being grateful that you can watch sunbirds outside your window, or that you know how to cook a healthy meal.
Give yourself a social media break:
The carefully chosen feeds on social media often make us compare ourselves to others. Looking at another person’s progress can make us question our own. Take a break from scrolling a few hours every week to focus on yourself and be in the moment. “Also, with COVID-19 still hanging over us, it’s important to stay up to date with developments in order to prepare and protect yourself and your family, but constantly watching news reports can make anyone feel anxious. Limit news about the outbreak by choosing a specific time, once a day, to get updates,” Dr Motilal says.
How is that going to help your mental health, you might ask? Well, preparing meals for the week will not only save time, but will also help incorporate some consistent planning in your life. Having grains, beans, leafy greens and so on already cooked will allow you to stay on track with eating healthily while easing the stress of having to cook every night during the week, allowing no room for “I don’t have time to cook, let’s just get takeaways”. Check out the Vitality Home-Cooking Channel for some culinary inspiration.
Create a vision board:
When planning for the future, it’s helpful to create a vision board with things you’d like to accomplish in the month ahead. Using inspiring quotes, photos, and colour schemes is a fun way to visualise your plans and keep you motivated throughout the month. Our minds respond to visual stimulation so by representing your goals with images and designs, you can strengthen your emotions. You could also simply use a big calendar and mark off important dates coming up and goals to achieve, and personal milestones you’ve already reached.
Find your community:
Community provides a sense of belonging and social connectedness. It can also add extra meaning and purpose to everyday life. Good relationships are vital for our wellbeing and being socially connected to people who will continuously inspire and support you keeps you feeling valued. Surround yourself with loved ones who will be there during the celebrations and hardships of your life.
“Staying connected to those close to you is important for your mental wellbeing. Take time out for those around you – kids, spouses, parents and friends.” says Dr Motilal.
Try something new:
Attending a new fitness class or working on a new passion project is a great way to keep yourself on your toes and avoid getting into a routine rut. You could learn a new language, perfect the art of sourdough baking (thank you, lockdown!) or volunteer. Or perhaps it’s just discovering a new trail running route. Keep things interesting by pursuing something new every month to consistently challenge your mind and body.
- Lawlor, DA, Hopker, S.W. 2001. The effectiveness of exercise as an intervention in the management of depression: systematic review and meta-regression analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ, 322(7289): 763–767.
- Mead, GE, Morley, W, Campbell, P, Greig, CA, McMurdo, M, Lawlor, DA. 2008. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, (4): CD004366.
- Sarris, J, Logan, AC, Akbaraly, TN, Amminger, GP, Balanzá-Martínez, V, Freeman, MP, Hibbeln, J, Matsuoka, Y, Mischoulon, D, Mizoue, T and Nanri, A. 2015. Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(3): 271–274.
The importance of mental wellbeing
Understand the importance of staying mentally fit and make your mental wellbeing part of your daily routine with Vitality at home. Visit our Vitality Mental-Wellbeing channel and learn how to improve your mental wellbeing with expert videos and podcasts
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