By Sophi Goddard The Guardian
Winter isn’t usually the easiest season for any- body struggling with their mental health. Even those who breeze through the rest of the year can find their general mood lagging around this time, with increased stress levels, anxiety and even depression. This year could prove especially challenging too, thanks to recent lockdown rules and mounting pressures around issues such as finances, health and the well-being of loved ones. If things feel a little tough right now or you’re worried about the months that lie ahead, here are some suggestions to try out – it’s time to look after ourselves.
If phrases such as “mindful breathing” usually prompt an eye roll, it’s worth rethinking your stance. Focusing on the present, rather than worrying about the future, can help with difficult emotions and improve well-being. Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better. Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as a way to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts of depression in the past. So it figures that mindful breathing exercises can help to decrease stress and anxiety. Start with a simple breathing exercise (try the Every Mind Matters YouTube channel) and don’t worry if you don’t feel totally zen – it can take practice.
Pay it forward:
It turns out Jerry Springer might have had a point with his much-loved catchphrase (“take care of yourself and each other” for the uninitiated). Research suggests that acts of giving and kindness can help improve your mental well-being by creating positive feelings and a sense of reward, giving you a feeling of purpose and self-worth, helping you connect with other people. If you know of any younger people or children who need support – and many could really do with an extra helping hand right about now – the NHS-approved website Every Mind Matters has plenty of tips and advice.
Seek out small pleasures
A few pages of a book on the sofa before you start making dinner. Surprising a loved one by FaceTiming them instead of playing endless WhatsApp tennis. An impromptu dance session with the kids in place of those punishing daily lunges or kettlebell swings. Focus on finding joy in the small things instead of chasing those big goals or milestones – and notice when you manage to find it. Practising gratitude – either verbally or by writing down those small wins – can help improve mental health and well-being.
Use tech wisely:
Tech has got a bad rap lately, but most of us would have been lost this year without our beloved devices and apps (yes, even those dreaded Zoom quizzes). Every Mind Matters has a helpful selection of recommended mental health apps to trawl through – from psychologist-designed apps to increase your emotional fitness to CBT-based ones to improve self-esteem. But don’t forget to carve out offline time, too – especially when it comes to social media. While social media can help provide a sense of community, connections to social support and give you access to mental health services, studies have suggested a link between heavy use and increased risk of depression, anxiety and loneliness, especially among young people.
Spending time outside is linked to better mood and lower levels of anxiety, particularly when you’re surrounded by nature. It can help boost immune systems, encourage physical activity and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as asthma. Systematic reviews have found that greater exposure to green space enhances quality of life for both children and adults. For example, The Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey gives an annual snapshot of people’s recreational visits to the natural environment in England. Recent analysis of data from the MENE survey indicates that adults who had two hours of recreational activity per week in green space are more likely to have better self-reported health and well-being than those who do not. Walking isn’t a prerequisite either – the ancient Japanese practice of shinrinyoku (“forest bathing”) is gaining traction here too. Head towards your nearest tree-filled nature spot and soak up the goodness (phone firmly off, of course).
Break negative thought cycles:
It’s all too easy to develop negative and unhelpful thought patterns that can have a detrimental influence on the way we think, feel and behave. But recognising when you do this can help improve your mental health and well-being. Every Mind Matters advises the “Catch it, check it, change it” approach, which helps to reframe thinking around perceived problems. If you can catch the negative thought while you’re experiencing it, and check it by investigating why you feel this way, you’re in a better position to change the pattern, and try to replace the thought with a more realistic one, to find a way out. This won’t work all the time, and there are no right or wrong answers, but with practice it’s possible to think more flexibly and feel more in control.
Prioritise those Zs:
Sleep and stress are closely linked and there’s never been a more important time to focus on getting enough shut-eye. While sleep problems usually sort themselves out within about a month, longer stretches of bad sleep can start to affect our lives. If you’re having sleep problems, there are simple steps you can take to ease those restless nights. For instance, you can improve your chances by sticking to a sleep routine where possible – heading to bed and rising at roughly the same time and ditching technology a couple of hours before bedtime. If you are lying awake unable to sleep, do not force it. Get up and do something relaxing for a bit, and return to bed when you feel sleepier.
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