How to Look After Your Mental Health

Good mental health means we are more likely to have positive self-esteem, engage with others, and live and work productively. We look at some ways you might be able to boost your mental wellbeing and be better equipped to adapt and manage in times of uncertainty...

How are you?

It's a question you might ask or answer many times every day - as a greeting or social nicety -  and in many cases the answer might be simply along the lines of "fine, thank you"' without either party sharing in-depth details of any aches and pains, whether physical or mental.

Much like our physical health, our mental health is not always in the same fixed state. It can fluctuate over time; not just month to month, but day to day, and even over the course of a day. When it's in good shape we are more likely to be better able to engage with the world, to live and work productively; have positive self-esteem and suitable amounts of confidence, and to express a full range of emotions.

When it's not in such good shape, it can cause problems in our work, domestic and social lives. The following suggestions from the Mental Health Foundation are ones that can help you to look after your mental health. You needn't try and do them all, but you may find one or two seem doable. Equally, if some of the ideas sound obvious or familiar, or haven't made a difference in the past, don't dismiss them out of hand, it can take one or two attempts to make them work.

1. Talk about your feelings

If you are feeling troubled about something then - rather than brooding over the issue alone - talking it over can be a great help. If you can find someone who will simply listen as you talk about what's on your mind you will hopefully feel less alone and more supported.

You might think talking to someone else is too embarrassing, or that it would be showing a sign of weakness - but a positive way to think about this is that you are simply taking charge of your own well-being and doing what you can to stay healthy. 

Talking with a friend needn't be a Big Deal. It could simply be something you can talk about in an everyday, normal situation, as and when the conversation allows. You don't have to know exactly what you are going to say, just try to explain how you are feeling - in as many or as few words as you wish to - or what it feels like inside your head.

It may feel awkward at first, but do try, and also give it time. Talking about your feelings is much better for your mental health than keeping everything bottled up.

2. Keep yourself active

As you might expect, regular exercise can help you with your physical fitness. But there's much more to it than that. It can also boost your self-esteem and confidence, and help you not just look better - but feel better too. This is largely thanks to chemicals that are released in your brain when you exercise.

In fact, the benefits overall are huge, exercise can help keep the brain and other vital organs healthy, and help you sleep better and improve your ability to concentrate. Of course, physical exercise isn't something that everyone enjoys or is able to do, but it needn't mean taking part in team sports, or running long-distances, or working out at a gym.

The key is to simply find a way that you can you do around thirty minutes of exercise, five times a week. This could come from walking to the shops, or around the park, or just in and around the house, perhaps doing housework or gardening. The key to success here might be to find a physical activity that you enjoy and make it part of your daily routine.

3. Eat well

We are all used to hearing about the importance of having a good diet. What's important to note is that a diet that's good for our physical health is also good for our mental health. Our brain - just like all the other organs in our body - needs a mix of nutrients to stay healthy and function well.

If you ever turn to a cup of coffee or a 'sugar hit' when you're feeling a little tired, or a bar of chocolate to reward yourself then you won't be surprised that there really is a strong connection between what we eat and how we feel. Whilst the likes of caffeine and sugar can have an almost immediate effect, it's important to consider that food can also have a long-lasting effect on your mental health.

A healthy balanced diet could include - depending on your personal preferences and any specific dietary advice you follow -  different types of fruit and vegetables; wholegrain cereals or bread, nuts and seeds, dairy products, and oily fish. Ensuring you eat three meals a day, and drink plenty of water - limiting the amount of high-caffeine and sugary drinks you have - are also good steps to follow.

4. Be sensible with drink and drugs 

Occasional light drinking is - for most people - perfectly healthy and enjoyable. Alcohol is well-known for its mood-changing abilities - and is often present in social - as well as work - situations, because of the way it can allow us to lose our inhibitions.

Some people might rely on alcohol to boost their confidence when mixing with others, however it can cause a myriad of issues. The immediate effect of alcohol comes as it enters the bloodstream and begins to affect our body and our behaviour. It can lead to not just poor physical coordination, but distorted thinking and impaired decision-making, feelings of confusion, even delusions and suicidal thoughts.

Alcohol only has a temporary effect on mood, but can damage the body - causing withdrawal symptoms and cravings for more, as well as increasing the risk of insomnia and causing disturbance to sleep patterns. Regular heavy drinking can - in some people - lead to an alcohol dependence and ongoing mental effects too. If you do like a drink then the best advice is to keep within the recommended daily alcohol limits - in the UK, this is three to four units for men, and two to three units for women.

Using drugs or other substances can also change the way we feel, but again the effects are short-lived, and as with alcohol, the more you use, the more you tend to crave. Drugs don't deal with the causes of difficult feelings - and rather than solving problems, they create them.

5. Stay in touch / take a break

Life can be full of stresses and strains - at work, at home and in every aspect of our life. Having strong family ties and supportive friends can help in lots of ways, perhaps hearing you out and offering a sounding board, offering another way to think about a problem, or just a sense of belonging; feeling included and cared for.

If you don't live or work nearby to your friends and family, it can be hard to catch-up face-to- face, but it doesn't mean the lines of communication need to close completely. Try not to let yourself be isolated from those people who make you feel loved or valued. Why not send them a quick message, or give them a call, and if you can't arrange to meet up in person, then do try and keep your relationship going in a way that's possible, perhaps chatting online.

The above considers relationships that you cherish, but if on the other hand, you feel that being around someone in your life is having a negative effect on your mental health, then it may well be best to take time-out from that person and have a break. It may seem like a difficult thing to do, but might in some circumstances be an important one, and possible to do in such a way that is okay with both parties,

Tips 6-10 are available here