5 things in your power to control when it comes to your mental health
This little guide was put together to help those who are struggling with their mental health — especially during covid. The goal is to help you understand what is in your control to manage and improve your mental health, combined with a few tips and tricks on how to do it, even if you feel like shit.
There are five key things which are in your control, to help you manage your mental health — to keep your mood relatively stable, cope with the ups and downs of life and survive key moments of stress. They are:
1. Sleep Well
2. Eat Well
4. Go outside for some fresh air and sunlight
5. Talk to someone
And a bonus: Mindfulness!
The problem is, what does “sleeping well” or “eating well” look like? It’s different for different people. So here we’ve sought to create a baseline, a minimum, to help manage your mental health. And where possible, we have included links to more information and the science behind our recommendations to hopefully explain why each of these things is so important. Keep reading if you’re interested! Or just save the pretty pictures by the wonderful Stephanie Markerink if you think you’d find the visual reminders helpful.
Lastly, we should note we’ve tried to ensure this is in line with professional recommendations such as what is outlined in Mental Health & Family Medicine here, but we aren’t professionals! So go, talk to one if you need to!
Look at these suggestions in two ways:
- As a preventative measure so you have the emotional resilience to get through the ups and downs of life.
- As a stop gap, while you are waiting for that emergency GP appointment, to see your psychiatrist or psychologist, or while you are waiting for your meds to kick in.
If you or someone you know needs support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636. In an emergency, call 000.
Try to get a minimum of 8hrs sleep. If you can’t sleep, close your eyes and rest as best you can. Some rest is better than none. A bad sleep is better than no sleep.
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day — it helps set your circadian rhythms!
Try doing a guided sleep meditation to get to sleep or listen to binaural beats for sleep — they can do wonders.
Don’t look at your phone or other screens when you are meant to be sleeping or just before sleep, the blue light cues your body to produce a hormone that wakes you up and will stop you from sleeping. Not to mention they activate your brain!
Likewise, if you want to get sleepy, turn down the lights, turn off any fluros. Use nightshift or flux on your computers and phones to help filter out some of the blue light (although they can’t get all of it). Put on a lamp with a warm, reddish light. This will help encourage your body to produce melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy.
Try to have a sleep routine. A little ritual such as listening to certain music, putting on PJs, brushing teeth and then reading a book in bed, to help you get into the ‘mood’ to sleep.
Don’t include alcohol in that sleep routine. While it can help with sleep onset, it reduces overall quality of sleep, increases likelihood of waking during the night, and leads to daytime sleepiness/fatigue the next day.
Leave your bed for sleeping and sexy times — don’t hang out there or work from bed during the day if it can be avoided. You don’t want to subconsciously associate your bed with being awake, or accidentally fall asleep and throw out your circadian rhythm. Try to teach your body and mind that bed equals sleep.
Lastly, even if you’ve stayed up super late, try to get up at your normal time. Yes, those circadian rhythms are that important. If you do sleep in, be vigilant about making sure you go to bed at the right time the following night — don’t make a habit of it. If you are still exhausted during the day and *really* need a nap, do it in the afternoon.
All that said, the most important thing is to listen to your body and talk to your GP. When it comes to sleep everyone is different, but if you are constantly tired or regularly can’t sleep there might be something wrong and it should definitely be investigated. It’s likely having a huge impact on your mental health.
Links & References for Sleeping Well:
For tips to help you fall asleep:
On the link between mental health and sleep:
Everyone has a different opinion on what it means to eat well, and the expert advice is constantly changing, so this one is tricky. These are my basic tips.
The most important thing is this: Eat! You need energy. Without food in your body you don’t have energy to burn! So eat!
When eating, sit down, eat slowly and enjoy each mouthful. Shoving food into your body without thinking about it makes you far more likely to overeat, and less likely to pay attention to how nutritious the food you’re eating is.
Stay away from processed foods in packets, or bought takeaway. Try to eat whole fresh foods. By that I mean produce that hasn’t been processed or interfered with. Fresh fruit and vegetables. A potato or an eggplant or a lettuce is a whole food. Buy it. Find a recipe. Chop it up. Cook it!
Try to stay away from sugars — they tend to make you hungrier and want to eat more, even if you don’t need it.
Pollen’s Food rules are a good guide here:
- Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. “When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can’t pronounce, ask yourself, “What are those things doing there?”
- Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce — that you didn’t cook.
- Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Fresh food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.
- Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot. “There are exceptions — honey — but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren’t food.”
- Always leave the table a little hungry*. Many cultures have rules that you stop eating before you are full. In Japan, they say eat until you are four-fifths full. Islamic culture has a similar rule, and in German culture they say, ‘Tie off the sack before it’s full.’”
- Don’t buy food where you buy your petrol or don’t have to leave the car to buy it.
*This does not mean you should starve yourself! Rather, just don’t eat until you are so full that you feel like you are exploding, or having any other negative physical reactions.
Another one which my grandmother used to say was “eat the rainbow”. Basically the more colours you have on your plate, the more nutrients you are likely getting.
Listen to your body: eat when you are hungry, stop eating when you are full.
Get excited about the nutritious food you like to eat, and enjoy it!
And if you still aren’t really sure what nutritious eating is, or want some more specific advice, do some more research. Talk to your doctor, talk to a nutritionist.
Links & References for Eating Well:
Humans evolved to work. To hunt. To gather. To farm. To chase small children around. These are all physical activities. Sitting at a desk is not. Your body will not be happy if it doesn’t do anything physical all day — and this affects your mood.
Try to get some exercise each and every day. Even if it’s just a small walk.
Get those little bits of incidental exercise wherever you can — every bit helps! Take the stairs, not the elevator. Get off the bus one stop early. Walk or ride to your local shops. It all helps.
If you can, build some exercise into your daily routine, to help you wake up in the morning or help you wind down in the evening.
Find something that you enjoy doing! Whether it’s dancing, yoga, jogging, team sports, a 7 min workout, wandering through the bush looking for wild flowers, anything is good!
As Elle Woods once said, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy!”
Links & References for Exercise:
These all explain the scientifically proven link between regular exercise and mental health, and have some good tips on how to start!
Go outside for some fresh air and sunlight
As I said above: Humans evolved to work — outside. To hunt. To gather. To farm. These are all outside activities. Sunlight helps you to wake up and become sleepy on schedule. It relies on sunlight to process vitamin D. Sunlight is vital for your physical and mental health, so make sure you get some!
Vitamin D is important for bones, heart, and your immune system! It will help your body fight colds and flus and coronavirus.
Bluer morning and midday sun is said to help your body produce serotonin — yes the chemical which wakes you up and makes you happy! Redder afternoon and evening sunlight is thought to help your body to produce melatonin — the chemical which relaxes you and makes you sleepy!
And people who don’t get enough sunlight often start to feel the effects of SAD, seasonal affective disorder — a mood condition which is a direct result of insufficient sunlight.
So, if you are inside all day, find a park, take lunch outside! Set up your work station near a window. Work outside where you can. Take the scenic route when you walk home and enjoy the sunlight on your face! (Provided you’re wearing a hat and sunscreen that is!)
Links & References to go outside for some fresh air and sunlight:
- From the Australian & New Zealand Mental Health Association: https://anzmh.asn.au/mental-health-australia/benefits-sunlight/
- On Seasonal Affective Disorder: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/personal-best/pillar/in-focus/feeling-sad-seasonal-affective-disorder
- On how sunlight impacts your physical and mental health: https://www.tricitymed.org/2018/08/5-ways-the-sun-impacts-your-mental-and-physical-health/
Talk to someone
So I’m sure you already know this one. It’s drilled into us from early childhood. But why is it important?
Humans are social creatures. We evolved the way we did because we learned to cooperate. So if we don’t talk to people for days on end, we are disregarding a key part of our human nature.
So even if you aren’t talking about anything important — talk to someone.
Even if you think everything you have to say is stupid — talk to someone.
If you are texting and texting and texting — pick up the phone and call so you can talk to someone.
Even if you just take your computer to a cafe or library and sit in proximity to other people without interacting with them — this is helpful!
If you can’t talk — just be there together with someone, in silent company if need be. That’s better than nothing!
Importantly, make sure you can identify people in your life who make you feel good. Cultivate friendships that are supportive and empathetic with people who encourage you, validate you and make you feel good about yourself.
The fact is, talking *about* something can help you understand and process it, but simply the act of talking about anything, of having company, can make a big difference by itself.
And of course, you will always have your GP as well as numerous other support lines where you can go to talk confidentially.
Links & References for talk to someone:
Why social support is so important:
Who to talk to & how:
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- beyondblue: 1300 224 636.
- Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
- And of course, you can always talk to your GP, school, TAFE, University or workplace counsellor if you have one!
- In an emergency, call 000.
Lastly, the bonus one: Mindfulness
Mindful exercises like meditation (or even just mindful breathing) supercharges your mental health, wellbeing and productivity. There is a reason why there are over 2000 mindfulness and meditation apps out there — because it works!
Meditation is one form of mindfulness, but not the only form. Mindfulness is about learning to observe your experience of the present moment with curiosity and compassion, and it’s non-judgemental. It can feel a bit clumsy at first, but like learning any new skill it takes practise and patience — so be kind to yourself! You are learning! Don’t get scared or limited by your preconceptions of what this is or how awkward it may feel at first. Take your time and learn how to make it work for you!
You could sit on your favourite cushion and breathe slowly and notice the coolness of the air as it moves into your nose. You can jog around your favourite park and notice the feel of your shoes hitting the ground that makes you feel swift like a deer. You can prune your garden and notice how many different shades of green there are, and the texture of the branches under your fingers. You can wash your car and notice how sudsy bubbles are somehow both deeply familiar and also completely unique to that moment. If there is something to appreciate about the moment you’re attending to, great, but if not, that’s okay too, there’s no judgement in mindfulness, just being present in the moment.
Meditation is another brilliant form of mindfulness, and there are thousands of guided meditations to help you on your way, you can find them on YouTube, the Smiling Mind App, the InsightTimer App, through Headspace, and more. They range from 2 or 3 mins to an hour plus. Do what you have time for — remember anything is better than nothing!
Sometimes though, you won’t have access to the internet or a phone to help you, so here is one way you can use to meditate alone.
A simple mindfulness exercise for your back pocket.
There are three sections, and can be divided into equal thirds. It can be used for a 30 sec meditation (10, 10 and 10 seconds), or a 30 min one (so every section is 10 minutes each). It doesn’t matter.
Try to find a place where you can take a moment. A toilet cubicle if need be! But, as I said before people also do it on the bus, while walking, while gardening, waiting in a queue, anywhere!
1. Connect to your breath.
Close your eyes. Take slow deep breaths. Feel your chest rising and falling. Notice the air flowing through your nose. Try to slow down your breath even more. Notice how your body moves and changes as you breathe.
2. Scan your body.
Observe how your body feels. Your feet. Your legs. Your arms. Your torso. Your face. Notice any tingles or tightness. With each breath let go of any tightness you notice.
3. Connect to the world around you.
Notice how the air feels on your skin. Notice any sounds or noises around you. Notice any surfaces your body is touching. Slowly open your eyes.
If you get distracted or start thinking of other things, that’s ok! Just go back to your breath. Breathing alone, if done slowly, deeply and mindfully, gets you a ridiculous amount of benefits already, and observing and catching your thoughts is a great practice. If you meditate regularly, you’ll find that your thoughts pop up less and less, and the space in your head will get quieter and quieter.
And remember, breathing through and letting go of any discomfort or difficult thoughts it will help you develop the resilience to get through other uncomfortable things in your life. This is the beauty and benefit of mindfulness!
Links & References for Meditation & Mindfulness:
- For a simple (but referenced) explanation of 12 scientifically proven benefits of meditation go to: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation
- For amazing resources on the science of meditation, how to meditate or different easy ways to meditate go to: https://www.headspace.com/science
- For different types of mindfulness exercises go to: https://www.headspace.com/meditation/exercises
So, in summary…
We’d like to thank the many authors, collaborators & advisors:
- Josephine Maguire-Rosier, Experience Designer, Product Manager & Empathetic Person, www.jmaguirerosier.com
- Stephanie Markerink, Illustrator & Designer @marker.ink.art, www.stephmarkerink.wixsite.com/marker-ink-art
- Ariadne Starling, Professional Writer, Editor & Sick Person, www.ariadnestarling.com
- Larissa Wright, Counsellor, Hypnotherapist & Obsessive Psychology Student
- Taîss Quartápa, Polymath, Consultant and Empathetic Person, www.linkedin.com/in/taiss/
- Catherine Maguire-Donvito, Counselling Psychologist & School Counsellor
- And many others!