15 WONDERFUL WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH & WELL-BEING
Anxiety, Stress, Depression, Panic Attacks…
I hate them, you hate them, we all hate them.
They are like a mob of unwanted guests at your birthday, showing up hours late to ruin the party with all sorts of shenanigans and antics.
You can’t control them, you aren’t sure how they even got here and the more you notice them the worse they get.
Sound all too familiar?
The good news is… we can reduce their impact and even control them. You just need to learn how to.
Some of tips I discuss have worked first hand for me, friends and many other people around the world. Just give them a try as you have nothing to lose.
Mental health indicators such as anxiety and stress are sometimes unavoidable and even advantageous at times. Those nerves before an important sporting event, an interview or presentation can be zoned in on and the energy fuelling them can be re-directed to serve a positive purpose.
However if your symptoms reduce your quality of life then you may have cause for concern.
There were 8.2 million cases of Anxiety in the UK(1) in 2013 and the Office for National Statistics states that close to one in five people suffer from some form of Anxiety.
If you have never experienced high levels of Anxiety or Stress or a period of prolonged depression, then I recommend reading this article to increase your awareness and understanding.
It’s not as simple as “pulling yourself together and snapping out of it” as many people think. When a decline in mental health effects your quality of life then this is the point where you are no longer in the levels of normality.
Let’s start by quickly talking about the different types of Anxiety and what types will and won’t be addressed during this blog. Let’s go;
General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) — The most widespread type of Anxiety, these are the worries and fears distracting you from your day-to-day activities. GAD was experienced by 4.7% of the UK population in 2007 and it is only rising(2). The symptoms can be a persistent feeling that something bad is going to happen with no rational justification. People with GAD are chronic worriers who feel anxious nearly all of the time and they may not even know why.
Social Anxiety — The fear of being seen negatively by others or Anxiety caused by meeting new people, being in groups, talking on the phone and carrying out simple social interactions. Some shyness or timidness is expected at times in your life but if you are avoiding these situations due to your Anxiety then this is when it becomes an issue.
Panic Disorder / Anxiety Attacks — Characterised by the feeling of impending doom or that something serious will go wrong. Your worries will materialise into panic / Anxiety attacks and often spring up from nowhere and for no particular reason.
Phobia’s — The unrealistic or exaggerated fear of something. This could be a specific object, activity, situation or literally anything. Some common phobias include flying, spiders and balloons.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — This is an extreme Anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) — This covers the unwanted thoughts or behaviours that seem impossible to stop or control.
For the sake of this article, my tips refer to General Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety and Anxiety Attacks. These are the types of Anxiety I have researched, experienced and managed to control.
Please note — Anxiety, Stress and Depression sits on a sliding scale and if you are at the stage where it is severely controlling and crippling your life then you should seek medical advice as soon as possible. I am not in the Medical Profession and these are only recommendations from my point of view, research and experience.
I have listed some of my favourite tools and techniques to combat different kinds of Anxiety, Stress and Depression below.
There is synergy between each activity so you may find that one impacts the other. For example; if you exercise you may find that you sleep better. Why not start doing one as soon as you finish reading this article and reap the benefits today!
1. Exercise a Few Days a Week
The benefits of exercise are widely publicised. Not only will exercise improve physical well-being it will have positive impacts on your mental health by reducing Stress and Anxiety. The endorphins released during and after exercise will have you feeling better in both the short and long term.
Exercise can be anything; running, Yoga, Pilates, sport, cycling, weightlifting, fitness classes, etc. The possibilities are endless. The point is to just get your body moving, break a sweat and to enjoy it.
If you are short on time, hate gyms or fancy trying something new then try one of the High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) videos listed by a strong advocate of mine, The Body Coach. If you can’t keep up with him then don’t worry. Do what you can and you’ll notice vast improvements over 4 to 12 weeks.
2. Eat Healthy Whole Foods
Studies have shown that some foods can increase Anxiety and others can decrease it. Highly processed foods that you may find in fast food restaurants, pre-packaged ready meals, fried food, sweets and foods containing high amounts of refined sugar are a no-no, sorry.
Feel free to have these in moderation, say once a week but if these types of foods are a staple part of your diet then you need to readdress what goes in your mouth.
Eat plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, good fats, protein from rich sources, slow energy releasing carbohydrates and drink 2–4 litres of water a day (depending on exercise levels and weather).
So what do these foods look like you ask?
Fruit — Blueberries, bananas, strawberries, apples, oranges, pineapples, raspberries, mangoes, blackberries, plums, peaches… you get the gist.
Vegetables — Carrots, broccoli, onions, cabbage, mushrooms, tomatoes, kale, spinach, spring onions, peppers, asparagus, peas, kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, white beans, etc.
Carbohydrates — The key here is to replace white, starchy carbs with slow releasing, low Glycemic Index (GI) ones. Ditch the white bread, white rice, instant oats and white carbs for things such as sweet potato, wholemeal / rye bread, brown / wild rice, steel cut oats, quinoa, and wholemeal pasta.
Protein — Beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are great sources of protein. Try adding some of the beans I’ve mentioned above into your meals and others such as lentils, chickpeas, edamame, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cashews, peanuts, etc. If you are a meat eater then try to source grass fed, organic meats and buy them from a local and trusted source if that’s possible… or you could go crazy and trial a vegetarian based diet. If you head the vegetarian or vegan route then top up your protein intake by eating a variety of beans, nuts / seeds, tofu and tempeh. Many people have experienced a reduction in Anxiety and Stress when making the switch.
Fats (Unsaturated Fats) — Avocados, Eggs, Coconut Oil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Dark Chocolate (80% or darker), Nuts and Seeds, Fish and Yogurt (go full fat not low fat or light versions as these are packed with sugar).
3. Remove / Limit Alcohol and Drugs
I don’t want to sound like a school teacher but if you are susceptible to Anxiety, Stress, Depression or any other mental health issue then you need to consider eliminating caffeine, alcohol, smoking cigarettes, recreational drugs and any other substance that alters the mind as they will only exacerbate your symptoms. Studies have proven that these things increase Anxiety, Stress and Depression… Sorry.
The ironic thing is that these substances can initially alleviate Anxiety and Stress and therefore can be used as a short term crutch to mask problems.
However with every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and they usually come in the form of hangovers, crashes and unfortunately an increase in Anxiety, Stress and Depression.
The perpetual cycle of using these substances can send original levels of Anxiety and Stress sky rocketing so avoid them at all costs or in the case of alcohol limit your levels by being aware and in control of your intake.
That lesson is now over, you may break for lunch.
3. Practice Meditation, Mindfulness and Breathing Exercises
Meditation and breathing exercises are not just exclusive to Buddhist monks, Hindu Gurus, Religious Sects or New Age’rs.
You don’t need to run to the Himalayas, book into fancy retreats or pay for classes. All you need is some space and some time. That’s it!
The benefits of mediation have now been proven scientifically and yes, they do reduce Anxiety and Stress. There are plenty of books, YouTube videos, blogs and other media detailing different methods of meditation. Go look for yourself or follow my basic technique;
> Block out ten to sixty minutes of your day for meditation
> Find a peaceful and quiet place where you won’t be disturbed or distracted. This could be a room where you are living, a park, a garden, anywhere!
> Sit down with crossed legs or lye flat on your back with your palms facing up
> Listen to meditation music or just let the sounds surrounding you come and pass
> Start by taking a deep and long breath inwards
> Hold it for a second or two
> Exhale deeply and repeat the process
> To focus the mind and stop your thoughts from wondering simply count one on the breath in and two on the breath out
> Instead of the counting your breaths you can repeat a certain mantra (set of positive words). On the breath in you could think “positivity, confidence and love inwards” and on the breath out “Anxiety, Stress and hate outwards”. While doing this you can also imagine yourself breathing all of the Suns energy in and breathing out dark smoke to signify the release of negative thoughts.
> Repeat this process starting at ten minutes and working your way up to sixty or even longer.
> Eventually you will be able meditate without a flutter of thought in your mind but be aware it may take years to reach that level.
There are many different forms of meditation and there is no wrong or right way. Do your own research and find a way that works for you.
4. Listen to Music
Certain types of music can distract us while decreasing our levels of Stress hormones. Music can in reality be a form of medicine. There have been investigations into the use of music for pain, depression, Stress, Anxiety and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Be mindful of the music you listen to. Chose soothing, relaxing and comforting music or something that gives you energy and makes you feel good. Don’t spend all day listening to a song with sad lyrics or a super high beats per minute as it will only exaggerate your feelings.
Findings indicate that music around 60 beats per minute can cause the brain to synchronize with the beat causing alpha brainwaves. This is what is present when we are relaxed and conscious.
Don’t forget that watching live music or creating your own music is another great way to combat Stress and Anxiety.
5. Read Positive Books or Self Improvement
Books have the ability to take your mind far away to another place. Like music though, be careful of the context of the book. Inspirational biographies, thrilling novels, epic science fictions or motivating self improvement are the types of things I suggest reading.
6. Get Enough Sleep
This one is pretty simple and obvious. Anxiety and Stress increases when you don’t get adequate sleep. We are all slightly different and recommendations span between 6 and 8 hours. Figure out when you are at your best and aim for that amount of sleep every night.
With the addition of exercise, healthy food and the elimination of alcohol, caffeine, sugar and other substances you should find your sleep patterns improve.
7. Take a Step Back in your Mind and Observe your Thoughts
You are not your thoughts, you are the observer of your thoughts. Think about that for one minute.
You are not your thoughts.
You are the observer of your thoughts.
This is one of the most liberating and paradigm shifting things I have ever learnt. We cannot control our thoughts all of time but we can take a step back and just let them ramble on as we observe them. We don’t have to act on these thoughts. We have a decision in between stimulus (in this case the thought) and the reaction (what we do).
Distance yourself from your thoughts and if they become unhealthy, annoying or stressful then just remember the statement ‘You are not your thoughts, you are the observer of your thoughts’.
It may take a while to fully understand this perspective but research and read around the idea and the subject of the human mind and you will quickly find your understanding and awareness increase.
8. Wake up to Positive Affirmations
Affirmations are specific statements that help you overcome negative thoughts. They help you visualise and embed a positive message that you can then reap rewards from for the rest of the day.
For example; Look in the mirror before you shower in the morning and say “I feel good today, I feel happy today and I will succeed today”. Repeat this for a minute or two and say it like you mean it.
Work something out that is relevant to you and start repeating the process every morning.
Here’s a great blog that I recently found on affirmations on the Tiny Buddha website.
9. Live in the Moment and Practice Mindfulness
Mindfullness is simply bringing your awareness to the present moment. Contemplating about the past can induce depression and worrying about the future can invoke Anxiety and Stress. Life unfolds only in the present.
In a world that wants are attention in all directions at all times we can sometimes forget that the only place we ever truly exist is in the present so we might as well experience it and enjoy it. Try to focus on doing one thing at a time.
Turn off that TV and put down your phone and focus on what you are doing in that particular moment.
Take your time, savour your food and think about the flavours tantalising your tongue.
Actively listen to your friend when you meet them and imagine that you have to repeat back to them everything they are saying to you so you’d better listen tentatively.
Feel the wind brush against your skin and breath the cold air in during your relaxing walk.
These are all part of mindfullness.
10. Communicate / Socialise
You are not alone. There were 8.2 million cases of Anxiety in the UK(1) in 2013 and the Office for National Statistics states that close to one in five people suffer from some form of Anxiety. Talk to someone who can relate to you.
You may find this connection through your current friends, through local support services, meet-up groups found online or elsewhere. Just get searching.
11. Limit Social Media, TV and Other Communications
Previously we talked about food effecting our physical and mental health, well the information the brain ‘eats up’ is important as well.
Recent research shows that using social networking sites like Facebook can increase people’s Stress levels and produce Anxiety.
Become aware of how often you use Social Media, watch T.V, play computer games or stare at your mobile phone. Think about what it is actually doing for you.
In their entirety; the Internet, TV, Mobile Phones, Social Media and alike are neither good or bad. The crucial part of any resource in our life is that we remain in control of it and that it does not control us.
Limit your Social Media usage to once or twice a day and control notifications so that they don’t go off all day long, causing you to become distracted and out of sync (this feeds back to mindfulness). If you rely on this media for work then obviously this recommendation needs to be adapted.
Think about what you are watching on TV and the message it is portraying. I’m not saying that you can’t watch a bit of junk TV every now and then but if you are watching back to back episodes of trashy boxsets every night of the week then you need to address what else this time could be used for. I recently read a great post on Anxiety and Television at Calm Clinic, you should check it out for more information.
12. Surround yourself with Nature
It’s not rocket science, immersing yourself in nature is a tested method for relieving Anxiety and Stress.
Whether it’s a brisk walk in the park, tending to your garden, a vigorous trek, a refreshing lake swim, playing with a pet or anything else that just connects you to nature, it really doesn’t matter.
Animals and in particular pets are a powerful tools in the battle against Anxiety and Stress. Pets offer unconditional love, responsibility, activity, routine, companionship, social interaction, touch and a distraction. They help you live in the moment (we are talking mindfulness again).
13. Expand your Comfort Zone
Expanding your comfort zone by any means is a great way to beat Anxiety and Stress.
Think of yourself as a round sponge like ball. The outer surface of the ball is your comfort zone. Every time you try something new and push outside that zone you absorb more energy and the sponge increases, thus your comfort zone increases and you grow.
The reality of the situation you are fearing is never as bad as what you imagine. Plus the second time you do something it’s always easier.
Expanding your comfort zone may come in the form of travelling to a new destination, starting a new job, trying a new sport / activity, popping along to a new social group, eating new food, enrolling on a education course, talking to a stranger, it can be anything that you don’t feel entirely comfortable doing at first.
14. Try Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is referred to as CBT. It is a type of talking treatment that deals with your thoughts and beliefs and how they affect your behaviour.
This short video from the organisation Mind is a snippet of what the treatment offers.
15. Keep Learning
Try one or two of the tools / techniques outlined in my blog this month. Don’t try to do everything at once. Remember this is a journey of learning and self discovery.
Some things will work for you and others won’t, you just have to discover what works and keep at it.
Stay positive and imagine each tip we’ve discussed as a weapon in your armoury in the battle against Anxiety, Stress and Depression.
Take the time to learn each one and increase your skill as you use it more often. As you master more weapons you’ll be able to find something to combat all the different forms or times that Anxiety and Stress creep into your life.
Good luck and let me know if this blog was useful for you.
(1) Fineberg, N., Haddad, P., Carpenter, L., Gannon, B., Sharpe, R., Young, A., Joyce, E., Rowe, J., Wellsted, D., Nutt, D. and Sahakian, B. (2013). The size, burden and cost of disorders of the brain in the UK. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 27(9), pp.761–770.
(2) Gill Hasson (2013). Mindfullness. Introduction, p.5.