Have you ever taken up an activity recommended by many as something that will help with your mental health only to find it doesn’t work? The thing is, what might work for someone else might not work for you. For example, for some people, mindfulness allows them to achieve a state of relaxation, but for others it can adversely impact their mood.
Finding positive ways to maintain your mental health can be a bit trial and error. I have lost count of the things I’ve tried that didn’t help but have, over the years, developed a little self-care artillery that supplements some of the bigger things I do to take care of my mental health. Some of these have helped me to maintain balance on a day to day basis, others are there for when I’m feeling low or anxious and some have helped me through specific difficulties.
Our bodies are incredible. They are intuitive and they do all they can to keep us alive without prompting. Breathing is one such thing that we do subconsciously but sometimes conscious breathing can be a fantastic tool for keeping your cool. Deep, controlled breathing helps to trigger a relaxation response that combats against rising cortisol levels and other stress indicators.
When negative feelings or thoughts become overwhelming, take some time to just breathe. Take long, conscious breaths for a few minutes at a time and normally you’ll finish with a quieter mind and lighter shoulders.
The recommendation to “just breathe” can seem a little flippant, but even experts at Harvard Health are proponents deep breathing for relaxation. It’s something that goes right back to ancient India and Pranayama, the yogic practice of focused breathing. Prana means “vital life source” and Yama means to “gain control”; that says it all, really.
Practicing Self Awareness
Inner Melbourne Psychology defines self awareness as “stepping back and observing your thoughts and feelings as they unfold.” It has truly been my most powerful mental health tool and it’s not something I ever thought about until recently.
My first conscious thought when I wake up in the morning is typically “how do I feel?”, It can be as simple as that, tuning into how you feel, but where I find it really helps is in developing an awareness of how those thoughts and feelings impact my actions, or what cause those thoughts and feelings, how they affect my body, my mood, how I interact with people.
I would say working to develop a true sense of self awareness is quite a courageous thing to do as it requires a great deal of self examination. It’s not something I could have begun to work out without the support of a counsellor.
The Kentucky Counselling Centre says that journalling is a beneficial mental health activity that can really benefit people.
From gratitude journaling to daily records of our thoughts and feelings, it can help us to better understand ourselves and how we respond to the world around us. Through the catharsis of getting everything out of your system, you might find that regular journaling helps you let go of the things that you carry around with you every day.
I find it useful in developing a good sense of self awareness and to help untangle the knots of more complicated thoughts and feelings that sit with me for longer periods of time.
Once I was the world’s worst rester. Now, I am a celebrator of its benefits for the body and mind. In today’s world, we have been taught that being busy and tired are badges of honour and importance, but actually that’s not true. If you regard yourself as a truly important person, mind yourself like the VIP that you are and get some rest.
Chances are, whatever you do on a day to day basis, your brain needs more downtime, away from the pressures of work and the societal pressures we experience every day. Granted, some times it’s not always easy to just do nothing. For anyone with an anxious disposition that can be a little nightmarish but you can indulge in a little active rest, whereby you ease your mind while actively engaging an activity. That’s where the next two mental health activities can come in.
The mental health benefits of yoga are widely reported. It is a wonderful treat for your body and mind that helps to relax your muscles, quiet the chatter in your head and ultimately help you rest while still moving and focusing on something. In the last number of years Yoga has fallen foul to the competitive and strenuous nature of today’s world with an emphasis on forcing your body into positions it doesn’t want to go and straining to reach some level of yogic perfection. Put that out of your mind.
It doesn’t matter if your legs can’t straighten, if your heels don’t touch the ground or if you stumble. What matters is that you move in a way that feels beneficial for your body and feel the psychological benefits of the conscious, deep breathing you do throughout your session. Yoga is a time of quiet, not strain. If you remember that you’ll feel the benefits.
If you haven’t got the means or desire to attend a class, I find Yoga With Adriene on YouTube to be great.
Another useful way of resting when you feel you can’t do nothing is reading. I love nothing more than losing myself in a book and often it is the only time where I can focus on just one thing. As someone living with anxiety, this is a big achievement. There is no better treat than a quiet room, a cup of coffee and a book.
And it’s not just me. Research led by Dr David Lewis highlights that reading a book can reduce your stress levels by more than 60%. That’s more effective that going for a walk or listening to music. Another known theory is that reading also helps prevent memory loss, and improve our empathy towards others resulting in a healthier level of emotional intelligence. If that isn’t a great excuse to support your local library, I don’t know what is.
Keep a stress reliever to hand
Something my counsellor recommended to me is to keep something sensory nearby to play with when I’m feeling anxious. This might be a fidget cube or a popping toy, or even a ball of blu tack or an elastic band. I find these mildly sensory stimulating devices help bring my mind back into the room when I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed as it gives me something physical to concentrate on.
This might seem trivial but as a recent adopter of an actual, grown up skincare routine, I can attest to the benefits of it. A simple ritual at night and in the morning somehow helps remind me of my sense of self worth. The effects of a good routine has also helped my confidence and I also find the structure of the routine to be very grounding. Even if I’m having a bad mental health day which involves little else other than sitting at my desk and working, I still have those 10 minutes either side of the day to look after myself.
I have become convinced that if more people knitted there would be less arguments and disputes in the world. The pandemic has turned me into a crafter. It started with cross stitching, a relatively easy form of craft that I took up mostly to coax myself away from my phone and the doom that resided on its apps. Recently I have started knitting, something I hadn’t done since I was 7 years old, and I find it incredibly relaxing.
Getting crafty is an excellent way to relax but it also has a number of other benefits for your mental health including:
- Improved self-esteem
- Decreased risk of cognitive impairment
- Anxiety reduction
These are just 10 things you can try to help improve mental health or ease distress, you might have your own ideas that you would like to add. Why not head over to the Spectrum Mental Health instagram page to join in the conversation?
These stories are not treatment advice. Every story is unique and the writers speak only for themselves, including what worked or didn’t work for them. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you are concerned about symptoms you experience or if you would like to explore different treatment option.
 Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1999). History of the Tantric Religion (Second ed.). Delhi: Manohar Publications.