In the UK each year 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem. What’s more, in any given week 1 in every 6 people will be experiencing a mental health problem like anxiety or depression.
Anxiety and depression are widespread, but there is a range of treatment available – including talking therapies, mindfulness, and medication. However, just as with your physical health, there are actions you can take to safeguard your mental health.
They won’t make you immune to mental health problems, just as living healthily won’t grant you immunity from illness. What they will do is make you better able to cope with setbacks and maintain your mood.
In my work as a therapist, I discuss the following eight areas with everyone who comes to see me. Taken as a whole they give the best foundations for any therapy or treatment to work. Even if you’re not currently experiencing anxiety or depression they’ll make you more emotionally resilient.
Diet has a direct effect on mood. Being properly nourished, having a healthy relationship with food, and restricting alcohol to safe limits are all essential building blocks in long-term mental health.
2. Physical activity
The beneficial effects of exercise on mood are firmly established. We hear a lot about how much exercise we need to get every week, with advice ranging from three weekly 30 minute sessions of aerobic activity to working out everyday. We can certainly be sure that any activity is better than none. It’s activity not exercise or sport – so dancing, digging the garden, or purposeful walking all count too.
Getting the right amount of quality sleep is vital for good mental health. For teenagers and adults that means seven to nine hours every night, and generally seven to eight hours once past 65 years old.
4. Time spent in nature/with animals
Time spent outdoors, from gardening to walking in a park, has real benefits. This includes time spent with animals too, whether playing with your cat, or walking your dog. But spending your time glued to your phone destroys any benefit.
5. Meaningful time with family and friends
As social animals we need time with other people, but you do need to be engaged with them. Sitting at the other end of the settee from your partner, surfing the internet while you both watch TV, doesn’t count.
6. A hobby or pastime that nourishes you
It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you find it rewarding. If it’s an activity, like hula hooping or hiking, that’s fine. So are collecting things, making things, playing an instrument, or learning a language.
7. A purpose or meaning in life
Viktor Frankl wrote about the importance of a sense of purpose in ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’. Where people have made work their purpose in life they often struggle in retirement or redundancy.
8. Social media
Social media is the only area where people normally need to spend less time, not more. From update notifications causing anxiety, to the depressant effect of too much time spent on Facebook and Instagram, social media can undermine your mood and leave you vulnerable.
What makes this approach work is taking stock honestly about the time you spend on all of these activities; making sure that you get as near to the amount of time you would like to spend; and vitally maintaining balance between all of them.
For instance concentrating on exercise at the expense other pastimes or meaningful time with other people, will be less helpful than the same time spent more equally on all three.