Author: Katie Warriner, MSc
Note: This article is supporting content to the Optimum Nutrition for Health and Performance course and is for educational purposes only. It does not reflect the opinion of Glanbia Performance Nutrition, nor is it intended for product marketing purposes.
This is the second in our two-part series on mental health. Here we build on the evidence we shared in the first article about the foundations of mental health: sleep, diet, movement and rest. Now it’s time to introduce the next layer and 3 further steps to boosting your mental health.
01 You are Not Your Thoughts
For 15 minutes, participants were left alone in a lab room in which they could press a button and receive an electric shock or not. The results were astonishing: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid receiving an electric shock, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than sit quietly and be with their thoughts.
Psychologists estimate that we have up to 150,000 thoughts per day and because the brain has a negativity bias, we can experience up to 2.5x as many negative thoughts as positive ones. That’s a lot of negative thinking and rather than resorting to electric shocks, working excessive hours or mindless scrolling through social media, we need healthy strategies to be more at peace with ourselves. This 4-step process is a great starting place:
Step 1 – Notice negative thoughts when they pop up. If you can, write them down.
Step 2 – Say or think “I’m having the thought…” For example, “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”.
Step 3 – Say or think “I notice I’m having the thought…” For example, “I notice I’m having the thought I’m not good enough”.
Each step creates space between you and the thought. That space gives you an opportunity to think differently – perhaps to choose something more helpful, kinder or wiser. Thoughts are not facts. You are not your thoughts, you have thoughts. You are the observer of your thoughts.
From this position of observer, you can choose a different perspective.
Step 4a – Challenge negative thinking and replace it with something more constructive. To do this, try any of these self-coaching questions: Is this way of thinking helpful? Would you speak to a friend like this? Fast forward 20 years, what would your future self say to you today?
Step 4b – Let it go. Imagine difficult thoughts as clouds drifting across the sky or leaves floating down a stream. These metaphors remind us that thoughts are temporary and that we do not need to believe them. Often, the more we struggle with our thoughts, the more powerful and repetitive they become. Practice switching your focus to something more helpful in the present moment and notice your mood shift as you do.
Whatever works for you, learning to be at peace with our busy, often negative minds is one of the most important things we can do for our mental health.
02 Cultivate Positive Emotion
Positive mental health is so much more than the absence of mental illness. It’s about the presence of positive emotion, a sense of contentment and a zest for life. Try these practices to enhance your well-being:
- Introduce a daily gratitude practice. People who regularly notice and reflect upon the things and people they’re grateful for experience more positive emotions.
- Spend time with friends and family. We are social creatures. Just as bees evolved to live in a hive, we evolved to live in a tribe. Call a friend now and arrange to meet up.
- Write a list of 10 things you enjoy doing. This could include simple things like walking in nature or listening to music. Do more of the things that put a smile on your face.
- Speak to yourself kindly, like you would to a good friend. It will feel strange at first but with practise you’ll notice the benefits.
- Celebrate your successes – our brains are wired to continually move on to the next thing which means we often undervalue our achievements.
No one is happy all the time. We’re all human and its normal to experience a range of different emotions. At the same time, we can all do simple things to experience more positive emotion. Make a start today.
03 Enhance Meaning
In 2013, a 27-year old man quit his London job to find meaning in life that didn’t involve “coins and notes”. On a whim, he posted a message on Gumtree, asking if anyone wanted any help, with anything, for free.
“It was a complete punt… I thought I’ll just put an advert up, see what comes back and if it means I’m busy for the next week, then great.” Seven years on, under the guise of ‘The Free Help Guy’, he has helped thousands of people including a man overcome his fear of flying and a young girl with leukaemia find a bone marrow donor. All for free. And all anonymously.
“You grow up dreaming about changing the world, or at least adding to it in some way,” he says. “I just got to this weird point where I was doing things that didn’t really seem to have any kind of meaning, doing the commuting thing and just feeling a bit lost.”
Seven years on, The Free Help Guy still dedicates much of his time to helping others and claims that he has benefited more than those he helps.
One of the most important components of a happy life is meaning and purpose. And the story of The Free Help Guy, is a brilliant reminder that helping others is one of the most powerful ways to achieve this.
Here are our top tips for boosting meaning in your life:
- Help others – whether its friends, family, strangers or pets, the effect is powerful.
- Have more meaningful conversations. The psychologist Arthur Aron has developed a set of 36 questions that are an excellent way to do this. They include questions like: If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality, what would it be? What do you value most in a friendship? Deeper conversations foster deeper connections and in those connections we benefit.
- Take time out to think about what really matters to you. Imagine it’s your 75th birthday party and your best friend is giving a speech about you. What would you want them to say about the way you have lived your life? Use this as your guide to life from today.
Whether it’s one of our 7 keys, or something different, take action today to benefit your mental health. By focusing on how you react to what’s going on around you, and not what happens to you, you will feel more in control of your life rather than life controlling you. The more you do this, the more equipped you’ll be to make the most of life, to enjoy the highs and weather the lows.
If you need someone to talk to, there is help available. You can contact the Samaritans 24/7, 365 days a year on 116 12 or [email protected]. Mind.org.uk also has a number of valuable resources and helplines available.
- Wilson, T.D. et al., (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science 04, Jul 2014: 75-77.
- Ridley, L. (2015). The Free Help Guy. The Huffington Post.
- Aaron, A. et al. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23.