With the advent of World Mental Health Day this weekend, I know a lot of people are getting involved in the conversation around mental health and wellbeing, and whilst this is not my area of expertise per se, like most of us it’s been an increasingly important area of focus for me over the past few years, and particularly these last few months.
Rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon, I wanted to try and share some of the mechanisms I have adopted to improve my mental wellbeing, those which have been particularly useful to me during this year of change and uncertainty.
1. Routine and structure
On going into lockdown, I realised just how important having structure in my day is for me. I needed something to make me get out of bed in the morning and to keep me focussed and positive. When we were confined to our houses, I realised I had to create a new daily routine for the sake of my sanity! For me that was getting up and doing a workout in the garden and some mindfulness exercises, then working for a couple of hours outside with a pot of coffee before grabbing a shower and lunch and a somewhat less structured afternoon. I also found it therapeutic to cook every night and plan out the meals in advance (somewhat of a necessity too when we had to apply for permits to go food shopping!)
2. Keeping lists and separating work and play
I’ve always loved a good list, and during lockdown when boundaries between work and personal life were blurred, I found them essential to maintain my routine and structure and to ensure a clear divide between work and ‘play’ time! I would review my work in progress on a Thursday and draw up a list of everything that had to be done the following week, allocating tasks to each day. This enabled me to switch off and make the most of the weekend without falling into the habit of working everyday – it also gave me my ‘get out of bed’ during the week because I knew what I had to accomplish, both in terms of work and life admin. This meant I kept a semblance of evenings and weekends at a time when time ran the risk of all blurring into one!
3. Physical exercise
As previously mentioned, for me exercise forms a key part of my daily routine. I train six days a week, and when the gyms were closed and we were not allowed to go for walks or runs either, I had to improvise and created workouts at home or in the garden. It was important to me to maintain the same intensity and forms of exercise as I was used to, and with the support of my fantastic trainers and a whole wealth of online resources, it was surprisingly easy to do. For me, I think exercise is one of the key ways for me to improve my mental wellbeing – I switch off and think about nothing but the movements for 45 minutes to an hour – mindfulness in motion! Not only does it release the ‘feel good’ endorphins, but I get a great sense of achievement and start the day feeling positive, inspired and energised.
4. Meditation and breathing exercises
Last year we indulged in a yoga retreat in Thailand, and it was one of the most beneficial breaks I’ve had, not only did we have a great holiday, but we learned so much which we continue to benefit from, even now. Our yoga instructor, Betti, not only gave us advice and guidance in terms of our yoga practice and postures, but also in terms of meditation tips and breathing exercises. I had been fairly disciplined when we returned and continued the morning routine of meditation and breathing exercises when we got back – and it lasted a good few months, but eventually I fell out of the habit. However during lockdown, I found myself going back to this routine, and I’m still practicing it now (admittedly not every day, but a few days a weeks) and it honestly does make such a difference. I am an over-thinker, so Betti had recommended pranayama for 3-5 minutes every day, followed by 5 minutes of meditation and a thought of gratitude and focus – and those simply things, probably only 15 minutes in total every morning, ensure that I start the day the right way.
I’ve already mentioned yoga briefly, but it is such a useful practice in and of itself too. Again, a few months after our retreat I slipped out of the habit and slowly stopped going to classes as I got busy with work, but again the extra time I gained in lockdown made me explore my practice again. I found lots of online options, from recorded videos and Instagram Live’s, to virtual classes, and these have been great. Even now the gyms and studios have opened up again, I have found I prefer doing yoga in the comfort of my own home with my own candles and essential oils burning. Although I love flow type yoga, I particularly enjoy yin yoga – which is much more about long slow stretches. Not only is this good for me physically because I do a lot of work with weights and strength training, and this helps me to stretch out the muscles properly, but it also gives much more opportunity to practice mindfulness and I feel incredibly relaxed afterwards. The stretches are often hard to hold for several minutes, but I like the concept of yin, of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable – again, something which has really helped me personally during this period of instability, uncertainty and mental discomfort.
6. Talking to friends and family
Last, but by no means least, I literally do not know where I would be without my family and friends. I am the kind of person who needs to articulate worries, fears and plans for the future in order to get them out of my head and deal with them, I don’t know what would happen if I kept it all bottled up! I’m incredibly lucky to have some fantastic and supportive friends and family, and I have been so grateful that we have had access to Zoom to make our communications even more effective and stronger.We really need to talk to each other and be there for one another – it’s a message we are hearing more and more now (thankfully), however I still think not enough people actually take it onboard. In my experience, a problem shared really is a problem halved – just getting things out in the open, even if it’s not something with a quick fix or solution, can make a world of difference to how you feel, and therefore how you act moving forwards.
As I mentioned I am no expert, but I wanted to share what has worked for me, on the off chance that it might help encourage or inspire even one person to try something new for the sake of their mental health. We are all used to a major focus around physical health, and our mental health is just as important and should be treated in the same way. I’d love to hear ideas and inspiration from other people about the ways they maintain their mental health, so do let me know if you have anything I can try – it’s a continuous work in progress after all!