We all know what it’s like to be buzzing with energy. When it’s caused by excitement or anticipation, it’s often a positive, motivational force. But when it is triggered by negative stress it can lead to long-term mental health issues like, anxiety, depression or addiction.
Just as it takes effort to maintain physical health, we also need to look after our mental or emotional health. There is a difference between ‘not feeling bad’ and ‘feeling good’. When we feel good physically we have more energy, motivation and are better able to handle illness or trauma.
The same applies to our mental state. Being mentally strong allows us to stay calmer in stressful periods, build better relationships, have greater self-esteem and be more resilient when challenges come our way.
Do you have areas in your life where you could use a bit more mental strength right now? Imagine you have a ‘mind gym’ where you can use different tools and resources to train a little more each day. Here are some great ‘exercises’ for you to try.
1. Take baby steps
Question: “How do you eat an elephant?”
Answer: “One bite at a time”
Sometimes you have so many things to do that you get overwhelmed and anxious and don’t end up doing much at all. Start listing everything you need to do, then prioritise it by urgency or importance. Pick no more than 6 things to focus on. Once they are done you can select the next 6 and so on.
2. Chunk it down and reward your progress
Set some milestones when you are working towards a goal and reward yourself at each step. For example, if you’ve stuck to your diet for a week, allow some time to binge-watch your favourite TV show. Or if you’ve paid off a loan, have a special dinner at home. Just be sure your reward doesn’t work against the goal you’ve just achieved.
3. Have SMART goals
Effective goals are:
Simple – Easily defined with no unclear language.
Measureable – Can be tracked and the outcome quantified. How much? How many? And so on.
Achievable - Within the availability of resources, knowledge and time.
Relevant – Worthwhile or consistent with current needs.
Time-based – Clearly specified end date or schedule.
4. Organise your money
Money is a major cause of stress. To get a clear picture of where yours is going or to help you stretch it out further, create a practical budget and stick to it. There are plenty of great budget apps around. Also visit the Money Smart website.
5. Lose the junk
De-cluttering your surroundings helps you re-establish both physical and psychological order in your life. The more ‘stuff’ you hang on to, the more likely you are to feel out of control.
To clean up your desk/wardrobe/garage, etc. spread everything out before you. Divide it into categories like ‘Things I use every day’, ‘Things I haven’t used in 12 months’, or ‘Things of sentimental value’.
Begin by removing any duplicates or things you don’t really like. Then set yourself a target for the number of items you need to end up with. Pick up each item and assess its real value to you. Only keep it if it still meets all your needs. If not, either repair it, recycle it, donate it to charity or dispose of it thoughtfully.
6. Get some perspective
If something is really frustrating you, stop and think “Will this problem matter – in 5 hours, 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 years from now?” Sometimes missing the bus or getting stuck in traffic can cloud your mood for the whole day. If it is something you have no control over, tell yourself “There is nothing I can do about that right now”, and try to let it go.
7. KISS = Keep it simple, stupid
Don’t make things harder than they need to be. This applies to household jobs, work projects, and even the way we communicate with each other. Look for quality and efficiency over quantity.
8. Use technology for good, not evil
There are many apps and devices out there designed to make your life easier. Find ones that suit your purpose and use them. Try out apps for relaxation, health records or for finding your keys. Keep track of family appointments with a shared online calendar or replace sticky notes with planning apps l Trello or Wunderlist.
9. Make time for family and friends
Finding a healthy work/life balance can seem like an impossible task. We always have to make choices, just be sure you have considered all the consequences of these choices. All work and no play is not good for our mental health or relationships. Factor in time to spend with family and friends regularly. If you wait for ‘When I have time”, it may be too late.
10. Share your problems with people that can actually help you
It is ok to tell people when you are struggling, but be selective about who you talk to. Broadcast your problems to everyone and you could be seen as a ‘whinger’ or you may be bombarded with unhelpful advice (especially on social media). Instead, confide in selected people if they are directly involved or if they can give the kind of help you need.
Support groups can be very beneficial. Just talking to people with similar issues and sharing experiences can be a huge relief.
11. Learn to listen effectively and care about what others actually say
We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. If your mind is racing ahead to what you want to say, then you’re not really listening to the other person or showing them respect. Also, remember that sometimes people just want to share their feelings and aren’t really asking you to provide a solution. If you’re not sure, ask.
12. Be true to yourself. Don’t try to be someone you are not
What do you value? What makes you happy?
Avoid defining yourself by your past, your family, your mistakes, your job, your looks or your health. Instead, look for your strengths and embrace them.
Don’t worry constantly about what others think about you. The chances are they have their own things to worry about anyway. People won’t always remember exactly what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel.
13. Progress over perfection
We can’t be perfect all the time. Expecting to be consistently perfect at something is unhelpful, especially if you give up on it. Making mistakes is how we learn and improve.
14. Learn techniques for calming yourself when you are anxious
Anxiety affects us in different ways including tight muscles, rapid breathing, insomnia or panic attacks. Whatever the cause, there are many techniques you can use to become calm again.
Learn a range of ‘anxiety-busting’ techniques so you can draw on them when needed. They could include deep breathing exercises or physically relaxing your body through yoga or massage.
Mindfulness involves focusing on being ‘in the moment’. For example, instead of gulping your food down in a hurry, chew slowly and notice the various flavours and textures. Or, to ground yourself, look around and name 3 things you can see, hear, feel or even smell.
15. It’s ok to say ‘no’
We all want to be helpful and supportive to those around us but we only have so many hours in a day. Know your limits in terms of time and availability and learn to say ‘no’ with polite confidence. This applies to family, work demands and social invitations. Put a value on your own time.
16. Learn to enjoy your ‘me’ time
It’s ok to make time for yourself without feeling guilty. You are worth it. It’s vital for maintaining your sense of identity instead of being someone’s mum/partner or letting your job consume your life. Spend time on your hobby, go for a walk or simply curl up with a book. Whatever helps you to mentally escape for a while.
17. Explore your spirituality
For some, the way to re-discover your sense of self is by exploring your spirituality. Praying, studying theology or taking part in religious ceremonies can be very calming and can remind us of our purpose in life.
18. Look after your body - you only get one
When we feel stressed we often turn to comfort food, alcohol, cigarettes or even drugs illicit or other forms of self-harm.
Try to consider the effects of these behaviours on your body. Maybe you can’t change everything at once, but just taking small steps towards a healthier lifestyle can have huge benefits. These might include not skipping meals or spending some time each day outside.
Get a complete physical check-up and talk to your GP about anything that’s causing you stress. They may make some simple suggestions, help you form an action plan or refer you to another health professional.
19. Look better, feel good
When you feel mentally or physically unwell it’s easy to stop caring about your appearance. But then the worse you look, the worse you tend to feel.
However, it works the other way too. When you make the effort and take better care of your personal grooming, you tend to feel better.
For women, simply applying a bit of make-up can really lift your spirits. This concept has been well researched. It is the driving principal of the Look Good, Feel Better international program that helps cancer patients by showing them creative ways to use hats, scarves and make-up to enhance their appearance.
Studies have also shown that in times of economic depression, women turn to small-ticket luxuries such as lipstick to cheer themselves up. This is called the ‘Lipstick effect’.
20. Exercise your brain
Our brains are made up of complex neurological pathways that cause us to think and act in certain ways. These are constantly evolving and can be altered. We are not limited by our level of education but only by our lack of focus or self-belief.
Learning new skills or challenging ourselves to solve problems improves our brain health. The famous Nun Study looked at the cognitive function of 678 Catholic nuns and the damage to their brain caused by Alzheimer’s Disease. Autopsies compared the brains of nuns with similar levels of damage. The nuns who had been more intellectually active tended to display fewer, and less severe, symptoms of the disease during life.
As the saying goes, “Use it or lose it”.
21. Our thoughts and beliefs affect our behaviours
If you often repeat negative patterns of behaviour it may help to examine your underlying beliefs and where they came from. For example, if you lack confidence, you may you may have been teased or told you were ‘no good’ as a child.
Notice the thought patterns that trigger your undesired behaviours. Sometimes it can be hard to sift through your thoughts and feelings alone. A professional counsellor can help you deal with them and find new ways to deal with them.
22. Avoid catastrophizing
Don’t automatically assume the worst-case scenario. Instead, arm yourself with the facts. Talk to the people involved and ask what is happening or seek information from professionals in that area. The more information you have, the more empowered you are to either take action or accept the current situation rationally.
23. Don’t let feelings cloud your judgement
When faced with important decisions it’s normal to have emotions attached to them. Strong feelings like anger, love and excitement do affect our actions, but that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes we need to step back and assess the whole situation before making a choice.
For example, if you have a health issue and your doctor has recommended medication - before you say yes or no, weigh up the benefits of taking it against the consequences of not taking it.
There is something to be said for gut instinct though. Sometimes our intuition is the strongest indicator of the best course of action. Don’t do what you think you should do, do what you feel is right for you.
24. Avoid getting sucked into a vortex of bad news
Federal budgets, wars, murders. With so much negativity around us it’s easy to become cynical about life in general. While we still need to stay informed, sometimes we also need to switch off for a while.
25. Learn the meaning of true gratitude
Religion has long taught that if we are grateful for what we have we will benefit in many ways. Science is now catching up. Robert Emmons, psychology professor at University of California, is considered the world’s leading expert in the study of gratitude. He defines gratitude through two key concepts.
Firstly, there is a balance of negative and positive in the world. It’s not all bad. And secondly, true gratitude comes from noticing people, acts or other external factors that add value or goodness to our lives in some way and acknowledging them.
When life gets you down, it can seem like the whole world is against you. To help you gain some perspective, try writing down 3 things to be grateful for at the end of each day. It takes practice but when you start looking for things that help to make your life better, you’ll find that your list will grow rapidly.
Like all exercise programs, these mental health boosters work best when they are individually tailored. Pick the ones that suit your needs and enjoy the feeling of achievement as your mental health gets stronger and more resilient each day.
Look Good, Feel Better: http://lgfb.org.au
The Lipstick Effect
Persaud R & Rantzen E, The Lipstick Effect – How boom or bust affects beauty, Psychology Today, October 2015
Emmons R & McCullough M, 2004, The Psychology of Gratitude, Oxford University Press
Snowdon Et al, March 1997, ‘Brain Infarction and the Clinical Expression of Alzheimer Disease - The Nun Study’, The Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA. 1997;277(10):813-817. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03540340047031,