By Megan & Nahum Kozak
Over the past 18 months there has been more discussion around mental health than ever before. So, why is mental health such a struggle right now, and what can we do to improve it?
Mental health includes our psychological, emotional, and social well-being. It affects how we feel, think, and act. Just like our physical health, we can have good and bad days with our mental health.
External stressors, like family pressures, job stress and the ongoing impacts of a global pandemic can have major impacts on our mental health because the lens through which we view the world can become clouded by uncertainty and worry.
But… it’s not all bad news! For a long time, mental health has been a taboo subject – lacking the same governmental resources, credibility, and social understanding of its physical counterpart. The past year-and-a-half has brought this importance of mental health out of the shadows and into societal consciousness. ‘Self-care’ has become the hashtag of choice, ‘wellbeing’ a new focus across industries and seeking professional support for our mental health and relationships is the new normal.
In our private psychology and counselling practice, we work with individuals and couples across Australia to support their mental health and relationships. Based on our research, expertise and experience, here are our five top tips to building positive habits for mental health.
It’s the thing you avidly avoid as a kid, pretend you don’t need as a teen, and dream of as a parent… sleep! It has long been known that sleep plays an important role in quality physical and mental health. You might think that limited or interrupted sleep just leaves you feeling irritable, but if poor sleep continues for an extended period of time, it can have long term health consequences. 2017 research suggests that the relationship between sleep and mental health is complex and cyclical. The poorer our sleep, the more anxious or depressed we may become – which then, in turn, can result in poor sleep. So, it’s important to give our body and brain the best chance at getting some good shuteye!
What can you do? Create a regular routine to prepare for sleep, so that your body feels calm and settled. Take a bath, read a book, turn off devices and avoid caffeine in the evening.
2. Exercise & Healthy Food
We all know that healthy food and exercise is important, but often – when we’re not feeling our best – these are the first things to go. We all know what it’s like to find ourselves knee deep in a tub of cookies ‘n’ cream ice-cream, wondering if our pyjamas could pass as daywear. Our physical and mental health are intrinsically linked, so if you are looking for a sustainable mood-booster, it doesn’t get much better than nourishing food and exercise. When we eat well, our brains get the micronutrients required to function. When we exercise, our bodies release endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin – chemicals which make us feel happier.
What can you do? Create a daily or weekly routine, which includes about 30 minutes per day to move your body. It doesn’t need to be an expensive gym – go for a walk or play with your kids at the park.
3. Mindfulness & Meditation
It’s a busy world. We pride ourselves on multitasking and full schedules – listening to podcasts during our commute, folding laundry while watching Netflix, and scrolling our phone while sipping coffee. There are very few moments where we allow ourselves to just ‘be’. To maintain mental health, it is important to find moments of presence and stillness. Mindfulness and meditation have their roots in a number of religions, including Christianity, where contemplative prayer invites us to “Be still and know…”. Grounding ourselves, noticing our surroundings, and developing a habit of conscious gratitude has been shown to improve our sense of worth and satisfaction with life.
What can you do? There are many simple ways to incorporate mindfulness and meditation into your daily life. You could make your morning cuppa a ‘mindful moment’ by putting down your phone and noticing what you see, hear, smell, feel and taste. If you want some more guided mindfulness, consider downloading a free app like Smiling Mind.
4. Social Connection
Human beings are wired for connection. As far back as we can trace, humans have travelled, hunted and lived together in groups. With so much social media and virtual connection at our fingertips it may seem that we are more connected than ever, but we are actually in the midst of a loneliness pandemic. Social distancing and lockdowns, although necessary for public health, have exacerbated the sense of isolation for many people. Research has shown that quality connection with family and friends leads to 50% chance of longevity, stronger immune system, greater empathy and lower levels of anxiety and depression.
What can you do? Managing lockdowns and restrictions can make connection a real challenge. As much as is possible, build connection into your weekly routine. This can be look like regular coffee catchups with a friend, group exercise, family dinners and zoom calls with those we can’t see face-to-face right now.
5. Seek Support
When our car makes that funny sound, we have no problem taking it to the mechanic. When our tooth aches, we book in to see our dentist. When it’s tax time, we find the number for our accountant. We seek support and expertise from professionals trained in whatever area we need help with at the time. So, when we feel like our mental health or relationship is struggling, there is courage and wisdom in seeking professional support. It’s been a tough time for a lot of people –individuals, couples and families – you don’t need to pretend to have it all together. Reaching out for help reveals strength, not weakness.
What can you do? There are so many different support services out there that can help! Visit your GP and get a Mental Health Care Plan, then book in to see a Psychologist or Counsellor – if you don’t live nearby a Psychology practice, call and ask if they do Telehealth (most practices offer this) and have your session over zoom.
If you need immediate support, you can call:
Qld Government Mental Health Access: 1300 642255
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kid’s Helpline: 1800 551 800
BeyondBlue: 1300 224 636
Parentline: 1300 301 300
About the authors: Megan and Nahum Kozak are Co-Founders and Directors of Lighthouse Relationships Psychology and Counselling Practice. They work with individuals and couples, face-to-face at their New Farm office and online across Australia.