I started writing this blog with a few things in mind, but then realised it would be way too easy to get complex and technical. After all, the brain is a complicated thing! Instead, I’m just going to outline a few simple truths as well as some tips and hints that you may be able to use to build more self awareness and improve your mental health and performance.
Yes, I said performance. Just like when you are physically tired or injured, your brain can get tired or “injured” and stop you from living your happiest and most productive life. Awareness is the first part of improving any part of your health and wellbeing. It’s easy to assess the physical stuff, but how do you know when your mental health might need attention? After working with psychologists and GPs for the last decade, I’ve picked up some simple self-assessment methods which I’m happy to share. This exercise is based on the premise that emotions in life are just moments. Whether good and bad, they will pass. It’s important to acknowledge and understand how we act during the moments that influence the value of our days.
Step 1: Draw a two-by-two grid
Step 2: Think of the bottom half of the grid as everything that is going on inside your head. Now in the bottom left corner, write down a list of some of the negative thoughts, feelings and emotions that you sometimes get stuck on. Not the ones that may come and go, like anger in a fight, but the ones that seem to hang around. For me, these are often feelings of self doubt, fear of not being liked, and feeling like I just can’t do the next thing on my list.
Step 3: Think of the top half of the grid as everything that happens externally, as if you were watching yourself Truman Show style (but less creepy). In the top left corner, write down some of the actions that you might see yourself doing when you’re stuck on one of those negative or intrusive thoughts. It’s not going to be a comprehensive list — this is a skill to practice. Personally, I tend to isolate myself socially, I won’t do my laundry, and I procrastinate more. Commonly, people might get a bit snappy with colleagues, eat poorly, or spend more time on social media. Remember, all these things are normal, but may just be a coping mechanism for your brain during that particularly tough time.Now you’ve got some awareness, how do we promote change?
Step 4: In the bottom right corner, write down the names of some of the people that you value most in your life. Now write down some positive thoughts, feelings and emotions that you want to have in your life. For me, these are connection and belonging, empathy, exploration, and growth. These won’t change too often.
Step 5: Finally, in the top right corner write down the actions or behaviours that you might see yourself doing when you’re moving towards those people, or experiencing those thoughts and emotions. Again, this list will not be complete, but may evolve over time as you become more aware.
What you have now is a simple matrix that gives you active solutions for when you experience negative moments. You can identify the behaviours you might be exhibiting, and then consciously choose to undertake the actions that draw you closer to the people and feelings that you value.
It’s a simple tool but one which can be very effective if you’re ever feeling stuck and lost, which we all do from time to time.
If you are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide there is help available. Please reach out to your GP for help
Exercise for depression? You bet!
Depression is an incredibly common condition which can present itself in many ways, including continual feelings of sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, loss of appetite, or problems sleeping and concentrating. Given how often we might experience these feelings, it’s easy to see how depressive episodes can often go unnoticed and why major depressive disorders can take a while to diagnose.
I’m sure that you’ve all heard exercise gives you a mood boost, and that your body releases endorphins when you work out. This is true, but the effect of exercise can be much longer lasting, and much more important when it comes to managing conditions like depression. Cardio exercise is the perfect prescription for preventing depressive episodes, as well as helping people with depression manage their mental health.
30 to 45 minutes at a moderate intensity — just hard enough so that you’re puffing but can still carry on a conversation — a few days per week can have a significant effect.
Research has proven that this dose of exercise can be as effective as medication for some people, when it comes to managing symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions. Not only that, but it also prevents depressive episodes in the future, and reduces the likelihood of the condition all together!
Here’s the real kicker though. Medications for mental health conditions often have side effects including weight gain, loss of libido, and metabolic risks like diabetes and heart disease among others. Exercise, on the other hand, improves all of these things. Please note that I am in no way recommending that people don’t take medication, especially if it’s doctor’s orders, but I want to make it clear that there’s undoubtedly a place for exercise in the management of mental health in a clinical setting.
So to most of you, please see exercise as your best friend in building a protective barrier against mental health conditions. Combined with enough sleep, good relationships and a healthy diet, your brain will thank you for many years to come!