In the same way we monitor our physical wellbeing with regular checks (e.g. weight, cholesterol, eye tests etc), we should be equally aware of our mental health.
Mental health affects how we think, feel and act. Self-care and protecting our mental health can help us cultivate resilience, cope with life’s challenges, and enjoy healthier relationships. We can lower stress, increase energy and lower our risk of illness simply by paying attention to our mental wellbeing. Furthermore, looking after our mental health can prevent the development of more serious conditions later in life and promotes long-term happiness and fulfillment. Embracing mental health as a lifelong commitment empowers us to lead richer and more meaningful lives.
Indicators and Warning Signs of Possible Mental Illness
Although we are all human, we are all also different. The way we experience life, the way we handle challenges, our thoughts, moods and behaviours are all influenced by multiple factors (some genetic, some to do with individual life experiences). While it’s important not to generalise or diagnose ourselves or others, there are some important changes to look out for that could indicate possible mental illness. These span across every aspect of day to day life and include behavioural changes, emotional changes, bodily changes and psychological changes. Before we can fully explore the different ways to prioritise self-care, we will first take a look at the different changes you may notice in yourself or those around you that could be early indicators of mental illness.
Behavioural changes that may indicate possible mental illness include (but are not limited to):
- Snapping and sniping more than usual without reasons why
- Being tearful or angry
- Reduced engagement and enjoyment of activities
- Withdrawing from physical contact and affection
- Unhealthy lifestyle habits
- Neglecting physical appearance
There are many other reasons why someone may experience some or all of these behavioural changes but they can often be an indicator of mental illness when accompanied by some or all of the following emotional changes.
- Feeling more frequently irritated
- Feeling fearful or agitated
- Feeling demoralised and unmotivated
- Feeling exhausted with or without sleep
- Feeling emotionally numb
We can also experience emotional changes for many other reasons including perimenopause and menopause, bereavement, stress at work or from the effects of drugs or alcohol. It’s important to speak to a Doctor if you’re regularly experiencing emotional changes without suspecting the underlying cause.
Mental health is inherently linked with physical health and although this list is by no means exhaustive, some changes to be aware of can include:
- Muscle tension
- Increased breathing rate (hyperventilating)
- Increased blood pressure
- Unexplained physical aches and pains
- Unpleasant feeling in your chest or stomach that won’t go away
- Digestive changes
- Sleep difficulties – can’t get to sleep / sudden waking
- Lack of libido
- New medical conditions – e.g. skin problems, unexplained hair loss etc
Some changes may include:
- An increased focus on the negative and irrational
- Increased worry
- Physical hypervigilance (disproportionate awareness of a potential threat) and obsessive thought patterns e.g. fixating on body temperature, heart rate and any physical symptoms.
- External hypervigilance and catastrophising (expecting the worst possible outcome)
As with the other possible symptoms of mental illness, these changes can also be experienced for many other reasons. Always contact your GP or a Mental Health professional (see Resources) if you’re worried about yourself or someone you know.
Looking After our Mental Health – How to Self-Care
Just as we can exercise, sleep, and eat well to maintain and improve our physical health and wellbeing, there are things we can do to help our mental health too.
There are lots of steps we can take to look after out body and protect our mental health. The first (and often the most overlooked) is to practice good sleep hygiene.
Good sleep is an important aspect of mental health and leads to increased energy, better memory, sharper concentration and allows you to better manage stress.
Try to maintain a good sleeping and waking pattern and make your bedroom sleep friendly.
Spending time outside regulates your circadian rhythm, helping your body to produce more melatonin which aids sleep.
Try to wind down towards bedtime – avoid caffeine and screen time before bed and maybe take a warm bath or do some gentle stretching. Preparing the body and brain for bedtime can help with better quality and quantity of sleep.
There is a well-established link between exercise and good mental health. The right amount of exercise will vary by age and ability, and it should be something you enjoy doing.
Even a daily 30-minute walk can have a positive impact on your physical health and wellbeing. If the weather is bad, why not try a free walking workout from YouTube in the comfort of your own home?
Nutrients, vitamins, and minerals
Eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of vegetables and gut-friendly nutrients is associated with feelings of well-being. The food you eat fuels your body and a healthy body can help maintain a healthy mind. There are lots of resources online to support healthy eating, the NHS Eatwell Guide is a great place to start.
Increased or persistent worry can be both a symptom and a cause of mental health issues. Here are some tips to help you manage worry:
Stay in the present
Learning to focus your attention on the present can be helpful. Human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what they’ve done and often wishing they had done things differently. We can also spend time fretting or worrying about the future. A key skill in maintaining your mental health is to remain in the present moment, this is one of the underpinning principles of mindfulness.
Write it down
Keeping a diary or journal and writing things down is often seen to be of benefit to support mental health. Writing about what is happening and how you are feeling can help you to gain a sense of perspective. Sometimes people like to pretend to write a letter to someone that they don’t intend to send, whatever works for you, give it a try!
Think about what your hero would do! When you are anxious or worried, think about someone you admire. What would they feel, think, and do in this situation?
Nobody is a mind reader. When you think you know what someone is thinking, try to remember this fact. It’s helpful to remember that what other people think of you is up to them and that the only person whose opinion really matters is your own.
Sometimes life will bring problems and difficulties. Accepting that this is the way of the world and that not everything is under our control can sometimes be helpful. An often-used phrase is ‘it is what it is’, and although it might not feel as easy as just dismissing worries, reducing the impact they have can be helpful. Limit the time you spend worrying, maybe just allow yourself a certain amount of time each day to think about your worry and then leave it behind.
Look at past events
Consider how things turned out with similar events in the past – what can you learn from this? If previous events went well what’s particularly worrying you on this occasion? What would you do differently? Remembering the bad times you’ve successfully got through can help you find the strength of spirit to tackle your current worries.
Monitor your Self-talk
Using positive self-talk can create a supportive internal environment, challenging negative or overwhelming thoughts can help you to gain a sense of perspective and come to more positive conclusions.
Mindfulness and relaxation
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment, using techniques such as meditation, breathwork and yoga. It helps us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings, so that instead of becoming overwhelmed by them, we’re better able to manage them.
While research is still growing around mindfulness, evidence has suggested it has many benefits to health and wellbeing, and may also help your relationships with others as well as in the management of mental health issues such as stress, depression, and anxiety.
Deep breathing is one of the best ways of lowering stress in the body. There are several different breathing techniques that you can try. One example is square breathing:
Square breathing is a powerful stress reliever and involves taking slow, deep breaths. Do this exercise while seated and breathe deeply into the diaphragm.
The technique is as follows:
- Begin by slowly exhaling all of your air out
- Then, gently inhale through your nose to a count of three
- Hold at the top of the breath for a count of three
- Then gently exhale though your mouth for a count of three
- At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of three
As you improve, you can extend the timings to four seconds, then 5 seconds etc. Picture each line of an imaginary square being drawn in your mind as you inhale and count and then exhale and count.
They say ‘no man is an island’ and this is very true about human beings who tend to be social creatures, benefiting from support and advice from those around them. Studies have shown that those who are isolated or feel lonely are at greater risk of experiencing mental health problems. Building a support network of different people who can provide both practical and emotional support during difficult times is an important element of wellbeing. In fact, psychologists often refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which lists a sense of belonging in the five-tier model of human needs. This emphasises just how important it is.
Your support network can consist of family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and acquaintances, support groups, social media groups and your local community. Different people can offer diffent types of support so the more people you have in your network, the more opportunities you have for friendship and feeling a sense of belonging.
Talking therapy i(also referred to as counselling or psychological therapy) s for anyone who’s having a difficult time or has emotional problems they need help with. According to the NHS, ‘for many adults talking therapy can be as effective as medicine’. Sometimes it can be easier to talk to a stranger than to your friends or family and they will listen without judgement and give you the time and space you need to talk. To find out more about the different types of talking therapy and how it could benefit you, take a look at the NHS Website or the Counselling Directory.
For many people, the distinction between work and home has become blurred over recent years. More people now work from home or in a hybrid role and technological advances can mean we are more ‘available’ to customers both in and out of the office. Although this can have its advantages, it can also make it difficult to fully switch off and maintain the right balance between working to live and living to work.
Tips for Maintaining a Work/Life Balance:
Set manageable goals – prioritise essential tasks, write a ‘to do’ list, take care of important tasks and eliminate unessential ones.
Be efficient with your time – make sure that when you are working, you’re being productive and avoid procrastinating.
Ask for flexibility if you need it – research shows that employees who work flexible schedules that allow them to balance all areas of their life are more productive and loyal to their employers.
Take regular breaks – Small breaks at work – or on any project – will help you to clear your head, stop you feeling overwhelmed and therefore improve your ability to deal with stress and make good balanced decisions.
Communicate – be honest with colleagues or your boss. If you feel ‘stuck’, overwhelmed, or unable to cope, get help. Clarity, direction, and support will help you to manage and complete tasks which in turn will give you a sense of achievement and accomplishment.
Be kind to yourself – allow yourself to be human and just do the best you can
End your working day on time – wherever possible, end your working day at the end of the working day! Allow yourself time to switch off and step away.
If you’re working at home or in hybrid role:
Unplug your devices – recognise the need for personal time outside of your working hours, make sure you have some time every day where your work devices are turned off and you can focus on your home life.
Don’t over commit – you cannot be all things to everyone, all the time. If you’re over-scheduled with activities, learn to say ‘no’.
Be supported – contact with friends and family can be important to your wellbeing and can even improve your health.
Stay active – regular exercise can reduce stress, depression and anxiety and enable you to better cope with adversity.
Look after your health – being in good physical shape can increase your tolerance to stress and improve your immune system. Eat well, exercise and make sure you get enough rest.
Prioritise your own wellbeing – allow yourself some ‘me time’. We all have busy lives and work, family and home commitments can soon overwhelm us. Make sure you allow yourself some time to prioritise your own wellbeing.
Links and Resources
For more information about prioritising self-care and supporting mental health, or if you need additional advice and support, the following resources can help.
For training courses that can benefit individuals and workplace teams, take a look at Mental Health Awareness Online Training, Stress Awareness Training or our range of other Health and Wellbeing courses including our popular Menopause Awareness Training.