Meditation · Mental Health

Your Mental Health 5-A-Day

Eight years ago, when I studied in China, my tutor (who incidentally had selected ‘Happy’ as her English name…she really was the happiest person I’d ever met) asked the class the following question, ‘If you could only choose one of the following, which would it be? Health, wealth or love?’ She asked us to raise our hands as she re-read the options. For me, my health seemed ok and I was never really driven by money, so I placed my hand up for Love. What could be better than Love? With Love, life is complete – be it the love of life, the love of people, the love of the world…

Then, (Miss) Happy proceeded to say something along the lines of, ‘The answer is health. If I have my health, then I also have the chance of wealth and love. If I had picked wealth or love, I could have either of them but only live for a day, or have either of them but not enjoy myself because I’d be too busy feeling ill’. Apparently, health was the correct answer to the conundrum, when answered with as much thought as my teacher had placed in.

She had a point. Whilst to me I’m all very Hollywood and think ‘Love conquers all! Love saves the day! Love is the essence of life itself!’ and other such emphatic thoughts, health is extremely important and a key ingredient to happiness.

I could talk about physical health and exercise here, but one topic I am passionate about is mental health. Poor mental health is a silent killer and in our fast-paced world, stresses are high and causing people to become ill. According to mentalhealth.org.uk, ‘mixed anxiety and depression has been estimated to cause one fifth of days lost from work in Britain’. I feel that not enough is done to educate the public on how to have good mental health.

If we think about physical health, some may have a checklist that looks similar to the below:

  • Eat 5 portions of fresh fruit and vegetables per day
  • 150min of moderate-paced physical activity per day or 75min vigorous-paced activity (or mix of both)
  • Strengthening exercises for 2+ days per week

On personal regimes, there may also be some more granular detailed items on diet or types of favoured exercise. The point is, most of the public are aware about their 5-a-day and need to exercise. But when it comes to mental health? Why don’t we have a similar daily or weekly hygiene list? How can we expect to be happy if we’re not practicing to be happy? Why do we feel a sense of entitlement? It’s equivalent to believing we should have a gym-toned body with none of the work placed in. And let me tell you, mental health does not work like that. It takes effort and it takes necessary hygiene check-ins.

What can be done? For this, I am sharing my mental-health 5-a-day. I’m not saying it will stave off any serious mental health afflictions (for which I advise you seek a healthcare professional), but I hope it will at least help to make you happier or more aware of your state of mind so that you can effect positive change when practicing it over time. So here they are:

  1. Morning: Start out the day with your own affirmations. I know it sounds crazy to some, but it helps to focus your mind on how you want to feel in a day. There’s that cheesy well-known affirmation, ‘I’m a strong, confident woman’, but it certainly doesn’t need to be that. It should be fluid with whatever you need. For example, ‘I am focused. I am determined. I’ve got this’ or ‘I am patient. I am compassionate. I am grateful’. Whatever you need more of or to focus on personally, take a moment and instill this into your being
  2. During the day: Create mental check-ins with yourself when you’re at work / throughout the day. Mine is every time I drink a glass of water – I check to see if I’m stressed, and if I am I do a minute or two of slow inhalations and exhalations when I return to my desk (whilst looking like I’m typing) to calm down. On the weekends I like to sit down and actively spend time doing a more thorough check-in with myself for a half hour: What has made me happy this week that I can build upon? What has made me feel awful this week and what can I do to positively remedy the situation (here I note down a few points and act upon them the following week)?
  3. Drink water! UK’s National Health Service advise 6-8 glasses of water (not coffee or other dehydrating drinks) per day. Over two-thirds of the human body is made up of water. So if you’re feeling slightly drained or irritable, a commonly overlooked cause may be that you’re dehydrated
  4. After work: Spend at least 10min per day sitting quietly with your eyes closed and focus for the entire duration on the quality of your breath*. Ok, here some readers may think ‘What?! Meditate?!’ My answer is ‘Yes, meditate”. Meditation is not a kooked up new-age practice, but one that has been going on for millenia and with good reason. If I go back to physical activity – everyone knows that not only does the physical activity matter, but the warm-down and resting period where the body assimilates all that it has performed within a session. That is what meditation is – the warm down for your brain. Your brain spends all its time thinking. Even when you think you’re relaxing, like when you’re watching the TV, your brain is processing and filing all this information and also responding to the activities onscreen. When you sleep, your brain is in its assimilation mode. But it hasn’t had its warm-down. And if you’re a heavy dreamer like me, sleeping probably isn’t very relaxing either. Your brain needs a break. It needs time not to think. It simply needs time to exist in its own right and have some space from all the work it’s doing. A lot of us are the boss from hell to our own brains! So please, give your poor, hard-working brain a time out
  5. Before bed: State your daily gratitudes and leave enough time for adequate sleep. It can be hard sometimes when we have a really tough day to be thankful for anything at all. But it’s important to make a very clear mental note of what we’re grateful for in our lives so that we can notice even the small things that make a difference and contribute to our happiness. Don’t forget to thank yourself too 🙂 And with your pleasant gratitudes as the last thoughts on your mind for the day, get a well deserved night of sleep

I hope that gives a starting point for anyone out there who currently feels low and doesn’t know where to start helping themselves out. This mental health 5-a-day makes us more aware of how we want to feel, how we actually feel, provides an opportunity to be active in remedying troubles, keeps our brain hydrated, allows our brain to rest, and makes us more aware of the good in life. I truly believe that with increased awareness, practice and maintenance of our mental health, we can each notice the happiness already all around us whilst also actively cultivating what makes us happy.

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*Meditation tips: 

You can also switch your practice to the morning if you prefer. I tend to do this in the evening as I have more time.

For a breathing meditation, sit comfortably on a chair or cross-legged on the ground. Gently close your eyes. breathe deeply through your nose into your abdomen and then breathe slowly all the way out through the mouth. Repeat three times as a calming measure. Then breathe normally. Notice the fluidity (or lack of!) the breath. Notice where it starts and the paise between the inhalation and exhalation. Feel the air entering your nostrils and the sensation of it exiting. Feel its rhythm. Just be with the moment, without distraction.

Continue for 10min. Then slowly move your hands and feet. Regain your senses and slowly open your eyes. Your meditation session is complete.

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