Fiona Hewkin Counselling
Mental Health is Important - How to Actually Feel Happier
Updated: May 7, 2022
Our mental health is important. This blog explores how the fight or flight reflex has impacted our mental health during the pandemic, and what we can do about it.
Mental health matters, we all know this. So why do we so often leave it till we are screaming on the inside before we do anything about it?
In the early days of the pandemic, we were in uncharted territory. Scary headlines, panic buying, an overwhelmed NHS and toilet rolls were the new have to have item. It was all a bit crazy. One good thing that happened was we started to have a national conversation about how important our mental health is. All of a sudden there were articles and news items about how to stay mentally healthy. For the first time it seemed ok to talk about this stuff.
So now many of us are getting back to normal, whatever that means, what does that mean for our mental health? Our mental health matters as much now as it did when we were first told to stay at home and watch Joe Wicks, maybe even more.
It is important to remember that many of us have experienced some kind of trauma in the last couple of years. Maybe you were scared or losing your job, of vulnerable loved ones getting sick, perhaps you were lonely and isolated. Nearly all of us have been frightened of something. We stayed frightened for a long time.
Fight or Flight
Our brains deal with threat with the fight or flight response. This is an actual physiological response when we have a strong emotion like fear. The fight or flight response is perfectly normal, and it evolved to help us to run away, to fight or even freeze when faced with a threat. Threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers a stress response. This response is triggered by hormones and our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. The fight or flight response includes increased heart rate and blood pressure, slowed digestive functions and increased blood flow to the arms and legs (so we can run faster!)
The problem is the fight or flight response was only ever meant to be short term. It kicked in long enough for our ancestors to run away from the sabre-toothed tiger and then it’s over.
We were never meant to stay in this state for two years! Whether we know it or not, many of us are utterly exhausted from being in this state of heightened response for so long.
How to reset our Sympathetic Nervous System
So how do we reset our sympathetic nervous system and convince our brains that the threat has gone and there are no tigers? We need to find a way to kick start the relaxation response of the sympathetic nervous system. Put simply we need to find ways to chill out.
Here are some ways to relax. The more we practice these the easier it is to reach a relaxed state
1. Breathing exercises
These are incredibly helpful and can be done anywhere and nobody will know that you are doing them. A simple exercise is to breathe in for the count of 4, hold the breath for 2, breathe out for 6, repeat. It’s that simple! If you get confused with the counting just make sure you breathe out for longer than you breathe in. Try this at bedtime if you are having trouble getting to sleep, it really helps!
Ok here is my bit of self-disclosure. Unless I am following a really easy and SHORT guided meditation, I hate it! I am on the edge of ADHD and meditation makes me feel itchy on the inside, BUT it is clinically proven to work for lots of people which is why I am including it here. It works well for body and mind and helps build resilience. Try lots of different types until you find something that works for you, there’s loads of apps with stuff on.
3. Muscle relaxation
Any exercise that involves tensing and relaxing different groups of muscles helps you to recognise what a relaxed state feels like. This takes a bit of time and practice, but you should find you can totally relax your body in a few moments
Yoga is great for promoting relaxation and well-being. It can calm the mind and make the body feel wonderful. If you don’t fancy a class, there are lots of yoga videos on YouTube.
Maintaining Mental Health
The list above will help our sympathetic nervous system to get into the relaxation response. What else can we do to maintain our mental health?
1. Get some exercise
I’m not talking running a marathon here, unless you want to, in which case crack on. This is about just getting outside for a bit. Go for a walk in your lunch hour. Get some sun on your skin. Research shows that aerobic exercise 2 days a week significantly lowers stress levels and improves symptoms of anxiety and depression.
2. Eat well
Diet affects every aspect of health including our mental health. Try and minimise highly processed food and include a few more veggies and beans.
3. Get off the screens!
Ironic as you are probably reading this on your phone or laptop!
Excessive phone use is linked with increased levels of stress and mental health difficulties. Using phones before bed can affect sleep. It’s really hard to feel good if we aren’t getting enough sleep! If 24-hour news is leaving your anxious, limit how much you watch.
4. Practice Self-Care
Self-care is not all about getting your nails done and having a bubble bath, although both of these are nice. Self-Care is about valuing yourself enough to take care of your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Studies show that people who engage in self-care report lower levels of stress and improved quality of life, while a lack of self-care is associated with higher risk of stress and burnout. This may need a mindset shift. It’s not self-care if it’s just another thing on the to do list!
5. Reduce the Caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant, and it kicks off the central nervous system. If, like me, you can’t start the day without a decent coffee then limit your intake to one or two in the morning and switch to soft drinks or caffeine free for the rest of the day.
6. Spend time with people you like
We are social creatures. Spending time with people we like is important to our mental wellbeing
7. Create boundaries and learn to say no
Taking some control of your life and learning to say no to things can reduce stress and protect your mental health. Creating boundaries, especially with people who add to our stress levels, is a healthy way to protect our mental health. Take a look at this previous blog about circuses, monkeys and how to set boundaries.
8. Do something you love!
Find something you love doing and do more of it! For me its horses, I am lucky enough to ride my friends mare. For you it could be walking or painting or line dancing, anything that blows your hair back and makes you happy. Mental health is improved by doing things we love! (Gratuitous picture of the horse because she is pretty 😊)
If our mental health matters, it is up to us to take care of it. It is just as important now as it was two years ago. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health and deserves just as much attention. We have a whole range of things we can do to improve or maintain our mental health. Most of them aren't that hard.
I hope some of these tips help and we can all keep the sabre-toothed tigers at bay. If you want to explore any of the things in this blog do drop me a line using the contact page.