“Every day of our lives, we are on the verge of making those slight changes that would make all the difference.”
~ Mignon McLaughlin
Ironically, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to keep our minds healthy.
We’re aware that we have to eat right and be active to keep our bodies fuelled, fit and well, yet our minds are an often an afterthought. However, it’s never been more imperative that we find ways to proactively manage the incredibly fast-paced world that we’re living in. With the blessing of technology, we have everything we could possibly want at our fingertips, yet we’re more distracted than ever before, we often feel like there’s not enough time in the day, and it’s not making us happier or healthier. They say we receive as much information in one day as someone in the 15th century received in their entire lifetime, and if you think about it physiologically we have not evolved to adapt to this; even if you think about the last 50 years, how the world has changed and the speed of which life happens now; and it seems like the pace is still cranking up. Our nervous systems are pushed to the limit! We’re also more connected through screens, yet more disconnected, and loneliness is an emerging public health challenge. We used to connect through religion, churches or temples, even the public squares where people used to convene, yet much of this has been lost in the modern era, and building community is crucial to being able to create a sense of belonging, and somewhere for people to turn to when they are feeling lost or alone.
With depression as the number 1 cause of disability (WHO), anxiety issues on the increase, and the rates of suicide rising, we need to give ourselves tools to be able to empower ourselves and to create an inner resilience to meet the challenges of life. I’ve had my own battles with my mental wellbeing over the years. It presented as physical un-wellness, but the reality was it came from not looking after my mind, stress and emotional traumas that I didn’t know how to navigate.
I had to learn strategies to manage, and it’s one of the reasons I have now dedicated my working life to helping others to be able to overcome some of the issues I faced, without having to go as far down the rabbit hole as I did. Meditation is the number 1 go-to for me and is something I practice every day for maintaining emotional and mental health, however, if you are in a very dark place, or even suffer some trauma, and potentially PTSD, sitting for a period of time, particularly if you close your eyes (NB. you can also keep them open to meditate) can feel overwhelming and challenging. So while I’m a huge advocate of consistent meditation practice (you can download my Free Create A Consistent Practice Guide below), I also wanted to explore some other ways that you can proactively keep your mind strong and resilient.
Lack of movement can literally leave you feeling stagnant, and depression can develop from this feeling of physical stuck-ness. Walking in nature, certain gentle styles of yoga, tai chi, and Qi Gong, are helpful for both the mind and the body. While hitting an intense gym session may be fun and make you feel great, exercise, when extreme, can actually increase adrenalin and cortisol (the stress hormones) in your body, so while burning off steam in this way can be good for some, if you are already under a lot of mental stress, moving slowly and methodically, in ways that actually ease the mind will be way more beneficial. For example, walking in nature changes your brain wave state and moves you into a more sustainable frequency where you are more present based thinking. Our biochemistry actually shifts, from Beta Waves to Alpha Waves, it helps our breathing to slow and our bodies to relax.
Your breath is one of the most powerful tools you have. First of all, it’s always with you and its free! When we’re stressed, anxious or unfocused, we’re usually not breathing very well. Your breath could be shallow or gasping, which actually keeps you in a state of mental distress. Whereas the breath also has the ability to heal, calm and soothe you, and it may assist you to learn some simple breathing techniques that can be used anytime, anywhere. My favourite is breathing into the belly for 4, and out for 6. When you breathe in this way, extending your exhalation, you calm your nervous system, and you also signal to the mind and body that you’re safe. You wouldn’t be able to physically breathe in this way if you were actually in any real danger.
Technology brings us together in an invaluable way, but it can also pull us apart from each other simultaneously. I love social media for its ability to connect me to friends all over the globe, yet if this is the main way we are communicating with the outside world it can leave us feeling isolated. Lack of community can be one of the biggest factors in poor mental health, and yet there are so many organizations that can help. Happy Melon where I teach is one of many that are community-focused. I know that if I am feeling lonely, or down, I can head there and get a hug and a kind ear. Explore the community that might be available to you. It could even be a group that assists with some of the challenges you might face, that can benefit you in multiple ways. Or perhaps it’s a meetup group where people have similar interests. The ability to connect, have a big hug from someone (oxytocin is released when you get a 20-second hug, helping you to feel bonded and calm), is incredibly valuable.
When we are in community we are healthier, happier and more resilient. Be of service to someone else, research says it helps us to feel good about ourselves and makes us feel positive. I remember when I was in some of my dark days, one of my own beautiful healers suggested that I go and volunteer. It was a powerful lesson, of when you can focus on something, larger than yourself, it helps you to feel more positive.
As opposed to meditation where you are dedicating a specific time to become internal, you can bring mindfulness into nearly everything you do, it’s waking up out of the autopilot state and learning to be present in the everyday moments. When you’re mindful you’re based in the now, rather than future or past based thinking. Often when you look to the past you can feel wistful eg. The good old days! Or possibly regretful at the way things played out. Alternatively, you can get swept up in future thinking. I love the saying by Mark Twain, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.” Anxiety and worry can be exacerbated with concerns of what might go wrong, yet in the present moment, if you checked in, you are usually quite safe and okay. Alternatively, you can be living for a future, that, “I’ll be happy when…. I get that job, relationship, holiday, event.” Yet now is the moment you can only truly be happy, so we want to be living in the present. If you’re interested in learning more, I facilitate 1:1 mindfulness sessions in person or online with you to see how you can bring it more into your life.
Never underestimate some of those childlike activities as a powerful resource for bringing a sense of calm. Have you noticed adult colouring books popping up everywhere? The reason for this is when you colour it also changes your biochemistry, makes you feel more peaceful, and brings you into present moment awareness. Just 3 mins of colouring can have an impact on your state of mind.
Taking time to write down what is going on in the mind, kind of like a brain dump can assist you to get your thoughts down on the page and out of the head. You don’t have to spend long, just a few minutes, but it helps to stop the rumination of the mind when you see things clearly down on the page. You might notice certain patterns come up regularly, which helps you to know where you might need to make shifts in your life.
Sound has an incredible ability to heal, if you’ve ever been to a sound healing you can get a sense of the impact it has on your nervous system. Yet any type of soothing music can have the ability to calm the mind. Sound has a frequency and vibration which operates at a level below the thinking mind and has a transforming capacity to move you into a state of harmony.
Our sense of smell has the ability to restore emotional and mental balance. Essential oils are vital substances direct from nature, an alchemical matching of plant and sun. Their olfactory powers have a direct impact on the brain and your spirit, and when applied to the cutaneous regions of the skin are absorbed into the body to relieve all sorts of common ailments. A few examples:
Lavender: Anxiety Clary Sage: Helps with decision making
Chamomile: Relieves tension
It depends on the type of person you are, but if you are an introvert (not to be confused with shyness or loneliness) you get your energy from having time alone, and even if you’re the more extroverted type, especially if you spend a lot of time in your work surrounded by people and giving of your energy, you still need to create times of quiet and stillness to recharge your batteries. I do my best to make sure I have a day off the computer, creating space to be with what arises, taking a walk in nature if possible. For me personally, if I didn’t have that room, I wouldn’t be able to show up in the world in the way that I want to. While sometimes this means missing out on some activities or catch-ups that I would like to do, I know that it is essential to my wellbeing, so I need to make it on the top of my priority list.
This is a huge topic and one I can only touch on here briefly, however, the impact of your diet on your mental health is significant. It has the ability to affect your mood, hormonal balance, and energy levels, which in turn reflects back in your state of mind and physical body. We live in an age where there are more food intolerances than ever before, due to high processing and chemicals being sprayed on our crops, and if you’re suffering from any mental health difficulties, I highly recommend seeing a naturopath or nutritionist, or even an integrative doctor, who can assist you to get your diet right, and diagnose any underlying dietary issues.
Move Into The Heart
The heart is the place of your inner wisdom and truth; when you’re connected to your heart space you’re also dropping out of the thinking mind and into your physical body. If you place your hand over your heart, you increase the feel-good hormone oxytocin in your body, which gives you a sense of connection to yourself, it helps you to feel bonded, calm and settles your nervous system, especially if you feel in distress. Try it right now. Place your hand over your chest and imagine breathing into and out of the heart area. Do this for a couple of minutes and notice any subtle shifts. If you’d like to learn more about the importance of the heart, read here.
Focus On What Is Right
Your mind has a negativity bias, that loves to focus on the things that are going wrong. Yet when you have gratitude for the things that are working in your life, it helps to recognize all the positive elements that are working for you. I like to write down 3 things I am grateful for every morning, or alternatively, you might like to choose to notice this at the end of the day before you go to bed. When you’re grateful it makes you happier and increases your positive outlook.
Doctor & Medication
Last but not least, it would be negligent of me not to recognize the power of western medicine. Your GP is one of the best resources to help you by putting you on a mental health plan, so don’t be afraid to reach out for help. They can send you to an appropriate therapist who you can talk to, as well as medication if required.
While I’m not a huge fan of medication, sometimes it’s necessary if you are in a very dark place or have a serious chemical imbalance, and it’s important that we don’t stigmatize it as wrong. I believe, however, it’s essential to not just rely on this, that you start including other activities, so you aren’t just masking a problem. Medication can give you a way to stabilize so you can heal on a deeper level, and begin to find avenues that can assist you that aren’t medication reliant. This list could go on and on really, there are so many tools at our disposal that can assist you, and working out what is right for you is important.
I always like to say that no one has more authority on your health, whether that be mental or physical than yourself. There is so much help out there to guide you, and I encourage you to experiment with some of these tools and techniques, as there’s not a one size fits all approach, so you can tune in to your own needs for what is going to best serve you. Whether you’re currently facing mental health issues or life is feeling pretty amazing right now, we all face challenges from time to time, and preventative action is beneficial to keep up your resilience. Don’t wait for life to throw you a curveball to look after your mind. The more you can do in the calmer times actually sets you up with good patterns so you have a sense of inner strength, and to help you to understand that there is always a place of peace inside you, to return to no matter what life brings.
Sacha Stewart is a Meditation & Mindfulness Teacher, Kinesiologist and Mind-Body Medicine Practitioner, with a background in holistic life coaching and nutrition. After working as a producer in the advertising and film industry for 20 years, she began retraining at the beginning of 2013. After discovering the tools of Kinesiology, and the power of Mind-Body Medicine, when they helped her to uncover her own subconscious blocks, limiting beliefs and also health issues; they empowered her to move forward to greater wellbeing, and lead her to dive deeper into these modalities so she can assist others.
Photo: Unsplash – Lea Dubedout