10 Ways to Look After Your Mental Health

Having good mental health is about how you are feeling and how well you can cope with day-to-day life. Just like our physical health, it's not a fixed state of being - and it can change, from moment to moment, or across a day, as well as over longer periods of months or years.

But aside from just coping, there are many other benefits that tend to come with good mental wellbeing: being able to feel and express a range of emotions; to feel relatively confident in yourself and have positive self-esteem; being able to build and maintain good relationships with others, feeling engaged with the world around us, and to live and work productively.

Perhaps most importantly of all, it means we may be better able to adapt and manage in times of change and uncertainty.

These tips may help you look after your mental health: you may well have heard or read them all before, but they are worth considering to see if one or more could be helpful to you or others you know. 

1. Talk about it

If you're feeling troubled, then talking about your feelings is a great way to look after your mental health. Yes, it might seem a bit embarrassing talking to someone else about how you feel, but it's a great way to cope with an issue that's rattling around in your head. You might have a friend you can talk to who will be happy to listen, but you don't necessarily need to ask someone to take time out to have a big conversation about your mental health. It might work better for you and a friend if you just let a conversation develop naturally while you are doing something else together.

Remember, talking about a problem is not a sign of weakness - it's simply taking charge of your wellbeing and doing what you can to stay healthy. It may feel awkward at first, but give it time and work at it: make talking about your feelings something that you do. If you feel you'd like to talk to someone, Samaritans offer a 24-hour telephone service to provide emotional support to anyone in emotional distress or struggling to cope.

2. Get active

Exercise can have a key role in improving your mental health. It can not only boost your self-esteem but also lift your mood and improve your emotions. It can also help you concentrate and sleep better - and look and feel better too. It helps keep the brain and your other vital organs healthy. You don't have to take up a heavily physical sport or join a gym but, if you can, try to find a way to do around 30 minutes exercise at least five days a week. You might take up jogging or walking in a local park, perhaps one near your home or work. Even gardening and housework can help keep you active. The key to success is to find something that you can enjoy and make part of your day.

3. Eat well

It won't come as a surprise to know that what we eat and how we feel are connected - just think of the effect that sugar and caffeine can have. However, the food we choose can have a long-lasting effect on our mental health too. Your brain needs a mix of nutrients to stay healthy and function well, just like the other organs in your body - and a diet that's good for your physical health is also good for your mental health. 

A healthy balanced diet includes lots of different types of fruit and vegetables; wholegrain cereals or bread; nuts and seeds; dairy products; oily fish. Try to eat at least three meals a day, and to drink plenty of water (and only a limited amount of high-caffeine or sugary drinks and alcohol). Note that, this is generalised advice and may not exactly apply to you or your circumstances. Take specific advice where needed from your doctor or dietician. 

4. Drink sensibly

Alcohol acts as a mood-changer. It's often there at social and work-related occasions, and occasional light drinking is perfectly healthy and enjoyable for many people. However, some people drink to numb their feelings - to deal for example with loneliness or fear - looking for the temporary effect and relief that it can provide. Nevertheless, it's only a short-lived effect, and when it wears off, we tend to feel worse because of the way alcohol withdrawal symptoms affect our brain and body. Drinking is not a good way to manage difficult feelings and - apart from the damage too much alcohol can cause to your body - more and more alcohol is needed each time to feel the same short-term boost. 

If you are going to drink, then stay within the recommended daily alcohol limits - currently 3-4 units a day for men, and 2-3 units a day for women. Other mood-changers - like nicotine and other drugs and substances - have the same short-lived effects: the more you use, the more you crave. Remember, these things don't deal with the causes of difficult feelings, and won't help you feel better in the long-term. 

5. Stay connected

It can be easy just to plough on, getting ever more immersed in your own world and feeling increasingly isolated and alone. Strong family ties and supportive friends can help you deal with the stresses of life. They can make you feel included, cared for, grounded in everyday life, and offer you an alternative perspective or even a solution to whatever's going on inside your own head. It's great if you can catch-up with someone face-to-face, but it's not always possible to schedule the time. Don't let that put you off though; the important thing is to keep the lines of communication open, so make a call, or drop them a message, or chat online. It's amazing what a quick word of support can do for you, and the actual communication may be important than putting it off until you can find the perfect time to meet.  

it's worth working at relationships that make you feel valued and loved, but if you feel that being around someone is damaging your mental health, it may be best to take a break from them, or even to end the relationship completely. It may not be easy to do, but it is possible to find a way to call it a day in a way that feels okay for both of you.

6. Ask for help

None of us is superhuman. When things go wrong it's very easy to feel overwhelmed - and it can creep up on you or happen all of a sudden. If things are getting too much for you and you feel you can't cope, do ask for help. If you can't turn to friends or family, there may be local services that you can try that might help solve the issue. If you need to make changes to your life, then you could try a support group such as Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous. If you want to talk about and deal with your feelings you could find a counsellor or psychotherapist yourself e.g. via BACP or get a referral to a specialist or another part of the health service from your doctor. Your local Citizen's Advice may be able to help with advice on debt or other financial issues. 

7. Take a break

A change of scene - or pace - is good for your mental health. If you don't already, are you able to take at least a half-hour lunch break at work, or even just a few minutes out now and then during the day? If you can stop from time to time to take a deep breath and relax, it will really help your state of mind. Taking it a stage further, you might want to take a day off work or arrange a weekend away; somewhere familiar that you love or else exploring somewhere new. Giving yourself some 'me time' can provide a great boost - and you might find that yoga or meditation offer new ways of achieving a more positive state of wellbeing too.

Taking a break doesn't mean that you have to be very active though - just putting your feet up and not doing much at all can be enough to de-stress you. If you find you are very tired, then do try to ensure you are getting enough sleep.  

8. Do something you enjoy 

Try to spend some regular time on an activity that offers you something different to your everyday routine. Are there hobbies you have that you could take up again, or would enjoy trying? If you can find something that you can lose yourself in a little bit, even for a short time each time, it can help your mental wellbeing. Enjoying yourself is one of the best ways to beat stress, and if you can find or rediscover something you are good at, then it can boost your feelings of self-esteem too. Many of these tips are linked to each other, and this is no exception: you might find playing some sport - perhaps five-a-side football after work or a game of tennis or squash - is not only enjoyable and good exercise but gives you the chance to meet and talk to other people - perhaps new people - too.

Whatever you take part in, whether it's gardening, volunteering or creative drawing or a crossword, concentrating on something else can help you forget your worries for a while and change your mood. It can be hard to find time if you are a parent or a carer, or are extremely busy at work, but it's good to have an interest where you're not 'just' someone's parent, partner or employee. You're just you.

9. Accept yourself

Life is full of different people - all with different natural talents and abilities, strengths and weaknesses. It's much healthier to accept who you are than to dwell or obsess about being more like someone else. Some things about yourself you might be able - skills and abilities - if you really want to, others may not be possible to change.

Ultimately, you will feel better about yourself if you can recognise and accept who you are and what you are good - and not so good - at. If you focus on the things that you can do well, and you will likely feel better about yourself - and this in itself will boost your self-esteem and perhaps give you the confidence to learn new skills, or make new friends, or other changes you wish to make. If you do wish to change things, try to assess whether your expectations are realistic - and if they are, consider working towards the change in small steps so that you don't get discouraged and give up too soon.

10. Care for others

Caring for others can help you keep up relationships with people close to you. It can even bring you closer together. Helping others doesn't just help others - it can also make you feel more needed, boost your self-esteem and put your own problems in perspective. You might find you can be of valuable support to other friends, colleagues or family, or you might consider sharing your skills more widely by volunteering for a local charity. A website such as do-it.org can match you up with volunteering opportunities close to you. 

Aside from other people, caring for a pet can improve your wellbeing too. Cats and dogs are the most popular pets for people to have, but whatever your preference, the bond you create with a pet can be as strong as that with other people. Looking after a pet will mean some added responsibility, but can also help you add some structure to your day e.g. needing to walk your dog at certain times and provide a link to other people who you can perhaps walk and talk with, such as other dog walkers.