9 Common Mental Health Questions Answered
We spend a lot of time and energy trying to keep our bodies healthy, but how often do we reflect on our mental wellbeing? Perhaps not often enough.
Our mental health has an enormous impact on our everyday lives: it affects how we feel, think, behave and relate to others. 2020 has tested us all in many different ways and the impact on our mental wellbeing shouldn’t be underestimated.
To learn about some practical ways to care for our mental health, we spoke to provisional psychologist and Masters of Educational and Developmental psychology candidate, Amy Miko. We asked her for tools to help with stress-management and self-care, and learned about the ways that our physical health can impact our mental health, for better or worse. We hope you’ll find these tips helpful and commit to joining us in focusing on our mental health with our #TBYY campaign.
1. We talk a lot about moving everyday to keep our bodies physically fit. What are some everyday things we should be doing to look after our mental health?
Taking care of our physical health is a major aspect of taking care of our mental health. We’re less prone to stress, anxiety and depression when we’re sleeping and eating well, keeping active and avoiding drugs and alcohol.
However, there are other things we can incorporate into our daily lives in order to take care of our mental health, including:
- Ensuring that we have positive and meaningful social connections.
- Making decisions in accordance with our values.
- Giving ourselves permission to rest and allocating time to do so.
- Adjusting our expectations of others.
- Spending time doing fun and fulfilling activities.
- Using strategies that help you feel grounded and remain in the present moment. Spending a few minutes focusing on your breath or paying attention to what you notice with your senses can be calming. Yoga, mindful walking, playing an instrument, drawing and journaling are other ways of being mindful.
- Starting a gratitude practice: Remind yourself of things you are thankful for.
2. As our lives become busier, stress-management is becoming an essential skill. What are some tools we can use to identify and manage our stress levels?
Setting aside some time to reflect on what triggers stress and what happens to your body and mind when you get stressed is a good start. Maybe you’re not sleeping well, maybe your body is more tense, maybe you’re more irritable and less focused. It’s good to know what your warning signs are so that you can get on top of things before the stress starts to impact more areas of your life.
Helpful questions to ask yourself might include: What situations cause me stress? What do I notice in myself when I’m stressed? What would other people notice in me when I’m stressed? What needs are not being met when I am feeling stressed? What can I do that meets those needs?
Self-care looks different for everyone; however, some basic stress-management techniques include:
- Good planning: Make sure you have time set aside for important tasks so that you can be assured those tasks will get done. Start with what’s most important and work your way down the list. You can also break big jobs into smaller components in order to make tasks less daunting and more manageable.
- Compartmentalise: Rather than suppressing difficult feelings or allowing life’s pressures to overcome you, allocate a certain amount of time and energy to completing a task or dwelling on a certain problem. Then allow yourself to move on. Similarly, create time and space for play and rest; time where you can enjoy an activity and the company of others without work emails interrupting. You can get to them later.
- Healthy boundaries: Become comfortable with saying “no”. Learn to make decisions based on your needs first – this can be done by identifying the required boundary, communicating it with the necessary people, keeping it simple, and knowing why it’s important.
- Make time for enjoyable activities: schedule alone time, time with others, exercise, a good movie, a good meal. Whatever it is that you enjoy, incorporate it into your routine.
- Ask for help: If you have a question, if you need to vent or if you need to share your workload, let someone know. Being able to ask for support is a strength, not a sign of weakness.
3. How can we tell if stress has progressed into generalised anxiety?
Stress acts as a protective mechanism that warns us of danger; a natural reaction that told our ancestors when to run. In short bursts, stress can actually increase our awareness and improve our planning and performance. High levels of stress, or stress experienced over a long time, however, can be problematic for our physical and mental health. Stress that leads to persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things is known as generalised anxiety. Anxiety manifests in our body (sweaty palms, increased heart rate, butterflies), our thoughts (lots of “what if’s) and our emotions (stressed, worried, frustrated). Anxiety often results in us avoiding things that we need to do or are important to us. In these circumstances, it’s important to speak to someone for extra support with getting our anxiety to a more manageable level.
4. How important is sleep to our mental health and how much sleep should adults be aiming for?
Sleep is hugely beneficial in reducing stress. A regular sleep routine helps our bodies heal, regulates our heart rate, improves concentration, regulates our mood, and promotes good judgment and decision-making.
Deep sleep also prevents the excessive production of stress hormones like cortisol, meaning that the more sleep we get, the better prepared our bodies are to healthily cope with daily stressors.
Using strategies that promote good sleep hygiene is important. Try to set a regular bedtime and wake time, reduce exposure to blue light half an hour before bed, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed and engage in a calming activity before bed, like reading or a warm shower.
Most studies suggest that adults require between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night but it’s important to pay attention to our bodies and what they need to help us get it right.
5. How can we look after our kids’ mental health?
Similar to adults, children benefit from healthy diets, lots of physical movement, good sleep, strong attachments and positive peer relationships. These factors lay a positive foundation for good mental health. However, mental health can be further supported by teaching children to recognise, express and manage their feelings. This includes having parents model positive self-care behaviour and healthy emotional expression. Parents/caregivers can also help their children by creating and maintaining routines, as this will create a consistent environment that can help their child feel safe. Supporting children to develop resilience and a strong sense of self will also equip them to cope better in times of stress. Celebrate effort as well as achievements and look for opportunities to explicitly appreciate the qualities you admire in them.
For more information, the Raising Children website has a lot of great information about promoting the health and well-being of children!
6. What are some beginner tips for getting into meditation?
Get comfy, keep it simple and go easy on yourself! There are so many variations of meditation and it can take some time to find what clicks for you. While some meditations involve ‘zoning out’, many meditations involve ‘zoning in’ by paying attention to the breath or information that we’re receiving through our senses. It’s natural to get distracted, particularly when first starting out, so the trick is just to notice that your mind has wondered and then gently bring it back to the focus of your meditation (e.g. the breath). Using guided meditations (e.g. ones with audio) can be really helpful whether you’re new to meditation or an old hand. Guided meditations can help keep you focused and stop you worrying about how long you’ve been sitting there for (you already know what to expect from the length of the audio!). A daily practice is ideal but not always practical for the modern day human – so carving out a few, uninterrupted moments during the week is a great way to start. Begin small, try a couple of minutes, get the feel of it, and gradually extend the amount of time as you become more comfortable with the practice. The more regular the practice, the more you’ll feel the benefits. It’s a great excuse to slow yourself down and ground yourself in the present moment.
7. What are some resources or apps you would recommend to help us learn more about caring for our mental health?
Headspace – A great app for resources on meditation, mindfulness, sleep and stress.
Head to Health – This is an Australian Government website which contains tons of resources relating to mental health and well-being. It also contains resources for those caring for others who are struggling.
Black Dog Institute – Another good website with resources relating to a range of mental health conditions. It has some screening tools for mental health conditions, up to date research on caring for our mental health, and links to a range of apps and support services.
myCompass – A free online self-help program for people with mild to moderate depression, anxiety and stress. However, it’s also appropriate for people who simply want to build good mental health. It includes different interactive learning activities and a lifestyle tracking feature to help users better understand themselves and learn strategies to improve their mental health.
BITE BACK – This is a free self-guided online wellbeing and resilience program for young people aged 13 – 16 years old. It uses a combination of fun, interactive activities, quizzes, animations and information across nine positive psychology domains including gratitude, optimism, flow, meaning, hope, mindfulness, character strengths, healthy lifestyle, and positive relationships.
HeadGear – HeadGear is a free, easy-to-use app that guides you through a 30–day mental fitness challenge designed to build resilience and wellbeing. It features a range of simple engaging daily activities to help reduce and manage stress, improve sleep, connect better with friends and deal with difficult situations.
8. We use different digital devices and social media every single day, is there a relationship between mental health and technology? Should we be limiting screen-time?
Screens have become well integrated into our daily lives. Our phones give us immediate access to news, email, games, photos and connection to others via text and social media platforms like Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat. While there are lots of benefits to being so connected, excessive use of screens can become unhealthy, unproductive and has been linked to negative physical and mental health outcomes. Many studies have found a relationship between increased social media and increased depressive symptoms, lower self-esteem and internet addiction. So, there needs to be a balance in order to maintain our well-being.
Headspace offer the following recommendations for supporting healthy screen use: 1) get other activities done before screen time; use screen time as a reward, 2) decide how much time you want to spend on screens and do your best to stick to it, 3) schedule in ‘no screen time’ during your day, 4) make meal times screen-free, 5) make sure you have other hobbies and interests outside of screen time, 6) prioritise sleep and exercise before screen time as both of these are essential to physical and mental health.
9. What are some things to look out for that can be harmful to our mental health?
There are a number of things that can negatively impact mental health. It’s important to be aware of them so we can address them as they arise. These factors include (but are not limited to):
- Burn-out: while there is nothing wrong with being ambitious and busy, it’s important to know our limits, set good boundaries and be okay with saying ‘no’ from time to time. We’re no use to anyone if we burn the candle at both ends so we need to fit in proper down time.
- Toxic relationships: We are social creatures and rely on others to survive – while managing relationships can be complex it is also crucial to our well-being that we are discerning with who we spend most of our time with. If we find that certain relationships are characterised by high levels of stress or excessive pressure, control or demands, it might be time to re-evaluate how involved we need to be in these relationships and whether we can spend more energy on relationships that “fill our cup” instead.
- What goes in comes out: There is increasing research regarding the mind-body connection. How we treat our bodies makes a huge difference to how our brains function, and therefore it is important to be mindful of what we’re eating and drinking, how much we’re sleeping and how active we’re being. If we ‘put in’ a balanced diet, enough water, a quick jog (or yoga class, bike ride, swim or youtube zumba class!) and a good night sleep, we’re much more likely to be energised, feeling more positive and thinking more clearly than if we’ve eaten McDonalds a few nights in a row, had way too much coffee and aren’t getting our 8 hours.
- Socio-economic factors: Unemployment, low income, limited education, everyday discrimination, and violence are all risk factors for poor mental health. While these factors are trickier to address, it is important to acknowledge the reality of their impact on well-being. If you are experiencing any of the above, it is important to seek support and assistance.
If you’d like to learn more about how to meet your everyday mental health needs, Amy recommends speaking with your GP to set up a mental health plan.