Mental health often refers to psychological disorders, such as anxiety or depression, that may require professional treatment, but the term can have layers which run deeper than a black and white diagnosis. Taking care of your mental health is much like taking care of your overall health – you can introduce exercises, healthy habits and easy steps to improve your emotional wellbeing and your overall psychological state.
Knowing yourself means understanding yourself. The good, the bad, the wish-I-hadn’t-done-that are all part of the parcel. Truly knowing and accepting yourself leads to recognising thought patterns and behaviours. You begin to know your triggers and understand your saviours. The benefits of positive thinking have been researched over and over again but the stats don’t make “controlling” thoughts any easier. While it’s helpful to actively practice putting a positive spin on things (e.g. pair a negative thought with a positive one), it can feel a little overwhelming in practice.
Recognising that you’re feeling “off centre” or “not quite yourself” is half the battle. Categorising thoughts can become a helpful practice to make a conscious shift in mindset. If you find yourself in a negative spiral, carve out a moment to take three slow, intentional deep breaths. Feel the sensation of the air entering your body, let your shoulders loosen, your forehead relax and your chest expand. Picture the cool rush of air flowing into different parts of your body. By focusing on (and – maybe even – enjoying!) the sensations, you’ll begin to distance yourself from your thoughts.
Thoughts are temporary, temperamental and easily tempted by shiny objects. Close your eyes and don’t let the idea of meditation scare you. Focus on where one thought ends and the next begins. See that sweet spot in the middle? Try and linger there for a second longer. There’s no right or wrong way to add mindfulness into your day. The next step is realising that your emotions can be controlled (kind of the way a toddler’s tantrum can be controlled – where food, sleep and a little bit of TLC can go a long way). Once you’ve labelled your emotional state as your inner-child, you’re free to take care of yourself with the patience and compassion you deserve.
By taking the time to understand our thoughts and be less critical of ourselves, we’re able to stay present through the hard times. When compartmentalising “good” and “bad” thoughts, try to acknowledge that “negative” thoughts are often either future projections or past regrets. What this means is that the present moment holds the potential to feel truly content. Take another slow, deep breath and begin to focus on the here and now.
We each have thoughts that guide us through the day, but there are times when your “voice of reason” needs some reasoning of its own. How we speak to ourselves is a good indication of how we feel about ourselves. Think about how many times you have told a loved one that you believe in them. Imagine if you showed that same belief and kindness to yourself in your darkest moments. How many incredible women and men do you know who don’t know their own worth? Know yours.
If that sounds easier said than done, start here: when your inner voice is giving you feedback that makes your heart race, your palms sweat and incessant internal swearing start – stop. Stop and consider how you would talk to a friend in the same situation. Try to momentarily adjust your inner monologue to become a dialogue. Chances are, you wouldn’t tell your best friend that she’s done “everything wrong” and that “it’s too late” to redeem herself. Instead, you’d likely say “everything will be fine” and offer reasonable advice to “focus on what you can actually control in the situation”. You’d be understanding, encouraging and you’d listen to what your friend needs. Listening is a form of accepting. The sooner you start checking in with yourself and training your subconscious mind, the sooner you turn yourself into a friend you enjoy spending time with.
Read more: Facts Worth Knowing About Depression
Research on brain plasticity shows that the brain is far more malleable than we give it credit for, so it’s no surprise that a growth mindset promotes a love of learning and a sense of resilience – two things essential for personal development. Approach new things with the mindset that “practice makes progress, and progress is good enough”, losing the idea that a perfect end goal is the aim. Fear has a funny way of functioning and it feeds on our exhaustion, our indecision and our worry. The worry is amplified when it involves outcomes that are out of our control. Claim back the parts of life that you can control by tracking the journey. We’re all works in progress and that’s part of the fun.
Write. Whether you choose to free write every morning or sit down with a gratitude journal every evening, the benefits of logging your daily musings on paper are as endless as your overflowing, unfiltered thoughts. Even if your natural instinct towards writing is a big “no”, writing is a tool you can tailor to your needs. Writing allows overactive minds to formulate thoughts, question painful triggers and cement exciting ideas.
Plus, letting your thoughts go for a run every once in a while is the best way to build the muscles you want to strengthen. This week, try writing down five things you’re grateful for before bed each night. Consciously cultivating gratitude is a great way to hit the reset button.
Whether it’s squeezing in a lunchtime workout, cooking yourself your favourite meal, booking your first gong meditation session, or simply talking to a trusted friend, take some time to unapologetically put yourself first. The activities that make you happy are the things that enable your best self. In our “sorry, running late” lives, there is something so powerful about being in tune with your own wants and needs. Know what you want and work towards it. Also know what you don’t want and make that clear. Your mental state will thank you for investing time and energy into creating positive processes.
Start small. Make a list of 10 simple things that make you happy. Try and make them as silly and removed from your daily life as possible. From baking gooey chocolate chip cookies and rockin’ around your room pretending you’re part of The Rolling Stones, to going for a solo hike before getting settled in for a cosy night of reading. Nothing is off limits. Let yourself have fun with the list. Remember all the little things that made you happy as a kid? You’re not too old. Next? Get your calendar out and plug in dates. It’s not too late. Setting aside clear time in your calendar for activities you’re excited about will mean you’ll naturally start saying no to things you never intended on prioritising in the first place. Make time for the things that prove excitement eliminates exhaustion. Make time for the things that bring you joy.
We know, we know: regular exercise, a solid sleep schedule, time outdoors and a healthy diet is good for us. We know it’s good in principle, the problem is that, in practice, the follow through takes planning and implementing. Prioritising can feel like a constant challenge, but our bodies are intelligent and intuitive, and there are simple things it needs to function at its optimum. We know what’s good for us and our bodies know too: less time sitting in front of the TV and more time exercising, less coffee and more water, less “just because” gin-nights (yes, less, not none!) and more thoughtful routines.
Balance matters. The key here is to not get so caught up in routine, that tick boxes are prioritised over what your body – and mind – is actually asking for. And whilst a balanced routine is beneficial in effectively prioritising and minimising anxiety, breaking that monotony can add a bit of much-needed excitement to your day.
Make an effort to focus on one core area of your life that needs attention this month. Whether it’s diet, exercise, sleep, or minimising tech time.
If you’re constantly waking up tired, set an alarm to remind yourself to get to bed before you lose valuable hours. Melatonin and serotonin are real and sleep has a huge factor on our brain power.
If you’re prone to mood swings, energy fluctuations and sugar cravings, try cutting back on bursts of refined sugar and replacing it with slow-release natural sugars, magnesium and healthy fats. Simple diet changes can stabilise energy levels and leave you feeling more mentally alert throughout the day.
Wondering why the sharp pain behind your eyes isn’t going away? Step away from your phone and laptop. Try putting your phone on airplane mode for a few hours a day and prioritise the real world over our Valencia-filtered alternative.
Recognise how your mind and body feels throughout the process. Do you feel more mentally fulfilled and aware after binge-watching everything new on Netflix? If so, order in a pizza and call it a night.
Read more: How Hard Is It To Be Vegan In Hong Kong?
Whilst learning to enjoy time alone is necessary for mental stability, relationships are one of the most influential factors in our lives. In fact, in “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness”, Robert Waldinger talks about how the 75-year-old study shows that securely attached relationships have the biggest impact on our happiness. Strong, secure relationships aren’t just good for your happiness levels, they’re essential for mental health.
So, no matter what state of mind you’re in, avoid isolating yourself and make an effort to connect with people who bring you up. Humans have an innate need to be part of a “tribe” and the loss of that collective feel can cause deep psychological struggles. Even in times of extreme crisis, a sense of community can support people’s wellbeing (did you know that the suicide rate in NYC after 911 actually dropped?). Above all else, building a life where you’re connected to others is rewarding and hearing people you trust offer alternative views is the best way to bring perspective into a difficult situation.
Take yourself out of the equation and make an effort to provide your loved ones with a chance to talk about their mental health today. By starting open conversations, we can approach underlying issues in our community, while understanding our own mental wiring. We all recognise the importance of feeling supported and cared for, so make a conscious effort to support people around you, even through your own difficult times. Everyone’s battle looks different, but everyone can use an extra soldier on their side. Check in with an old friend, WhatsApp your usual crew and/or call your parents.
Read more: How To Recognise (And Stop) Repeating Relationship Patterns, From A Clinical Psychologist
The world needs more people who hold the door open for strangers – it’s the least we can do for each other. When you take a moment to appreciate that every single person on the MTR is equally as complex, cranky and inconsiderate as you on a Monday morning, you might find the clouds in your own head start to drift. Even when feeling isolated, remember: you can create your own sense of community by embodying the changes you want mirrored back to you. Start with yourself and work your way outwards – you’ll be surprised to see how quickly kindness spreads.
Find an NGO or charity that speaks to you and volunteer. The phrase “by taking care of yourself, you take care of others, and by taking care of others, you take care of yourself” holds more truth than ever when you’re getting new perspectives and experiences at the same time as doing something that aligns with your values. There are plenty of places to volunteer in Hong Kong, or you can combine time and skills to make sure you’re volunteering abroad in a sustainable way.
Read more: What I’ve Learnt From Volunteering at a Cambodian Orphanage
Your mental resilience and emotional health is your responsibility. It’s something everyone works on – whether it’s conscious or not. Don’t wait for an emotional hiccup to happen before you start prioritising your needs. Put healthy habits in place when you’re feeling strong, so that you can rely on them when you need support most.
Pick any action point that speaks to you from this article and try it for yourself. Let each step lead you onto the next discovery, so you’re (ideally) constantly striving to establish thought patterns and daily routines to guide you through positive, gradual, mental change.
Wondering what your first step should be? There’s no right answer and starting is half the battle. If you feel like you’re going through the daily motions of your life fairly contently, but feel a bit disconnected from your purpose, explore outlets like life coaching as a way to realign your course. Life coaching is a great way to filter out the fuss and find mental clarity. If you’re experiencing emotional fluctuations and mental changes that aren’t going away, talk to someone and get help – whether it’s from a friend, a partner, or a therapist, opening up to a trusted source is essential. If you’re feeling like your mental health is negatively impacting your day-to-day life, look into counselling services and getting professional medical help. You know your mind and body best, so trust that whatever you’re starting with, wherever you’re starting from, it’s enough.
Editor’s note: This post was written to raise awareness about mental health. If you’re in need of immediate support, please call The Samaritans 24-hour Helpline (+852 2896 0000).
This post was written in October 2018 by Tania Shroff and updated in September 2019.