The mind is like a muscle. It needs to be tended to, exercised, cared for with the same intention with which we must care for our physical forms: eat healthy, exercise daily, brush our teeth, drink plenty of water, rest. The essentials. We monitor our bodies for its quirks and ailments, and take appropriate measures to address them: moisturise our dry skin, change shampoos, reduce sugar intake, take the right vitamins. Sometimes we need more triaging, from daily stretches for overworked muscles, to surgery to mend an injury. It is so plainly obvious that we must apply this to our mind, our spiritual selves; how could we possibly think otherwise and opt to neglect our mental health?
Regular reflection upon my mental health journey is a necessity, a non-negotiable. What has been benefitting me? Which of my practices have improved my mental state? What challenges have I been coming up against? What is having an impact, and where do I go from here? Even through phases of weeks and months that I don’t feel the everyday impacts and struggles of mental illness, I recognise the need to maintain certain habits that uphold my mental strength. From the everyday habits to weekly routines, from the daily upkeep to triage intervention.
Here, I have considered 5 of the most significant practices that have improved my mental health over the years:
It feels almost like a cliche at this point given how commonly recommended mindfulness is these days, but journalling has made all the difference in strengthening my mind. Journalling is an outlet, a way of privately exploring our internalised dialogue, beliefs, insecurites, dreams, experiences and so on in an honest way free of fear of judgement. Re-reading journal entries can also be very enlightening, particularly when you start to identify patterns in your thinking that may be impacting your mental state. For example, for me, it was a pattern of believing that I was ‘not good enough’ for a long time, which helped me identify that I need to work on my self-worth.
What’s more is that I noticed that for the first few months I would only write when I was feeling low and depressed; this wasn’t conducive to improving my mental state. One day, I grew tired of reading entries back and seeing so many negative emotions and thoughts scrawled on the pages, so I committed to writing about positive emotions and experiences too. I made it a regular practise, writing 4-5 times a week, and I could feel my mind shifting. This was one of the best decisions that I still maintain years later.
Tracking my habits
No matter how much we think we keep up with our healthy habits, it’s almost always skewed. Do I really drink that healthy smoothie every day? Have I been exercising all or most days? Am I embedding environmentally conscious practices into my daily routine? Probably not.
A habit tracker helps us to use evidence to track and inform our progress in many areas of our lives, and keep on top of practices we may otherwise forget to do. It’s a great way of keeping on the path of mental strength, by integrating practises such as journalling, meditation, personal development (listening to podcasts, watching a lecture, reading a book that will support your growth), different types of exercise, drinking 2L of water, consuming less sugar, eating enough fruit and vegetables, getting an appropriate number of hours of sleep, taking at least 15,000 steps, and so on. The habits depend on your own goals and would ideally be informed by research and advice – perhaps you want to eat more vegetarian meals, build your physical strength, read a chapter a day or fast a few times a week. There are countless podcasts, blog posts, books and research articles that attest to the power of habits – some that stand out include The Compound Effect and Atomic Habits, both bestsellers.
Personally, I use Loop Habit Tracker, which is a digital method which lets me colour-code, change my goals, edit the measurement (time, steps, litres etc), but there are plenty of habit tracking options – including different (and very affordable) digital apps and software, diaries, wellbeing journals – to suit different people’s styles and habits.
Reflecting on my values
This practise informs much of how I live my life, what I choose to feel good about and how I can manage negative feelings – such as guilt, anger, frustration – and convert them into positive experiences and emotions including security, internal validation, a sense of strong self-worth, purpose and conviction. It is a great way of deciding which habits I will commit to, which people I will spend time with (and who I will avoid), how I will conduct myself. If I feel remorseful or conflicted over an incident earlier in the day or about a decision I’ve been committing to, I consider how it aligns with my core values, which I’ve worked out include:
- Treating others with kindness and compassion.
- Living an adventurous, energetic life.
- Caring for the environment and natural world.
- Nurturing my mental strength and wellbeing.
Of course there are other things that I value – the process by which I arrived at these was by listing all the things that were important to me, then narrowing them down to the top 4-6 -, but by focusing on these few values, I can have a sharper and narrower line of sight for how my daily actions align with my core values and goals. They help me to define the identity I want to believe about myself. If I feel I’m off-track or unsure of a decision, I need only identify how I can make sure my behaviours and choices are reflecting my values, regardless of others’ opinions.
Making time for hobbies
My interests and hobbies are a limb of the identity I wish were a more definitive part of me. When I struggle with the enmeshment of my work identity (this is a big one for me) or social identity with my personal one, it does me well to remind myself of who I am through observing what I choose to spend my free time doing. I find great solace and authentic pleasure in reading, spending time in nature, swimming, listening to music, cooking, and working in the garden. Furthermore, outside of the everyday items, I like to travel, do volunteer work (with disadvantaged children, on environmental projects, or for community projects), go mountain-climbing and undertake design projects. I also like to write – which is why I have returned to this blog, to this to re-build my identity through regularly practising one of my hobbies.
Taking a break
Taking a moment to pause and allowing our minds some time to reset is a challenge in this busy, fast-paced, sometimes chaotic modern world. Whether ‘taking a break’ means interrupting my rumination with compassion or distraction, stepping outside for a change in scene and breath of fresh air, taking a walk to give my body a break from sitting and my eyes a break from the computer screen, or withdrawing from socialising for a few days to re-set and re-energise, I believe allowing ourselves a moment to step away is hugely important. It’s something I’ve had to learn to make a conscious effort to do – even by setting an alarm while I am at work and forcing myself to take a lunch break -, but makes all the difference by the end of the day, week or project in helping to prevent burnout.
Taking a break can also often lead to connection, such as when I happen across someone else who’s in need of a chat to mentally detach from their projects too, and to moments of gratitude, such as if when I stumble across a secluded setting on a walk or open my eyes to the natural world outside of the office. Our minds are not designed to be rushing, running, ruminating all the time.