Mental health is constantly in the news and not a day goes by without an article, blog post or news piece on the topic.
The great contradiction is that whilst we know more about mental health now and how to manage it, the busy, chaotic and plugged-in world we live in does little to help our mental health. Nor is it often that clear what exactly is meant by the term ‘mental health’.
Mental health is a ‘catch-all’ phrase that encompasses our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It therefore includes our mind, our emotional system and our social world. It stands to reason that good mental health means attending to all three, but I would argue that there is a fourth – the body – which is intrinsically connected to good mental health.
When people refer to their mental health, what are they really saying?
As I write this article, the media will have us believe that mental health is currently under crisis in the UK. Waiting times to see a mental health practitioner are at an all time high, people are increasingly struggling to cope with high stress levels and many folks remain isolated or fearful for social contact following the numerous and lengthy Covid lockdowns.
Poor mental health can manifest in a range of symptoms from low level depression and anxiety through to diagnosable psychiatric illnesses. For most people concerned about their mental health, the latter is fortunately not very common and therefore we can think about how you can take responsibility for improving your mental health.
Steps you can take
Sleep is crucial to good mental health and it is no coincidence that many of us struggle with poor sleep which ever time can have a very detrimental impact on our mental health (as well as our physical health).
Establish a sleep routine and stick to it – going to bed at a set time and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine before bed can be very helpful. Another stimulant that you would do well to avoid is watching the news prior to bed – whilst informative, the news impacts significantly on our nervous system and can leave us feeling ‘activated’ exactly when we need to get to sleep.
Exercise is good for the body, but also the mind. Many folks are put off exercise as they see it as something that involves strenuous exercise in a gym, however, this need not be the case.
Exercise does not need to cost anything and can be a way of combining being in nature with moving the body. A brisk walk or sea swim (in the midst of this heatwave) are both good forms of exercise.
Eating sensibly is another activity associated with physical health but which can also have a significant impact on our mental wellbeing. Stimulants such as coffee and sugar impact on moods and with this can in turn impact on sleep patterns, so be aware of when you consume stimulants and avoid eating anything late into the evening.
Socialising is not only enjoyable but is also good for our mental health. Human beings are relational, meaning that we are born into relationship and require relationship(s) to develop. Even when we are alone, in a psychological sense we are in relationship to someone – we call this an internal object – and constitutes how we hold ourselves in mind and make the ‘best’ choices for ourselves.
The mind body connection
All of our emotions stem from the body. They start as sensations and we then notice them and group them into emotions; feelings are the words we use to describe emotions.
Each feeling, or set of emotions, has its own somatic (body) blueprint, which means to say that each feeling is made up of a unique set of sensations in the body. For example, anger, whilst ‘feeling’ different for everyone has the in-common body sensations of tight stomach, tight jaw, clenched or tightened fists and a narrowing of the eyes. Conversely, joy, is felt in the body as an openness and moving towards something or someone. Joy tends to bring a smile to our face and it is as if our whole body opens to receive more of what we are enjoying.
Everyone has a different shaped and sized body and everyone has a body that can perform different tasks depending on fitness, ability, age and (dis)ability. However, unless a person has a ‘good enough’ relationship with their body, it is simply not possible to have good mental health.
Hence why the body must be included in psychotherapy and feelings stemming from the body attended to.
Practicing gratitude towards your body for what it can do and how it looks after you, getting curious about what your body needs and wants and treating your body with respect, are all significant pathways to good mental health.
Talk to someone
When things get too much it can be good to talk and whilst a social and support network is important, some things need to be thought about with a mental health professional such as a psychotherapist.
A psychotherapist is someone who has trained at postgraduate level for a minimum of four years and undergone their own journey of analysis or psychotherapy throughout their training and ideally well beyond. In the UK, psychotherapists are registered with the UKCP who hold a directory of qualified clinicians or you can search for one using the search function on our own website.
People generally enter in psychotherapy because of a crisis of some sort in their life, however, they tend to stay because they find the therapeutic relationship so invaluable in not only improving their mental health but in developing an appetite for their lives. As Freud said, psychotherapy (analysis) begins after the crisis has passed.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –