Mental Health Hygiene (Pandemic Style!)

Do you remember the campaign “Save Lives, Do the Five” by former Olympic swim coach Laurie Lawrence? It was a national drowning prevention campaign launched in 2000 to reduce to number of swimming pool deaths in Australia. Laurie created a catchy jingle that kids could memorise and sing to “Fence the pool, shut the gate, teach your kids to swim – it’s great, supervise – watch your mate and learn how to resuscitate”.

Well let me take a leaf out of Laurie’s campaign and put together a ‘Do the Five’ (without a jingle!) for good mental health hygiene. What is mental health hygiene? It’s the combination of tips, strategies, and tools that we can use to nourish our psychological health, prevent burn out, or recover from a mental health issue. More than ever, we need to look after our mental health during this extended lock down (7 weeks and counting!) which has led to most of us experiencing lockdown fatigue (link to APS article), and if you’re in the treatment phase of your therapy, these tips can also help you get well and stay well.

Let me quickly share five mental health tips.

1. Sleep

Sleep has a restorative purpose, both psychologically and physically. The quality and quantity of your sleep can influence how you feel, perform at work or school and other activities including therapy. Poor sleep results in poor concentration and mood changes such as depressed and irritable mood. American research has revealed that a poor night’s sleep can contribute up to a 30 per cent rise in anxiety levels, while a daily dose of deep sleep is a natural means of reducing anxiety. This partly explains why many sleep deprived parents frequently experience elevated levels of anxiety. The Sleep Health Foundation recommends that adults need between 7-9hrs of sleep per night to feel refreshed and able to function at their optimal the next day. Their research also found that 33 to 45% of Australian adults either sleep poorly or not long enough most nights. At RWA, we can educate you on good sleep hygiene, help you identify possible causes of poor sleep and strategies to address these, so that you get an adequate quantity and quality of sleep for good mental health.

2. Exercise

Exercise promotes the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is a natural mood stabilizer that controls wellbeing and happiness; and endorphins, which reduces pain and boosts pleasure also resulting in a feeling of well-being. There is strong evidence that suggest that people who exercise regularly are less likely to develop depression.

How much exercise? The Australian Department of Health recommends for adults, 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity per week such as a brisk walk, mowing the lawn or swimming; or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous intensity physical activity such as jogging, soccer or netball. Physical activity doesn’t have to be structured either. You can incorporate this into your weekly routine such as using the stairs instead of the lift/elevator or parking further away from your destination and walking. Doing any physical activity is better than none, so start with small goals. Whilst the current restrictions mean that we can’t go to the gym or attend our usual yoga classes, we can go for brisk walks, a run, and access exercise videos online.

3. Pleasurable Activities

We’re often so busy with work and looking after our families or others, that we neglect to do things that create positive feelings or have fun. That’s especially true for those of us who are perfectionists or have unrelenting standards of ourselves. Or we think we’re being selfish or self-indulgent if we set aside time for yourselves. However, engaging in things you enjoy on a regular basis is very important for our emotional health. The enjoyment we experience boosts our mood, gives us a break from the rut of our usual routines and gives us something to look forward to. Some suggestions could be spending time in nature, having a bath, building something, doing arts and crafts.

4. Social Contact and Support

We have an innate desire right from birth to have meaningful connections with others. It is human nature that we have a need for acceptance and a sense of belonging, to be part of a group, part of a herd. That’s why the lockdown restrictions have contributed to our sense of isolation and grief not being able to see our family and friends, and celebrate milestone events like the birthdays, weddings or the birth of baby. While we can’t visit our friends at the moment, we’re still allowed to exercise with one friend (follow the current health directives), and we can use the technology we have to stay connected. These can include text or video/audio messages, video calls, and online parties via Zoom or House Party. Or just pick up the phone and call a loved one, all of which help us to stay connected and break the negative effects of isolation.

5. Relaxation

The stress response is our body’s in-built physiological and psychological alarm system designed to help us ‘fight or flee’ from real or perceived threats in our lives. It’s useful in helping us avoid danger or motivate us to accomplish something important, e.g. public speaking. However, chronic levels of stress can lead to physical and mental health issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, burn out, depression and anxiety. Thankfully our bodies are also equipped with a natural relaxation system. Relaxing your mind and body on a daily basis for at least brief periods can help to decrease unpleasant and harmful effects of stress. At RWA we can help you to learn different ways to relax your mind and body through specific breathing and relaxation exercises, and by minimizing negative thinking. practicing this mindfulness exercise: notice 5 things you can see, then notice 4 things you can touch or feel around you, 3 sounds you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste at the moment.

Whether you’re feeling low, anxious, or stressed or just trying to cope with the current lockdown, make an appointment with one of our qualified and caring psychologists at RWA. We would love to help you find ways to cultivate these tips and strategies into your weekly routine!

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