Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Cat being stroked

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News

Charities are calling for a nationwide campaign to help promote mental health after a survey suggested more people are growing anxious. But what sort of advice might be offered?

Blame a long winter, blame media fixations with bad news, blame the credit crunch and the thought of looming global depression - Britons are more fearful than they were 10 years ago, the Mental Health Foundation says. And more people are suffering from anxiety, which can lead to depression.

The foundation wants a "mental health promotion campaign that shows individuals how to look after their own mental health"

But what might that involve? We asked mental health professionals for some simple suggestions.

1. Lightboxes

The effect of long winters, some say, can be shortened with the use of lightboxes, which deliver a dose of bright light similar to daylight to alleviate seasonal depression.

"Certainly, there's enough people in the two hemispheres who say 'thank God it's summer, I feel so much better', and that may be because it's light, or to do with heat," says Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists. "A lot of people swear by lightboxes."

Attitudes to the mood-lifting qualities of light are strong in northern climes such as Scandinavia, which has long, dark winters.

"The fact is, northern winters are pretty long and pretty hard, and if you're going to die of starvation that's the time to do it! A light box is something well worth trying. Put it this way, there's been one in our house for 25 years. My partner has one, and she says it really makes a difference."

2. Get out in the garden

Gardening has often been cited as a hobby ripe for getting people out of depression. That's because it takes people out of their own thoughts and helps them focus on something that needs their care and attention, says Dr David Harper, a reader in clinical psychology at the University of East London.

"You're feeling close to nature by being outside and nurturing nature in some way. It connects you to a broader world out there. And if you're growing things, that's going to give you a feeling that you're sustaining things."

3. Get yourself out of breath

Exercise - be it swimming, playing badminton, or going on a 10-mile hike - often tops lists as a way to lift spirits. And it's been proven to aid mental health as well as giving physical benefits.

Choir singing
Don't fancy a jog? Singing can be a good backup...

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair says our anxious reaction to stress - the fight or flight syndrome manifested by nausea, racing heart and sweating - cries out to be relieved through physical exercise.

But those averse to donning trainers and sweating on the pavements can still get many of the benefits from singing loudly or enrolling in a dance class.

"Not only does it balance all the gases in your body but it stops you getting a racing heart and sweating… that's not useful when you're sitting in a traffic jam."

Aerobic activity releases endorphins, "and that's a natural, good free drug," she says.

4. Cook a meal from scratch

"Food is destiny," Mr Hodson says. "We are what we eat in every sense of the word. And food is the physical pleasure that lasts longest in life."

Chopping spring onions on a board
Turn your back on takeaways and cook a meal from scratch

There's a sense of self worth in gathering ingredients and cooking a meal - one that grows the better we know the recipe so that we can do it almost on autopilot, allowing our minds to wander even while preparing our food.

"Independence requires that you can feed yourself. If you can't cook you're not an adult. You need to be able to give yourself harmony and balance, nourishment."

5. Stroke a cat

Some care homes have brought in cats and dogs so that residents - some of whom may have had to give up pets moving into homes - can stroke and play with the animals. And in many cases the simple act of stroking a cat or dog can lift spirits.

"A pet can also give someone something to focus on other than themselves, to give kindness and affection," Dr Harper says.

There is a basic human desire to give things, he says - in a way we reward ourselves by being nice.

6. Pat yourself on the back

Not literally. Ms Blair speaks of mirror talk - positive encouragement in front the mirror - out loud.

"Every day you should compliment yourself out loud. First of all, it's probably going to make you laugh, and that releases endorphins. You identify with the sound of your own voice, because you listen to it in your own head, and you are also arrested by your own image. That message goes straight in."

7. Take up a lifetime hobby

"Unless we have an interest and unless you have work - play work or money work - an activity that means something to us, it's hard in our society to feel relevant or useful," says Mr Hodson.

It helps if the pastime we choose is "something that absolutely takes you out of yourself.

"If you only dwell in your own head you're going to be miserable."

Our hobbies should, ideally, be something we can take with us through life and connects us to our earlier selves. "I stopped playing squash when I was 40," cautions Mr Hodson. "The idea of picking up a squash racquet now is fanciful," he admits.

8. Do something for someone else… for free

Britons work the longest hours in Europe, and many have a lengthy commute. Do we have the time to volunteer?

Finding the time may help boost our spirits, experts say. For instance, the Canadian Mental Health Association says giving time for free "gives a sense of purpose and satisfaction that paid work cannot".

Michael Howard serves a customer
If volunteering is good enough for Michael Howard, MP...

Dr Harper says: "Increasingly we live in a society where people focus on work and leisure and that whole aspect of giving something back to a community has changed."

The fact people give so generously to charity shows they respond to helping others, he says. They can take it one step further. "It's important to thing about doing things locally. We need to build local communities. How about helping the neighbour next door, and getting to know the people in the next street."

9. Seek intimacy

Be it going to the pub to meet your mates, visiting a family member for a long weekend, or having a sexual relationship with someone, intimate relationships are the most important key to good mental health, says Ms Blair.

"Having a meaningful relationship and reminding yourself that you do - either by visiting them or having sex with them - is really good to boost a sense of well-being. We are helpless as babies and it's hardwired into us. Different people needs different amounts of intimacy, but we all need connections.

"Just being part of a web that weaves together, and needs the other parts to exist."

10. Good things take time

"Good relationships are fundamental to human relationship," Ms Blair says. "But it's probably not the thing that people would think of if you asked them on the street."

That is, she says, "because we've been bombarded with quick fixes".

We should embrace the fact that the most important things in our lives take time.

"It's the stuff that takes the most effort that gets us through the tough times," she says.




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