Today marks 2023’s annual mental health day, but it’s hopefully not the only day this year when you’ll give some thought to your mental wellbeing.
Dates dedicated to specific causes and topics can serve as a useful reminder, but our mental health isn’t something to consider just once a year. It can be more helpful to consider our wellbeing as an ongoing area of focus – like you might continue to focus on your finances, your family, your career and so on.
Just as checking your bank balance once a year doesn’t guarantee financial security, pausing to consider your mental health every October 10th won’t necessarily keep it on your radar. Instead, ensuring your mental health gets the same attention as your bank balance keeps it front of mind, and enables you to take action when things don’t feel so good.
And just like regular small deposits into your savings account can do wonders for your balance over time, regular small habits that contribute positively to mental wellbeing are much more sustainable and impactful over the longer term.
If you’re lucky to feel your mental health is in good shape, you can explore the suggestions below and cultivate some new habits to ensure it stays that way. And of course, if you feel you’d benefit from professional support for your mental health today, or you have questions about the status of your mental health, check out the resources listed at the bottom of this post.
Things you can start doing today
Explore your thoughts and feelings with curiosity
If we’re not careful, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can have way more control over our behaviour than is helpful. We can try to minimise or avoid them, distract ourselves unhelpfully, or use substances like food and alcohol to not experience them.
As I point out in every single Psychological Flexibility workshop I run, a thought is just a thought. We don’t need to do anything in response to the mental ‘stuff’ that shows up from time to time. We can’t get rid of it (have you ever tried to suppress a thought?!) nor can we stop our mind creating a ready supply of thoughts, beliefs, memories and predictions for us to consume.
Instead of viewing them as something that require a response, you can instead explore thoughts and emotions with a sense of curiosity. This could sound like “I wonder why I’m feeling this way now” or “I wonder why that thought suddenly popped up”. Curiosity enables us to explore our experiences, rather than try to avoid them or respond to them automatically.
By regularly pausing to explore what and how we’re feeling, we can build a sense of ’emotional literacy’ – learning to discriminate emotions from each another, label them and understand their origins and causes. This can also help us avoid emotional ‘overspill’, when the emotions associated with one event (e.g. a meeting) spill over into the next (e.g. dinner with a loved one).
Connect with others
We’ve evolved to be social creatures, and when we don’t get the depth and frequency of connection with others that we’re looking for, we experience loneliness. Over time, this can actually damage our immune system, making us physically ill. Reaching out to others, even for quick social chats, can make all the difference. Check in with others and be proactive in prioritising contact with those closest to you.
And, although difficult, speaking to trusted others about how you’re feeling can make all the difference when you really feel listened to.
We’ve gathered lots of resources about interpersonal connection and beating workplace loneliness over on our Connect and Thrive page. This includes our free guide to beating loneliness and a host of digital resources exploring the topic.
Do something you love
Martin Seligman’s PERMA model for human flourishing highlights the importance of engagement in fulfilling activities and nurturing a sense of accomplishment. Activities that allow us to get absorbed and use our skills (or develop new ones) can really make all the difference.
This could be learning a language, engaging in a rewarding hobby, or getting stuck into a good book. Activities like this that are done with intention are infinitely better for us than passively absorbing whatever’s on the TV at any given moment.
Check out this podcast episode, where I explore the PERMA model with Dr. Lyn Lanka.
Prioritise your sleep.
We all know how hard a day at work can feel when we haven’t had enough sleep. While there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for a good night’s sleep, research has consistently demonstrated the negative impact on our mental health when we don’t get enough quality sleep. It also impairs our emotional regulation, so we’re more likely to be snippy with others, and we can end up making poor quality decisions or mistakes at work.
So take a look at your daily habits for things that might come between you and sleep. Consider how you spend your time in the run-up to bedtime, and build a relaxing routine that supports sleep. Avoid working from your bedroom and minimise the use of phones and tablets in bed.
Be mindful of your caffeine consumption during the day and perhaps schedule your last tea or coffee for earlier in the day if you have trouble nodding off. Caffeine has a half-life of about eight hours, so that 4pm coffee is still working its way through your system at midnight!
If a busy mind prevents you from getting to sleep, take a pen and paper and make a list of the things you want to get done tomorrow. Research has demonstrated this can help you get to sleep more quickly.
Focus on what’s in your control
A lot of the upset we feel can come from trying to control the uncontrollable. Whether its other people, how others view us, or even the state of the world around us – all of these are within our influence, but not our control. And this distinction is very important.
When we control something, we know we can take action and get the expected results. We can turn off a light switch, turn off the oven, turn up the volume on the laptop. We can also control how we respond to challenging situations and things like the cultivation of habits. Our behaviour is within our control and is the best place to focus our efforts.
When we influence something, we can take action but we won’t be guaranteed the results. We can give someone a compliment, but it may not make them smile. We can work hard towards a promotion and it may never happen. And we can be the best team member ever and our efforts may not be reciprocated by others.
When frustrated or upset that your efforts aren’t bearing fruit, ask yourself if you’re trying to control something – or someone – that’s uncontrollable, and instead merely within your influence.
A cumulative effect, not a panacea
While none of these habits could change your life overnight, their combined cumulative impact over time represent a positive investment in your mental wellbeing – one you’ll definitely notice. The benefits of this investment can ensure your mental health gets the same attention as other aspects of your life.