At a time where it is necessary to self-isolate or reduce social contact it is also essential that we not only look after our bodies but also our minds. Although being unable to go about our daily routine, work, gym and socialise seems daunting, depressing and anxiety-provoking it can be an opportunity to step off the daily treadmill and focus on our own and our family’s wellbeing. This blog aims to provide some tools which we can all use to support emotional wellbeing during this difficult time as well as some to occupy some time and support wellness.
1. Keep in touch!
It is against human nature to be isolated from others as we have an innate need to be sociable, so although we may need to be physically isolated it is important that we still communicate. Feelings of loneliness are greater and social network size is smaller among mental health service users than in the general population. Studies have identified an association between loneliness and depression, suicidal behaviour, personality disorders and psychoses. Among people with severe mental illness, social isolation has been linked to higher levels of delusions, lack of insight and high hospital usage. To put this in simple terms loneliness significantly affects our mental health. Conversely, people who report greater informal social support have been found more likely to recover from psychotic symptoms. It might sound obvious but although you are physically separated from friends and family make sure you keep in touch, the wonders of modern technology mean that we now have access to video calling which is a great way to keep in touch with loved ones.
2. Write it down!
Another lovely thing to do, which has been lost in recent times, is letter writing. If you have an older family member sending them a letter is a nice way of letting them know you are thinking about them. It’s also a good activity to get the kids to do, writing a letter or drawing a picture for grandparents. It has also been shown that diary writing is a great way of supporting mental health. In a study looking at 89 participants with previous mental health disorders individuals who completed a positive writing resource diary had significantly lower depression scores than controls.
Gratitude journals are less intensive than diary writing as they can be done each day in a couple of minutes. Research shows that practising gratitude can help improve measures of stress and depression. It may seem like there is little to be grateful for at the moment but when you start journaling you will be surprised at how many things there actually are. One study showed that people asked to journal five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week were 25% happier than those who didn’t or journaled negative emotions.
It is also useful to keep in touch with your wider community either from a professional capacity or a subject that you are passionate about. Find a great podcast that catches you interest, helps you improve your knowledge or simply makes you laugh. This keeps your mind active, engaged, entertained and also keeps you in contact with the wider world.
This is one of the best ways to reduce tension and anxiety and support a healthy mind. However when we are busy it is one of the things that tends to get pushed to the back of the queue and people forget to do it or are just not interested. Mindfulness-based stress reduction has small positive effects on depression, anxiety and psychological distress.
Mindfulness doesn’t have to take much time, you can just do simple breathing exercises, there are many different ways to do this but a simple one is 4-4-8. This is where you breathe in for the count of four, hold for four and breathe out for eight, doing this for a minute each day has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety.
You can also use an app for directed meditation or mindfulness if you want to explore this further. There are many apps available, some popular ones are Calm and Headspace. If you are at home with the kids Calm has a great selection of directed mediation for children.
Exercise is important for both mental and emotional wellbeing as it can increase feel-good endorphins, as well supporting the immune system.
If you are able/allowed to go out for exercise then go for it. Walking or jogging are great for both cardiovascular and mental health. Exposure to daylight increases the production of serotonin our feel-good neurotransmitter. It also helps maintain a sense of normality. Exposure to nature has been shown to improve our happiness scores.
If you are stuck inside be creative! Some of you may be lucky enough to have or be able to purchase a home cycling system, if you are in this group – go for it as it also includes social networking so you can exercise in a virtual group. Otherwise there are some great workout programmes that you can subscribe to online (Youtube also has some free ones), which if you have the space can be useful as the workouts are timetabled which will also help to maintain a structure or routine. If you have outdoor space get out and play with kids, jog around, just keep active. Some of you may have limited space but even simple exercises such as jumping jacks, plank, press ups and squats are helpful for maintaining fitness and muscle mass. In the words of Baz Luhrmann “Dance, even if there’s nowhere to do it other than your own living room”- get some music on and move – it’s great fun for you and the kids and again shown to improve happiness scores.
One silver lining at the moment is that after a wet and windy winter, Spring is coming! So it is excellent time to get into the garden. There are many health benefits of gardening including physical fitness, exposure to nature and sunlight, sense of doing and achievement and improvements to mental wellbeing. This is something you can also get children involved in- Spring is a great time for planting seeds and summer bulbs. Also plant some immune-supporting vegetables. Even if you just have a pot or a window box you can get some salad leaves and plants like spring onions, chives and rosemary which can have mild antimicrobial properties.
Fresh foods are best for your health. So get the family together and start being creative with cooking. This teaches kids great life skills, provides healthy meals and can be much cheaper than processed or take away foods. If you are struggling to get hold of things and have some tired vegetables in the fridge, boil them up in a stock and you have a soup which you can freeze.
Immune-supporting foods include :
• Dark leafy greens
• Rainbow of coloured vegetables and fruits (limit fruit to 2 per day)
• Garlic, ginger, rosemary, turmeric
• Lemon (add to foods or drink in hot water)
• Fermented foods (e.g. miso, kimchee, kombucca, live yoghurt, sauerkraut)
• Healthy fats such as olive oil, oily fish and avocado
7. Acts of kindness
One thing which has been strongly shown to improve our mood and wellbeing are acts of kindness. Practicing kindness also has a profound effect our own mental & physiological health, helping us to become happier and compassionate towards others. Being kind to others has been shown to help improve our immune systems, slow down aging, elevate our self-esteem and improve blood pressure. At the moment the kindest thing we can do is to stay at home and keep away from vulnerable people. However we can still elicit acts of kindness such as offering help with shopping to an elderly neighbour, calling a friend who may be struggling and being kind and patient with other members of our household (offer to make them a cup of tea for example).
8. Task setting
Setting small everyday tasks and keeping to a routine can be important for helping us to feel that we have achieved something and that we don’t just lay on the coach for a month watching screens and sliding into a low mood. Come up with a list of things that you have been meaning to do for a long time but you have been putting them off as you haven’t had the time. They may not seem like the most exciting this to be doing but it can help you feel like you are being purposeful which is important for mental wellbeing.
9. Avoid the binge!!!
It may be really tempting to stick on a box set, lay on the sofa and dive into the chocolate, crisps, beer or wine! While this in small amounts is ok, it is important not make it a habit and over-indulge. Excess sugar, alcohol and refined carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin and is associated with blood sugar dysregulation, poor blood sugar control can lead to:
• Higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol
• Irritability and low mood
• Reduced cognitive function
• Reduced immune function!!!
10. Eat well
There are many foods that are supportive of mood such as :
• Tryptophan is a precursor to the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, foods rich in tryptophan include; oily fish, turkey, eggs, oats, walnuts and lentils
• Magnesium is involved in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin and is also considered ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ as it is involved in muscle relaxation. Magnesium-rich foods are: dark leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds and legumes
• Vitamin B6, like, magnesium it is an important cofactor for serotonin production. B6 is generally found in: oily fish, poultry, whole grains, most vegetables and legumes
• Vitamin B12 is essential for the normal psychological and nervous function. Foods rich in B12 include meat, fish and eggs
• Omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is the predominant omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain and DHA deficiency is correlated with mood disorders. Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from oily fish, sea vegetables and flax and chia seeds
• Vitamin D – it may be harder to get exposure to sunshine when you are isolated indoors so it is important to consider vitamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with lower mood. Foods such as butter, oily fish are rich in vitamin D but the best source is sunlight!
Try incorporating these into your diet as much as possible, as and when they are available. Most positive research on mood has shown that a Mediterranean-style diet has benefits across the board. This means a diet high in vegetables and healthy fats such as oily fish, olive oil and avocados, low in refined carbohydrates and sugars with moderate protein, fruit and whole grains.
11. Look after your gut
The gut microflora has a strong influence of the production of serotonin within the gut and therefore on the stimulation of the vagus nerve. Research suggests that commensal bacteria within the gut stimulate the host intestinal cells to produce serotonin. Therefore supporting the balance of gut microflora is so important for serotonin production, maintenance of a stable mood and also the health of the immune system10.
Consider supporting a healthy bowel flora by:
• Consuming fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and miso – all this down time is a great opportunity to experiment with some fermenting!
• Consuming prebiotic (fuel for gut bacteria) foods and polyphenols from chicory, olives, baked apples and Jerusalem artichoke
• Take a live bacteria supplement
This is a difficult time for everybody, but in times of crisis there are often positives that come out of them. There is the potential for us all to look after our health better, be kinder to ourselves and others and more appreciation for the things we have. We can start these positive changes now, while we have time and space to focus on our own wellbeing.