Friday 24 October 2014

The four simple steps to looking after your mind

Padraig O'Morain

Published 11/10/2013 | 12:43

For most of us, maintaining our mental health isn't complicated. In my work as a counsellor over the years I have come to believe that in particular there are four simple keys to mental health.

1. Avoid rumination:

Rumination means brooding constantly on what went wrong in the past, what might go wrong in the future and what might have been.

This kind of thinking usually leads us nowhere except into depression or anxiety. Indeed there is a strong link between rumination and depression; and breaking the chain of rumination is seen as a way to protect against relapsing into depression in the future.

To do this, you need to continually bring your attention away from your rumination to whatever it is that's going on around you in the real world. This takes work and effort -- especially if you're a rumination junkie -- but it's worth it.

Keep reminding yourself of one of my favourite phrases: rumination is ruination.

2. Distinguish the important from the unimportant:

Whatever happened to you today, whether good or bad, there's a good chance that it will have no effect on your level of happiness in a week's time.

If you win the lottery this week your happiness level in a year's time will be more or less the same as it was before you won.

If we could keep this in mind, we would suffer far less stress when everyday things go wrong -- getting stuck in traffic, having to work an hour late unexpectedly and so on -- and feel far less worked up about whether things will go right.

Reminding yourself again and again, as I try to do, that "my happiness does not depend on this" will help you to save your energy for the relatively few events that really do actually matter.

3. Be involved with people:

Good social networks were hugely protective against being overwhelmed by emotional problems.

The saying that a problem shared is a problem halved is absolutely true.

Social networks have even been found to be protective against the development of dementia.

Getting involved with football, friends and family, even politics, could help to keep you in a good emotional state.

If your situation is an isolated one even being involved with people online or over the phone is very helpful.

And if you're not a "hail fellow well met" sort of person, you'll be glad to hear that healthy social networks don't necessarily require you to see friends or acquaintances every day, it's more a question of being in touch, being connected in, than living in each other's ears.

4. Exercise:

I deliberately kept this to the end because if I had put it at the beginning a great many people would have stopped reading.

Exercise is extraordinarily beneficial for mental and physical health.

One expert said that if a pill went on sale that could give us the benefits of exercise we would queue all the way around the block for it.

Research going back many decades shows that when we exercise our mood lifts and stays higher for a time after we stop.

If you really don't feel like getting out in the tracksuit in the rain, even a brisk walk taken often enough will give you those mood-lifting effects.

"I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me," declared the comedian Fred Allen.

He would have done better to take those long walks himself and leave his enemies on the couch.

Mental health doesn't have to depend on pills, counselling and support groups though for some these are also necessary.

All of us, however, can do a lot to take charge of our emotional wellbeing by following the simple steps outlined above.

Padraig O'Morain is a writer and counsellor

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