10 steps to improved physical and mental health this January

January can be a depressing month, but that doesn’t mean you have to be. Exercise, talking with friends, a good night’s sleep and gratitude for small things all improve mood, writes Clodagh Finn

THERE’S a formula for the most depressing day of the year. Take a hostile Monday morning in January, mix in post-Christmas debt, a little winter malaise, some rotten weather and it all adds up to Blue Monday, which supposedly falls on January 19.

It’s tosh, of course. That Blue Monday is the most depressing day of the year was first mooted by a psychologist in 2005. It has been dismissed as pseudoscience.

But in January many of us feel a little raw.

That is why First Fortnight, the mental-health arts festival, takes place in the first two weeks of the year.

Co-founder, JP Swaine, says the festival challenges the stigma of mental health by opening up debate. After all, one in four of us will experience a mental-health problem — that’s enough of us to fill Croke Park 14 times.

How you get through those dark days, however, will be different for everybody. “Mental health is a very personal thing,” says Swaine. “It’s important not to raise an expectation that there is a quick-fix. You need to find the right mix of action and support to suit you.”

Yet, there are general mood-improvers. Here are ten of them:

1. A personal mental-health manifesto

Devise your own mental-health maintenance plan. Write it down and pin it to your fridge; save it on your phone or carry it about in your wallet.

List the activities that make you feel well — walking the pier, chatting to a pal, watching a film, chilling out on the couch. Make another list of the things you do when you feel low — comfort-eating, isolation, hiding under the duvet.

Be as specific as you can and consult the ‘feel well’ list when you need a lift. If you need help to write your manifesto, do an online wellness workshop at www.yourmentalhealth.ie .

2. Feel-good songs

One of the opening events of the First Fortnight mental-health arts festival was a call to people to gather in Dublin, armed with a four-song playlist of “songs that get them through”.

This is one you can try at home. Make a playlist of songs that lift you when you are down, put them on a device, and plug in whenever you need a boost.

3. Little things matter

Little Things, the HSE’S mental-health social-marketing campaign, is a great way to remember that all of us feel the pressures of daily living, yet there are things you can do to help you cope.

To see the #littlethings that work for others, and to share the little things that work for you, see the @littlethingshub on Twitter and Facebook, at www.facebook.com/littlethingshub .

Here are two #littlething tweets that made us smile: @KarlaNigro: “I’m sick and fell asleep on the couch, then woke up with extra blankets on me and all tucked in. #1 reason I love my mom.”

@mumthomas: “That lovely surprise when you find you haven’t eaten all your KitKat yet and there is a finger left.”

4. Mood Food

A good diet won’t cure depression, but medical researchers have shown that there is a ‘food-mood’ connection. No surprises to hear that fruit and vegetables are ‘good-mood’ foods, while refined foods and saturated fats are likely to make you dip.

A recent study, by the University of Warwick’s medical school, found that 33.5% of those who had good mental well-being ate five or more portions of fruit and vegetables daily.

Another study, carried out by universities in Australia, found that eating whole-grains and high-quality fish and meat cut the risk of anxiety disorders by 30%.

5. Being happy at work matters

It’s obvious, but the latest research, published in the Harvard Business Review, proves that being happy at work is vital to well-being. A study by business adviser, Annie McKee, found that people needed three things to be happy at work.

1) A meaningful vision: workers want to be able to see how they fit into the organisation’s future.

2) A sense of purpose: people want to feel that their work matters.

3) Good relationships: Bad relationships with bosses and colleagues are bad for business.

6. Mind how you go

Everyone, from the Dalai Lama to Sr Stan, talks about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Studies show it can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve mood and sleep — and that’s just for a start.

Mindfulness is the opposite of multi-tasking. It means slowing down, taking one task at a time and concentrating on every moment. Being truly present in everyday tasks — from washing your teeth to tasting the myriad flavours in every morsel of food — is one simple way of introducing mindfulness to your life.

7. The A to Zzzzzzz of sleep

They say that eight hours’ sleep make the other 16 a lot easier — and for good reason. Lack of sleep can wreak havoc, causing everything from irritability and slower response times to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

And beware of those who say they can get by on four or five hours. Most adults need seven to eight hours of quality sleep to function at their peak.

8. Shake a leg

You can’t overstate the importance of exercise. Do whatever you can — walk, run, swim, go to the gym or take a simple stroll around the block. It has been well-documented that exercise releases endorphins, the happy chemicals, and lifts mood even among those who suffer from clinical depression.

However, exercise has a whole range of added benefits — it releases creativity, it lessens anxiety, sharpens memory and boosts brainpower.

9. Count your blessings

It sounds like something an evangelical Southern preacher might tell you, but science shows a little gratitude can go a long way.

In several studies, psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough found that gratitude was associated with more positive emotions, better health and the ability to cope with adversity.

In one study, they asked a group to write about the things for which they were grateful, and a second group to note all their daily irritations. After 10 weeks, those who had kept a gratitude list were more optimistic, felt better about their lives and had fewer visits to the doctor.

10. Talk about it

George Bernard Shaw had a point when he said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Talking (or listening) can be an extremely effective way of boosting your mental health. It might just mean talking to a friend or a relative, or you might want to talk to a professional counsellor or psychotherapist. New research, published in the Lancet, shows that talking therapy may even be better than medication for those suffering from social anxiety.

MORE: What does going booze-free in January actually do to your body?


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