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Expert check-up: a mental health professional’s tips for self-care

16 May 2019

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We all know when we feel physically unwell, but it can be harder to realise when we don’t feel good mentally. What are the best things you can do to stay well and keep your mental health in check and when should you ask for help? For some expert advice on self-care, we caught up with counsellor Erin Nolan. 

Erin, when someone walks into your office and you think ‘wow they are really taking good care of themselves’ what sorts of things are they doing?

When I see someone doing the basics: eating healthily, sleeping enough, exercising or being physically active in some way – and not abusing substances or alcohol – that’s when I think that have person has a great foundation for self-care. 

Beyond these, self-care is more intangible and depends on the individual. Different things work for different people. For example, for some people, spending time doing something they love, with people they love could be a way of taking care of themselves, for others doing something relating to their spirituality could contribute to their well-being. 

What are the steps you would recommend everyone take to look after themselves mentally? 

There are a few practices that everyone could undertake. The first is staying away from, or at least minimizing the use, of drugs and alcohol and limiting your sugar and caffeine intake. Next, with these basics in place, you’ll be in a better place to practice good sleep hygiene and get as much quality sleep as you need to keep your moods and hormones balanced properly. 

Exercise is so important. It doesn’t need to be hard-out cardio or hours at the gym. Low level exercise like a daily walk and stretching can have a really positive influence.

And do something you enjoy, whether that’s some form of self-expression, or being around people that love and respect you.  Regularly doing something you enjoy is just as important for self-care as the more tangible things like healthy eating and practicing good sleep hygiene.

How can people be more aware of how they’re feeling mentally? 

It can be hard to notice changes in your mental health. It takes a level of self-awareness to know when to ask for help and this doesn’t always come naturally. Being self-aware takes practice. Making a regular habit of tuning into yourself and checking things out is another integral part of self-care. Stop for a moment and find a space to observe your emotions and the condition your mind is in. This will give you the opportunity to notice whether you may need help. If you don’t give yourself that opportunity to notice, you’re likely to run on auto-pilot and there’s potential to burn out. 

What are the signs that it might be time to ask for help?

If you do notice pervasive feeling of loneliness and isolation, feelings of being helpless, not having much hope for the future, being unable to do daily tasks properly that maybe once were much easier when you tune into yourself; these are all signs that it is time to reach out. 

Early warning signs can also be personal to each individual. It’s so useful to spend some time reflecting on what these might be for you. The best time to do this is when you’re feeling good and balanced as you’re more likely to have the clarity to recognise signs you’ve missed previously when your mental health has been in decline. 

It’s also really important to challenge any ideas you might having of being a burden. A lot of people may have the awareness to know they are really struggling but don’t ask for help because they fear that others will find them a burden or think of them as weak. This is a trick our minds play on us when we are not well. Really, we should understand that needing help is normal, natural and human – and that we all need help! 

What role do nutrition and exercise play in mental well-being? 

Nutrition and exercise are very important. It’s not just as simple as, look after your body, you’ll be happier. Hormonal balance and gut health are strongly interlinked with mental health – we see this more and more in the current research. Caffeine, drugs, alcohol, sugar, processed/packaged foods are all things that, in excess, wreak havoc on gut health and hormonal balance, especially over a long period of time. A healthy diet with whole foods and vegetables not only benefits your body, but your mind too. You are one whole being, after all. 

Exercise keeps your hormones well-balanced. It keeps stress hormones like cortisol at a manageable level and increases the release of endorphins and serotonin which bring on positive effects for mood. It can also bring a sense of strength and self-mastery which can help you feel confident about facing life’s challenges. 

What part does reducing stress play in looking after mental health? 

Managing stress is a challenge in our current society because we are bombarded by it! We glorify being busy, which does us no favours mentally, and receive a constant barrage of stimuli that make it difficult to shut off. Too much stress for an extended period can affect your hormonal balance and leave an increased amount of cortisol in your system, along with feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, and other negative emotions. 

Have you seen anything that works particularly well to reduce stress? 

Sleep is a must for stress reduction. Staying in the moment, the practice of mindfulness, can help tremendously with stress too. Some people meditate formally each day. Others take a less formal approach by being mindful as they go through their day, training their minds to keep their attention in the present moment and on the task at hand. This helps to reduce worry and thoughts about the future and keeps you from ruminating on stressful or negative events from the past. 

Yoga, going for walks, creating art, music, massage, crosswords: there are so many ways to reduce stress. Find out what works for you and then actually make the time to do it. 

If there was just one thing you could convince everyone in New Zealand to do to look after their mental health what would it be? 

Only one thing? That’s hard. I think New Zealanders are strong, resilient people. Let’s be honest, there are times when the ‘harden up’ mentality is just what we need to survive. But there is also a time to acknowledge when ‘harden up’ isn’t the right approach. I think we also need to adopt self-compassion into our mentality. One way you can do this is by regularly taking the time to check in with yourself. Take an observer’s seat and consider your state of mind, your thoughts and emotions, without judgement. Shine some love and kindness on your current condition and ask for help if you need it. Needing help at times is human. Being able to ask for help, is a strength!

This is the second article in a three-part series of tips from healthcare experts on self-care and staying mentally and physically well. Read dietitian Alice Gormack’s ideas for making great nutrition easier here and stay tuned for GP Nikki Retford’s tips for staying well.

Erin Nolan

About Erin

Erin Nolan is a registered social worker and provides mindful counselling and EMDR therapy services in Tauranga.

Image credit: Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash.

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