In the mood for good health
Traditionally, January is all about getting the body into better shape. Walk into any gym this month, and the place will feel warmer than a sauna because of the sheer volume of pink, sweaty bodies.
Few of us, however, make a new year’s resolution to boost our mental health or protect ourselves against depression – even though depression is commonplace in Scotland.
Recent figures show that in 2010 there was a 7.6% rise in the number of prescriptions for antidepressants, with one in 10 Scots thought to be taking them.
A healthy lifestyle should take emotional, as well as physical, well-being into account. That applies all year round, but for many people January is particularly challenging, emotionally and psychologically. The cold, the short days and the impact of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – low mood and listlessness thought to be caused by reduced exposure to sunlight – can make the month seem interminable. Self-denial, post-Christmas debt and the ongoing impact of public spending cuts, redundancies and tax rises, don’t help. For many people, January is a month to be suffered and endured.
And now for the good news: it doesn’t have to be that way. The general, non-specific January doldrums can be addressed, and in remarkably simple ways. Acting now to boost your mental health can have a protective effect. Ilena Day, chief executive of Depression Alliance Scotland, says: “If people are kind to themselves and invest in their mood now, they may just develop the skills and habits to reap the benefits later on.”
“The biggest issue many people have in the new year is setting unrealistic goals for themselves. Negative thinking stems from the disappointment at not reaching them,” says Ewan Gillon, professor of psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University and director of First Psychology Centre, Glasgow. “Have realistic, progressive goals for the year, starting with small ones. That way you get a sense of accomplishment and success.” Anne Mathie of SAMH, the Scottish Association for Mental Health, adds: “When you tell people what your resolutions are, tell them that you are taking it slowly and that you don’t expect a quick-fix solution. Feeling pressure from those around you can make the whole experience more difficult.”
Negative thinking can lead us to do what psychologists term “catastrophising” – fantasising about the worst-case scenario. For instance, speculation about rising interest rates could lead to a person lying awake at night imagining losing their home and ending up in a hostel. “Think in a realistic way about what’s going to happen,” advises Prof Gillon. “And remember that most people are quite resilient and will find ways of coping in a pragmatic way with whatever situation they are in.”
If you have the cash for a holiday this year, then enjoy the planning. Fancy a cottage in the Highlands, with a view to make a Hollywood film director weep? Then run yourself a bath and browse the brochures while you soak. Dinner with friends, visits to favourite relations, a day-long hill-walk – plan things that really enthuse you. “There is a body of evidence that shows good structure and routine is a big part of keeping us happy,” says Prof Gillon. “Have clear and tangible plans so you know what’s in store for you. Rather than being an empty void, the year ahead should have something to offer.”
Ever been for a walk in spring and felt as if you were emerging from hibernation? Many of us spend the winter months largely indoors. Well, it’s cold, isn’t it? Yes, but we don’t do ourselves any favours by shying away from the elements. “There’s lots of research to say mood is inextricably linked to being outside doing exercise,” says Prof Gillon. Several scientific studies have shown that exercise helps lift mood, reduce anxiety and improve self-esteem. Besides, there are 10 fewer hours of daylight in mid-January than in mid-June, so it’s important to maximise exposure to natural light to combat the effects of SAD. Ramblers Scotland (www.ramblers.org.uk/scotland) has details of walking groups.
Having regular social contact is an important part of maintaining good mental health, so don’t cut out your friends and family, even if you’ve seen them over Christmas. There’s no need to go on a big, rowdy night out if you don’t want to, but identify close friends and family you get on well with and make a date to see them, until you feel energised enough to do more. Make a date and put it in the diary so you have something to look forward to.
There is a huge number of ways of learning to relax; the key is finding the right one for you. Try meditation, which can reduce stress and improve mood: the Glasgow Buddhist Centre has an Introduction to Meditation Day on Saturday (£30; £20 concession; www.glasgowbuddhistcentre.com). Other options include t’ai chi, yoga, breathing and visualisation exercises.
We are just beginning to understand how food affects mood, but there is increasing evidence that it does. The Depression Alliance website has a fact sheet on eating to maintain a good mood: have three meals a day – including a good breakfast – to prevent swings in blood sugar which can cause irritability and fatigue; include protein with every meal because it contains the essential amino acid tryptophan, which is converted into the brain chemical serotonin, which can be low in people with depression; and drink plenty of water. Where alcohol is concerned, adopt a balanced approach – there’s no need to deny yourself completely unless you have a good reason for doing so. “Do things that allow you to have fun, but do them sensibly,” says Prof Gillon.
Studies show getting six to eight hours a night is the optimum for maintaining good mental health, but for many of us that seems like an impossible goal. If you are lying awake worrying about things then, two hours or more before bedtime, write down what’s worrying you and what the next step is in resolving it. If it starts bothering you during the night, tell yourself it’s in hand. Avoid playing computer games or watching scary films just before bed, and get up to do some light reading in another room if you’ve been unable to sleep for more than 15 minutes.
“Giving something for nothing makes you feel good, and it can give you a boost to know that through your efforts someone, somewhere, is getting the benefits of it,” says Anne Mathie. If you know someone who is trying to boost their mental or physical health, especially if that person has a mental health problem, talk to them about how you can help.
We can’t control events in the outside world, but we can control how we think and feel about those events: that is the basis of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which is effective in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. If you have a tendency to infer the worst from other people’s comments or actions (“she ignored me because she doesn’t like me”; “he didn’t ask me to do that assignment because he thinks I’m no good”), or if you find that small setbacks floor you, then CBT could help. It can help prevent mental health problems occurring in future.
Other good options include face-to-face and phone counselling. Helpful free online resources are available, including www.livinglifetothefull.com (a CBT-based life skills course) and www.moodjuice.scot.nhs.uk (a range of online self-help resources).
Remember that if you need someone to talk to, there are phonelines and websites available, 24 hours a day, all year round, as well as support groups.
Breathing Space is a free and confidential phoneline, open every evening and all weekend, for any person who is experiencing a low mood or depression, or is in need of someone to talk to. Staff at Breathing Space can let you know about counselling and other services in your area. Call 0800 83 85 87 or visit the website at www.breathingspacescotland.co.uk (it includes a directory of support groups).
The Samaritans provide emotional support 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those that could lead to suicide. Call 08457 90 90 90 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also get help and advice from your GP