Seven things to improve your mental health

woman seeking to improve her mental healthBy Paul Clifford

Here are seven things you can do to improve your mental health.

1. Keep your brain stimulated.  Research shows that higher levels of education appear to be somewhat protective against Alzheimer’s.  Although you might be tempted to retire as early as possible and relax your brain sitting on the beach all day every day, that is likely to turn your brain to mush.  Keeping yourself mentally active by continuing to learn or doing mental exercises like crosswords can maintain your brain health.  It is rumoured that upcoming iphones will enable us to track our brain health and monitor which parts of the brain are being activated by various activities allowing us to take full control over improving brain health.

2. Practice positive reframing.  Follow Albert Ellis’s ABCD formula and the wisdom of Greek Philosopher Epictetus – it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you interpret what happens to you that matters.  We are naturally inclined to interpret challenging things in negative ways.  Improving your mental health requires constant practice of reinterpreting events in positive ways.  “I can’t handle this” becomes “I am capable of getting through this”.

3. Maintain emotional control.   Emotional control requires getting to know your emotional triggers – what sets you off and why.  For example, some people are triggered emotionally by being ignored.  If someone doesn’t give them the attention they think they deserve they react with extreme anger.  Being ignored may be that person’s emotional trigger due to past trauma associated with someone ignoring them.  Emotional control comes through understanding your triggers and working to heal the original trauma.

4. Build your positivity ratio.  The work of Barbara Fredrickson shows that positive emotions have a big impact on our emotional health.  In her words “experiencing positive emotions broadens people’s minds and builds their resourcefulness in ways that help them become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine”.  Substantial research in this area demonstrates that increased positivity ratios – one’s experience of positive to negative emotions – correlates with improvements in mental health with the research indicating approximately 3:1 as the ratio that separates resilient from non resilient individuals.  John Gottman’s research shows successful marriages consist of positivity ratios of 5:1. Click here to take the test but don’t be despondent if your ratio is less than 3:1.  You can build your positivity ratio by reframing your thinking and looking for opportunities to cultivate positive emotions.

5. Maximise your strengths.   People who use their strengths more are happier and more fulfilled, and feel as if they have more energy available to them (Govindji & Linley, 2007), they achieve their goals more effectively (Linley, 2003, 2008), they are more engaged (Harter, Schmidt & Hayes, 2002), and they perform better at work (Smedley, 2007;Stefanyszyn, 2007; Woolston & Linley, 2008).  Click here to complete the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.

6. Achieve Life Balance.  Getting balance in your life is more than just work/life balance.  It’s about determining what’s important to you and examining your goals across all aspects of your life and working backward with regard to where you need to spend your time and how efficiently and effectively you need to use it in order to achieve your goals.  Many people don’t just struggle to balance work and non work.  There is often tension between family and personal goals too.  Once you are clear on your goals, download the Life 24/7 Balance app and use it to set indicative time allocations across nine categories including Work/Study, Sleep/Rest, Hobbies, Family & Friends, and Exercise.  The time allocations should reflect importance and provide you with the time needed to achieve your goals.  However, also keep in mind that you need to look at how efficiently and effectively you use your time.  Spending an appropriate quantity of time in any one category is not enough, it’s the quality of that time that matters most.

7. Get to the heart of the matter.  So much of what we worry about is not the real issue.  The real issue is usually something we don’t want to face.  Instead of facing the real issue we displace the emotions about the real issue onto something easier.  For example, we have a fight with a family member and that generates significant anger.  Given it’s so painful, we want to forget it, but the emotion won’t go away.  Instead we displace our anger on things in our immediate vicinity – the train running late, a rude client, a cyclist slowing us down.  Unless we deal with the real issue, the emotion is not going anywhere.  The main problem will remain and we’ll create additional spot-fires as well.


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