To mark World Mental Health Day, Dr David McLaughlan
provides a guide to improving your wellbeing
Saturday October 10 marks World Mental Health day. Now in its 29th year, it has never been more essential than now. With the second wave of Covid-19 increasingly making itself felt across Europe, and lockdowns once again likely, it is important to be conscious of our own mental wellbeing. That’s why we have sought some advice about navigating the next few months from Dr David McLaughlan – aka @offdutydoctor – a consultant psychiatrist who has worked in Britain’s National Health Service. As well as working in hospitals, Dr McLaughlin has worked with refugees with PTSD, and currently works with a charity called the Be Well Collective, endorsed by the British Fashion Council, that aims to look after the mental and physical wellbeing of young people working in the fashion industry. He uses his Instagram account to promote mental health and wellbeing.
Here, Dr McLaughlan provides us with 4 pointers to being a little bit kinder to yourself, and how to make your day that little bit easier to traverse.
Making lots of decisions can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. When we encounter new situations, a part of our brain called the frontal lobe is activated, helping us process new information and make decisions. However, this part of the brain is also responsible for processing and regulating our emotions. The more decisions we have to make, the harder it becomes to regulate difficult emotions like fear or anxiety. The loss of routine during lockdown was overwhelming for a lot of us because of the level of uncertainty and volume of new decisions information to process, like how to turn off your mic on a Zoom call. Regular habits like a fixed bedtime, or alarm call make a huge difference to our mental wellbeing. Predictability makes us feel safe, which is why our brains love routine. If you're working from home, make sure you have a consistent workspace and punctuate your day with breaks. Changing our clothes or going for a short walk at the end of the day also introduce boundaries which help us to switch off and relax.
2. Mindful Breathing
I began mindful breathing exercises a few years ago when I was working with a group of male refugees from Sri Lanka. All of them had complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and as a result, experienced nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. We would meet up at a community garden project in South London each week and talk about the challenges they were facing. One of the most popular parts of our session however was the breathing exercises we would do at the end of the day.
Research has shown that taking slow deep breaths reduces the experience of anxiety and other negative emotions. The mechanism is a really cool “bio-feedback hack”. Essentially, when you take a slow deep breath, your diaphragm stimulates the vagus nerve which communicates directly with the brain. By taking slow, deep breaths, we can switch off the “flight or fight” mode which is triggered by fear and anxiety. This tells your brain that you’re safe and that you’re no longer in danger, making you feel peaceful and calm.
It’s one of the most useful tools I use to help people who experience anxiety or other overwhelming emotions.
© Dominik Reinwald / EyeEm
3. Moving in nature
The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) have produced guidelines for the treatment of mild to moderate depression which specifically recommends regular exercise to improve mood. A lot of people find the idea of doing “exercise” unappealing, but you don’t need to be running 5km to enjoy the benefits. Anything which involves moving your body will help release endorphins and make you feel good about yourself. Try different things and find what works for you.
I try to include a little bit of outdoor physical movement into my routine every day, even if it is just a 10-minute walk in my local park. Green leafy areas have lower levels of pollution and are less densely populated which helps make us feel calm. As a result, we see biological benefits, such as a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure. Exposure to sunlight is also the main way most of us get Vitamin D which is essential for regulating our mood, bone health and supporting our immune system. Exposure to sunlight during the day stimulates the pineal gland in our brains to produce melatonin at night, which regulates our circadian rhythm and helps us sleep better.
Self-care is about prioritising your basic needs. Behaviours which support us in sleeping well, eating well and feeling well are the mainstays. External sources of stress can distract us, making us forget the needs of our body and mind. Self-care doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive. Sometimes it is the simple things which promote resilience, prevent burn out and remind you of your self-worth. Some ideas include, changing the bed covers, having a bath, lighting a candle, or making time to catch up with a friend. Self-care can also be saying no to things that you don’t want to do and making allowances for yourself without being self-critical.
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