The new year is an excellent time to start afresh. But, while the calendar may have re-set, your mental wellbeing doesn’t always snap into place just because you’d like it to. Like physical health, your mental health requires constant and deliberate self-care. And this starts with understanding just how important self-care really is.
The brain-body connection
We may talk about mental and physical health as two separate things but, in reality, they’re interconnected. Felicity Pienaar, an Occupational Therapist at Akeso Clinic in Nelspruit, explains that patients with poor mental health often lack energy and feel too unwell to take care of their basic needs, like healthy eating, quality sleep, and exercise. Further, she says anxiety and stress can lead to physical complaints, like headaches, back and neck pain, and insomnia.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (2018), people with serious mental health conditions run a high risk of experiencing chronic physical conditions, but people with chronic physical conditions are also at risk of poor mental health. What this suggests is that mental and physical health are so interlinked, it’s impossible to separate them. No wonder the World Health Organization says “there is no health without mental health”.
Society’s bad mental habits
The current mental health epidemic isn’t only on the individual level. Pienaar says there are several societal behaviours that also have an impact. We’re seeing this in three major ways:
1.Fast and slow lifestyles
Our desk-bound lifestyles mean we’re not getting the exercise our bodies and minds need. Couple that with fast food, a technologically enhanced culture of instant gratification, long working hours, and smart-phone-diluted leisure time, and we’re starting to resemble lab rats.
Society’s growing desensitisation to things like infidelity, materialism, and disrespect for others, is contributing to serious emotional harm. In fact, researcher, Richard Eckersley (2006) says that “materialism is associated, not with happiness, but with dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, anger, isolation, and alienation.”
3.The overuse of tech
Perhaps the most dangerous, yet largely under-addressed habit we’re practising daily is overusing our smart-phones and computers. Psychiatrist and author Victoria L. Dunckley (2014) says this is a problem because overexposure to screens can have a significant effect on our brain’s structure and function – especially in the frontal lobe.
This area of the brain undergoes massive changes until the mid-twenties, and is said to impact on all areas of life – from relationships to career and academic success.
Symptoms to look out for
About a third of the South African population will suffer from a mental disorder in their adult lives, says Africa Check (2014). Pienaar says the most common conditions seen at Akeso include mood disorders like depression, substance abuse, bipolar mood disorder, or those suffering from symptoms related to anxiety and stress. Typical symptoms can include:
Low or fluctuating moods
Poor interpersonal relationships
Disinterest in most aspects of life
Managing mental self-care
Apart from critical professional guidance, there are many physical and mental behaviours you can adopt to help improve your psychological wellbeing. Pienaar recommends:
Getting enough sleep
Spending time alone
Connecting with family and friends
Practicing deep, calming breathing
Spending less time using electronic devices
Forgiving yourself when you make mistakes
Paying attention to and expressing your feelings
Limiting your intake of alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs
Taking prescribed medication, even when your symptoms improve
While these are helpful first steps, it’s important to note that nothing compares to professional support – especially if your symptoms affect your life and those around you.
Where and how to get help
If you suspect that you’re suffering from a mental health condition, reach out to supportive family or friends and see a professional as soon as possible. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) provides a list of valuable online videos that can help you to better understand common mental disorders and how they may affect you.
If you’re not coping, and especially if you feel suicidal, Marie Claire (2017) provides a great list of contact centres to call. We’ve provided a list at the end of this article.
It’s not easy to jump-start your mental wellbeing, but at least you don’t have to do it alone. There are people who are ready and willing to guide and support you through it. Call them.
SADAG Mental Health Line
011 234 4837