Ross McWilliam is a freelance speaker and author on mindsets. He has over 30 years educational experience and has worked with over 500,000 children, young adults, and senior professionals. Ross has had, and is having, his own physical and emotional health challenges. As an adolescent, he suffered lifetime face and body scarring. In his twenties, he had a severe knee trauma that required revolutionary reconstructive surgery, that now aged 57, sadly requires multi joint replacement surgery. He has also suffered from depression, stress and associated panic attacks. Through his professional work and personal experiences, he is in a unique position to share some simple mental health bite size tips that may raise personal awareness and aid individual recovery and development.
Everyone knows exercise is good for us. If this exercise can be something we enjoy, rather than endure, it can surely become a regular activity, even a daily activity. The initial secret to enjoying exercise is to understand that it can really help all aspects of health, but it has been particularly effective in combatting mental health issues. It can also act as an effective antidote to developing these issues. Numerous medical studies have cited its importance for all round well-being, but as we gain greater insights into molecular and functional mental health, the benefits of exercise for protecting against mental health issues is taking on greater importance.
The earlier we introduce exercise into our lives, the greater the protective benefits. However, exercise at any age can have an immediate protective effect. If like myself, you have mobility issues, this need not rule out exercise. I swim/do aqua aerobic exercises at least once a week, and I cycle when the pain allows me. Light weight training coupled with any form of stretching also gives me a sense of well-being whilst relieving pain. The simplest exercise is walking, which I can’t do, but for many, this is a great way to relieve stress and helps protect against mental health issues.
Goal Setting Tuesday
I believe that setting short, medium and more longer-term goals is essential for emotional health. It gives our life structure and purpose. Sometimes people shy away from making goals as they feel a sense of failure if they don’t achieve their goals, and this may fuel a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe the issue is not in setting the goals, but more in unrealistic goals and a search for 100% success at all costs. Even when goals have not been fully achieved, there is still plenty of progress to be pleased with that helps us on life’s journey. Being able to distil the good parts of a goal or challenge, even though we may not have fully achieved the goal is still good reason to be positive as we can use this to build for the next goal.
Sometimes goals change as we are trying to achieve them and this is also ok – it can even be a positive thing. A simple analogy might be a plane journey from England to Spain, where the pilot has to detour off a more direct route because of poor weather, but that journey could also be helped by thermal winds that accelerate progress towards the destination.
So, make goals, enjoy achieving them, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t quite manage 100% success.
For many people, eating good food in a balanced diet, is an area of personal well-being that can be difficult to maintain. Like goals, if you make some poor food choices, it’s not 100% failure. Just try and understand why those poor choices were made ie tiredness, not prepared the food, lack of nutritional information, alcohol, etc. Since my stress and panic attacks, I have tried to eat better, yet I still have temporary setbacks. For those people who have experienced panic attacks, I found that cutting out fried foods, caffeine, processed foods and alcohol really helped me not only manage my weight, but made me feel so much better.
It seems that as we get older we have more interrupted sleep that can leave us feeling tired and frustrated in the morning…when it eventually arrives. There is scientific data that suggests we need less sleep as we get older, with some experts saying that 6-7 hours is ok rather than the normal 8 hours. Getting quality sleep, with no or little interruptions is essential.
According to The Sleep Foundation, sleep can be divided up into REM (Rapid Eye Movement which is when the brain is active and is evaluating/thinking = 25%) and NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement which is when the body repairs itself and energy is restored = 75%).
As we begin to fall asleep, we enter NREM sleep, which can last for 90 minutes and is followed by the first period of REM which recurs about every 90 minutes interchanging with NREM. Without the deep NREM we will feel tired in the morning and susceptible to poor food choices and perhaps don’t exercise. So, if you find yourself waking up regularly or even struggling to go to sleep here are a few tips:
- Don’t have caffeine after 12 noon
- Don’t eat at least 3 hours before sleep
- Quiet room, no white noise and a touch colder than warmer ambient temperature
- Use of Lavender oil on the pillow
- If you wake up don’t fret. Just accept it and try and get back to sleep. If this doesn’t work, get up and do something for 20 / 30 minutes which will distract you from focusing on sleep, then return to bed
Positive Reflection Friday
I believe some reflection is beneficial for us as human beings. By reflecting we can learn from the past so we don’t repeat past errors, but we can also repeat behaviours that give us successful outcomes. I have often heard it said that writing our thoughts down gives us a better understanding of an issue and this is something I do at night. I write my Today Result which is a list of all the things that went well in the day. I can focus on this rather than all the ‘perceived’ failures. We can have anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 thoughts in any one day and it is said that 70% of these thoughts can be negative! This is why I always focus on the positives, to redress that balance.
Secondly, I write my Tomorrow Promise which is one or two promises I am going to make myself tomorrow. By focusing my brain in this way, the RAS (Reticular Activating System) is looking for these positive things to happen and helps train my brain to look for these positives, or even instances when my promises are being created.
Social Interaction Saturday
No man is an island was a phrase first coined by John Dunne in the 17th century and means that we cannot function solely independently. I believe it is true today in terms of being connected to other humans. This connectivity is best entered into face to face, rather than in social media. Feeling part of groups that have similar interests and generate mutual trust and belief are the foundation for building good mental health. So, try and meet friends and professional colleagues, but also try to grow your circle – it will help you more than you think. I say this because when we are in conversation, we are distracted from life’s woes (likewise when we exercise) and this helps the brain take a break from negative cyclical thinking.
Social researcher Brene Brown noted the feeling she got being in a stadium of over 90,000 people in Sydney Australia when the famous Liverpool song You’ll Never Walk Alone was sung. Her feeling of positive emotion and connectivity was beyond limits. In line with this, I met a teacher a few months ago who booked music concerts every month. He told me he did this as it was a great stress relief strategy for him – who am I to argue with that, especially as he has been teaching for over 40 years!
Belonging to a family, a like-minded group, or even a professional organisation helps develop our sense of belonging. This gives us support and identity which are two crucial ingredients to developing an emotionally balanced life. Many fractured lives of young people I have worked with, through no fault of their own, often display a lack of belonging and identity. I have seen first-hand, how emotional well-being can be at best transient with these unfortunate children. More often than not, this lack of belonging and identity is at the root cause of many mental health issues. We cannot choose our family, but it can be a great source of strength. Nevertheless, we can choose our friendship and business groups and these could become an integral part of our emotional well-being.
Ross McWilliam BA Hons, MSc, PGCE, Dip Man, PhD on-going