Posted in fitness, lifestyle, mental health, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 8 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Photo credit: Bruce Mars, Unsplash

I’m sure we’re all well aware of the physical benefits of exercise such as strengthening our bodies, reducing fat, generally making ourselves more muscular and toned, plus reducing our chances of major illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. But, there are also lots of ways that exercise can boost your mental health too that you might not have even considered. As many of my followers will know, I recently upped my activity levels in a bid to get fit. You can see my workout record that I set up for May in my Bullet Journal here and ideas for creating a routine here. But it’s not just physical changes that I’m starting to notice, I’m also feeling so much better in terms of my general wellbeing, including my confidence levels. So, for today’s Monday Matters, I thought I’d do a little research into what I’m getting out of exercising in terms of my mental health and why it’s vital to keep going with my plan if I’m to reap all of the many rewards. Hopefully, this post will help to motivate you to fit in a little more exercise into your daily routine.

8 ways that exercise helps improve your mental wellbeing

1. increased energy levels

Finding time to get moving each day works wonders for your energy levels. This in turn, helps you to deal with all of the physical and mental aspects of your day and basically anything else that life throws at you. By getting some exercise in each day such as a gentle stroll around your local park (maintaining the recommended 2 metre social distance at all times) you’ll feel more alert and will get more done. This will increase feelings of achievement which is guaranteed to boost your mood.

2. better quality sleep

Recently, I’ve found that by the end of the day, I feel physically worn out and completely ready for bed (by 8pm actually, but I always manage to keep my eyes open until at least 9pm ha ha!). This is because research shows that although physical exercise boosts your energy levels for several hours after you have worked out, it also promotes good sleep. If you fall asleep quickly, you are less likely to start thinking things over in bed (ruminating) as you lie there and a decent night’s sleep will leave you feeling more refreshed and ready for action the next day.

3. reduced depression

Exercise is well known for releasing endorphins which are a group of hormones that are secreted into the brain and nervous system. These have been scientifically proven to enhance pleasure and reduce pain which of course helps combat depression. In fact, when I went to my doctor when I was struggling with depression, she asked if I was getting plenty of exercise and I was able to tell her that I was having a brisk walk each and every day. Also, if you do your workout outside, as long as you take appropriate measures to protect yourself from The Sun, you will also be boosting your Vitamin D levels which has also been shown to reduce depression.

4. reduced anxiety

As well as being shown to combat low mood, exercise has also been found to be great at alleviating anxiety. It is thought that one of the reasons for this is that moderately intense activity uses up excess adrenaline and helps to reduce anxious thoughts. Also, if you exercise mindfully, paying full attention to how your body feels, it allows you to switch off from stresses and worries.

5. emotional comfort and support

With the current lockdown, you are only allowed to exercise with family members that you live with, but getting a workout in can ordinarily be quite a social experience too. When I was attending my yoga class, I would chat to the instructor and the ladies before and after the class and we would even talk about the difficulties we were having with some of the poses and which were working our muscles really intensely. I also received lots of praise from my teacher, saying that she was impressed with my ability and that I didn’t seem like a beginner. This was a real boost to my self esteem and made me trying even harder. Support and encouragement when you are exercising is really good at keeping you motivated.

For now, smiling, saying good morning or hello to people you see when you’re out and about for your daily exercise can help you feel a connection to others and give you a little boost. You can even strike up a brief conversation about the weather as The British are fond of doing!

6. increased self esteem

Sticking to your exercise plan is great for your self esteem in a number of ways. I’ve found that as I’ve start to see improvements to my body, I’ve begun to develop a much better self image and this has been a huge boost to my confidence levels. I’m also really proud of myself for keeping up with my new routines and the support and encouragement from my husband has increased the feeling of positivity too.

7. a boost to your brain power

Aerobic or cardio exercise has been shown to keep your brain cells healthy and improve their connections. This has a positive impact on your cognitive functioning, giving you a better memory, greater ability to make decisions and an increased capacity for learning. This enables you to learn faster and more effectively and also has a positive impact on your concentration and general productivity levels.

8. increased confidence

Depression and anxiety have a tendency to completely wipe out our confidence levels and self belief. By setting small exercise goals and meeting them you can feel a sense of accomplishment and this will give you the confidence to set your sights even further and aim higher. This can have a knock on effect on other areas of your life too.

Photo credit: Dee @ Copper and Wild

As you can see, there are so many amazing mental health benefits to exercise which can increase your wellbeing just as much as your muscle tone and fitness levels. And research shows that you don’t have to be a complete workout fanatic to reap the benefits. Moderate exercise on a regular basis such as walking, cycling or even housework such as vacuuming, mopping and sweeping can work wonders too. I’m certainly going to keep up with my routines as I’m starting to look better on the outside and feel much better on the inside and my husband has noticed so many changes already.

Last night, Boris Johnson gave us updated recommendations about daily exercise in the UK. He has said that, from this coming Wednesday, we can, with caution and a continued focus on social distancing, spend as much time as we like outdoors in communal parks and gardens. We will also be able to drive to different destinations so that we can go to other beauty spots. This is good news in some ways but there are quite a few unanswered questions for me, such as whether car parks for forests and woods and gardens will be re-opening and even more importantly, if you are travelling a long way and maybe enjoying a picnic with your family, whether public conveniences will be available for use!

We will have to wait and see what happens I guess!

Posted in mental health, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Creating a W.R.A.P. Part 2

Last week, I introduced the idea of creating a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (W.R.A.P.) as a tool for monitoring your own mental health and keeping yourself as well as you can. I discussed what a W.R.A.P. is and went on to share the first step as the creation of a list of wellness tools i.e. things that you enjoy doing and that make you feel good. If you haven’t seen this initial post click here to read it before you learn what to do now. Today, I’m going on to the next step which focuses on what you are like when you are well and on listing daily maintenance tasks that you really need to do to keep yourself well.

Having drawn up your wellness tools, you’re invited to consider what you are like when you are feeling well. When I did this, I got really upset as it was a reminder of how I am when my mental health is good and I felt like I’d not seen the real Laura for such a long time. Now I’m back to feeling great, I can look at my list and celebrate who I am.

In as much detail as possible, you should make a list of how you feel when you are well. Here’s a few examples from my list so you can get the idea:

talkative

friendly

full of positivity

calm

productive

energetic

loving

decisive

assertive

good sense of humour

The idea behind doing this is so that you can spend some time really thinking about the kind of person you are when you’re feeling well and then you will be easily able to spot signs that you are starting to struggle and put steps in place to prevent decline in your mental health.

Having written your list, you should then go on to think about the things you need to do each day to keep yourself feeling well. What you note down here should be every day things that you must do to maintain a state of wellness. This is known as your ‘Daily Maintenance’ plan. Here are some of the things on my list but obviously yours may have different tasks and activities on depending on how you spend your time.

Daily Maintenance:

get up by 8am

have cereal, dried fruit and coffee for breakfast (or an alternative as a treat!)

take a vitamin tablet

check my plan for the day in my bullet journal

brush my teeth

shower

dry my hair and get dressed

Do yoga, some stretches or go for a walk

Do my morning activities

Have a healthy lunch

Do my afternoon activities

Make dinner and eat with my husband

Do a relaxing activity from my wellness toolbox list

Do chores e.g. dishwasher etc.

Make a plan for tomorrow in my BuJo

Relax

Take my medication

Go to bed by 11pm and enjoy at least 7 hours sleep

Obviously my plan changes depending on whether I’m attending classes or going out for the day, but it does give you a basic structure to your time and would be really helpful to refer to in order to keep yourself on track and productive. It’s also good to look at when you aren’t feeling so good as you can add small tasks to your notebook or bullet journal and celebrate the little successes in your day e.g. keeping yourself hydrated or doing a short household chore.

We were given a handout from the Recovery College in which to write down our lists but when I started to feel better, I made my own all bright and colourful pages using a MS Word document and then printed them out and put them in a folder. If you’re feeling particularly arty or love drawing, you could even create a pictorial list.

I hope you’ve found today’s post useful and that it has given you some insight into the usefulness of creating a W.R.A.P. If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them in the comments.

Until next time, stay home and stay well,

Posted in mental health, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Over 60 self care ideas and activities to keep you busy and mentally well when self isolating or social distancing

Photo credit: Samantha Gades, for Unsplash

The current UK government advice is to practise social distancing in order to minimise the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). With this in mind, I present over 60 ideas and activities to help you make the most of your social distancing or isolation time if you are still feeling fit and well. Hopefully, these activities will keep you safe but productive at the same time and encourage you to support yourself in staying mentally as well as physically well. Of course, some of the suggestions will be more suited to your lifestyle than others and some may just be completely inapplicable but hopefully you can use at least half of them so that’s over 30!

  1. Paint your nails or give yourself a manicure or pedicure
  2. Give positive feedback to someone (e.g. thank someone at the supermarket for doing a good job or write an email to someone who has shared a great article online)
  3. Wash your car (or get your husband to do it – that’ll be me then lol)
  4. Send a loved one a card through the mail telling them how much you care about them
  5. Organise your wardrobe
  6. Put some food out for the birds and watch them feed through the window
  7. Have a video call with a family member or friend
  8. Light a scented candle and meditate whilst watching the flame
  9. Research a topic of interest online – maybe make notes in your BuJo or other notebook
  10. Enjoy a long soak in the bath
  11. Do a jigsaw puzzle
  12. Start a craft project that you’ve been meaning to do for a while
  13. Peruse Amazon and download a new book for your Kindle
  14. Practise calligraphy
  15. Wash your hair and spend ages styling it to perfection
  16. Create an upbeat playlist of songs you love
  17. Take a free online class
  18. Watch a YouTube video that teaches you a new skill
  19. Walk barefoot on your lawn
  20. Listen to an audiobook
  21. Get out your photo albums and revisit happy times (or flick through old digital images on your mobile phone
  22. Snuggle up under a soft blanket and watch a movie
  23. Have a home pampering session e.g. put on a face mask
  24. Do some colouring in
  25. Shine your shoes
  26. Practise Yoga or Pilates (there are lots of videos on YouTube that show you how)
  27. Re-arrange the furniture in your house
  28. Do an observational drawing of something in your house
  29. Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea whilst reading this list and make plans for your day
  30. Write a nice comment on a website or blog
  31. Find a new recipe and try it out
  32. Write in your journal about how your day has been
  33. Play cards or a board game with a family member (or plan an online game whilst being in isolation from others)
  34. Join an online community on Facebook and start a discussion about one of your interests
  35. Buy yourself something nice online for home delivery
  36. Try out some new hairstyles
  37. Find some online journal prompts and do some writing
  38. Make up a poem about how your day has changed for the better since practising social distancing
  39. Learn about your family tree
  40. Savour a bar of chocolate
  41. Do a wordsearch, crossword or other word puzzle
  42. Make a gift for a family member or friend which you can leave on their doorstep
  43. Do some origami
  44. Visit Etsy and support a handmade business by choosing and buying a little treat for yourself or a loved one
  45. Make homemade pizza
  46. Sing in the shower
  47. Massage hand cream into your hands (particularly good if your hands are dry from all the handwashing)
  48. Play games on your tablet or phone (my current favourites are Angry Birds 2 and Candy Crush Saga)
  49. Share a photograph online of something new you’ve tried whilst self isolating
  50. Buy some new stationery from an online shop
  51. Spend an hour reading your favourite magazine with a hot or cold drink
  52. Make homemade bread
  53. Sit in your back garden tonight and do some stargazing
  54. Learn to juggle
  55. Give your muscles a good stretch
  56. Send a text message to a friend checking that they are safe and well
  57. Write a list of all the things that you are grateful for right now
  58. Make a list of reasons why you love your friend / partner and share it with them
  59. Spend time engaging in one of your long forgotten hobbies
  60. Watch a favourite movie and munch on some popcorn
  61. Do some embroidery or cross stitching
  62. Cuddle your pet and show them some love
  63. Enter an online competition
  64. Repair something in your house that you’ve been meaning to get around to fixing for months
  65. Have an indoor picnic in your house (put out a picnic mat or blanket and sit on the floor in your living room)
  66. Make some (virgin) cocktails (don’t forget to drink responsibly)
  67. Do a Sudoku
  68. Close your eyes and do 5 minutes of soothing breathing

I hope you’ve found at least some of these ideas useful. Let me know if you have other suggestions which I could add to the list.

Stay safe everyone and remember, just because you’re practising social distancing, doesn’t mean you need to isolate yourself from the world completely. As best as you can, and in a way that is safe, keep in touch with loved ones and most importantly, look after you!

Posted in mental health, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Practical ways to improve your wellbeing by unlocking the power of the vagus nerve

Last week, in my compassion group therapy session, we looked at the vagus nerve and its effect on our health and wellbeing. The vagus nerve is the longest of our cranial nerves (the ones which emerge straight from our brain) and controls our inner nerve centre. It oversees a range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to each organ of our body (our heart, lungs, upper digestive tract, and other organs of the chest and abdomen).

The vagus nerve is critical to our overall health and it has been scientifically proven that stimulating this important bundle of motor and sensory fibres is a key in reducing our stress, anxiety and anger levels.

So, enough of the science lesson, what are the practical ways that we can get this thing working to our advantage? Here are a range of different ways:

breathe deeply and slowly

Slow and deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve in a way that can help reduce our heart rate and enable us to become more relaxed. That’s why focusing on your breath during mini meditations can be so soothing for us and is a key part of compassion based therapy.

exercise

Regular exercise such as a gentle walk stimulates gut flow which is regulated by your vagus nerve. Why not combine this with getting in touch with nature so you can enjoy some peace and quiet at the same time?

have a good laugh

There’s a reason behind the popular saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’. Proper belly laughs are thought to be great for stimulating the vagus nerve. Why not try going to a comedy show or watching an episode of your favourite funny TV series tonight? There’s even a thing called ‘laughter therapy’ according to a counsellor I used to see, although I’ve never tried it myself!

try getting yourself all cold!

Apparently any type of exposure to cold will increase vagus nerve activation. That’s why some people swear by having a cold shower first thing in the morning to get going! Personally I prefer a little cold water on my face or a nice cold glass of water to wake myself up but it’s entirely up to you how you expose yourself to a little bit of coldness!

Sing or chant

As a member of a choir, I love singing and find it really helps my wellbeing. Now I know why! Why not trying putting on your favourite music and singing along (and maybe do a little boogie as well for the exercise) to activate your vagus nerve? Chanting also works too so no wonder football fans feel so good when they shout for their team at matches.

Massage

A nice neck massage is a lovely way to stimulate the vagus nerve or why not try a foot massage to help lower your heart rate and blood pressure. I love it when my husband does a firm massage of my feet after a long day when we’re sat together watching TV. If you haven’t got an obliging partner, a session with a qualified masseuse makes a fantastic pampering treat if you can afford it.

Positive social contact

Being socially connected, be it with compassionate friends, family or even our beloved pets has been shown to help with emotional regulation though vagal stimulation. Make sure that you choose to spend time with kind hearted and thoughtful people to ensure a positive experience.

Reduce your consumption of junk food

I’m sure you already know that eating too much fatty stuff is bad for you but excess consumption of ‘junk food’ has been shown to reduce the sensitivity of your vagus nerve. The occasional treat is okay but try not to indulge too often.

Yoga and Tai Chi

The benefits of practises such as yoga and Tai Chi are well documented. They have both been shown to increase vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic (also known as rest and digest) system in general. You can find many simple yoga sequences online and beginner classes of exercises are widely available if you want to make it a social event too.

And finally, try to make time to relax each and every day

It’s up to you what form that relaxation takes, a nice warm bath, a few uninterrupted chapters of your favourite novel, craft or art activities or settling down to watch a film. Find something relaxing to do each day will have a positive effect on your wellbeing by working your vagus nerve.

I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting and have learnt something new. Let me know if you try any of the ideas and if they have a positive effect on your wellbeing as a result. I’ve learnt so much from my compassion group therapy so far and I’ve have been working hard to put things into practise to improve my wellbeing. Hopefully I get the chance to share some more with you soon.

Until next time, look after yourself.