How to: keep mentally fit

There's a lot more to being healthy than being physically in shape. By Joanna Egan. woman with a hoola hoop

Generally, when we think about health we think about our bodies. However, mental and social wellbeing are as important as physical health in contributing to our overall condition. A person's mental state affects the way they think, feel and behave. When we are mentally healthy, we can cope with the stresses of daily life. We tend to have healthy social relationships, good self-esteem and the confidence we need to overcome challenging situations. We are interested in the world around us, find meaning and purpose in life and have positive hopes for the future.

When a person experiences mental health issues, on the other hand, they tend to be less able to cope with day-to-day stress. They may have low self-esteem and self-confidence, feel worried or anxious, have difficulty concentrating and be irritable or restless. Their eating or sleeping habits may change, they may lose interest in things they previously enjoyed, and their energy levels may lessen or become unstable.

How can women build their mental fitness?

More than 43 per cent of Australian women will experience a mental health issue, most commonly anxiety or depression, at some point during their lives. However, researchers have found that if women stay physically, socially and mentally active; if they belong to family, community and social groups; and if they commit to personal goals, they can better their chances of staying mentally healthy. By following this 'Act, Belong, Commit' philosophy and learning to respond to stress in positive ways, women can lead happier, healthier lives.

Stress is a normal part of life. When a person is faced with an event or situation that challenges them, their body responds by triggering physical changes, such as increased heart and breathing rates, which heighten alertness and prepare for quick reactions. At times, however, this natural stress response can overwhelm a person's ability to cope. When the negative effects of stress recur or are ongoing, they can lead to fatigue, exhaustion, a lack of concentration, impaired immunity, an increased risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, and feelings of anxiety and depression.

A good way for women to control stress is to reflect on what triggers it so they can take steps to reduce it. For example, if finances are a concern, working on a budget can be helpful. If work stress is a problem, avoiding new responsibilities and speaking with the manager about reducing current workloads can help. If a personal relationship is causing anxiety, focusing on communication can be useful. If a woman feels overwhelmed at home, asking her partner or family for more support, or asking a friend to babysit so she can have an afternoon to herself, is a good idea.

Sometimes stressors are unavoidable. In these situations, women can put themselves in the best possible position to cope if they practise the following:

1) Do things they enjoy

Allowing time for relaxation can help keep life balanced and reduce a woman's vulnerability to stress. Going for a walk, having a bath, reading a book, watching a movie, playing with the family pet, or spending time with friends can help women feel good, stay calm and keep mentally healthy.

2) Be social

Spending time with friends, family members and colleagues is important. They are a valuable source of support and when a woman feels worried or overwhelmed, they can help her keep things in perspective. Having regular contact in the local community can also boost a person's health. By joining a sports team, a community garden, a book club or a mothers' group, for example, women can build friendships and engage with people who share their values and interests. This can help them stay connected and feel a sense of belonging.

3) Keep active and eat well

Exercising regularly can increase a person's general energy levels, improve their memory and concentration, reduce anxiety and encourage good sleeping habits. Ideally, women should aim to do about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days of the week (this can be done all at once or in three 10-minute blocks). Women can do this by gradually making changes to their day-to-day lives by walking up the stairs, for example, instead of riding the escalator. Women may find that getting off the bus a stop earlier, or parking the car a few blocks away and covering some of the distance on foot, can help. Hanging the washing on the line instead of putting it in the dryer, or putting the radio on and dancing around the kitchen while the vegetables boil can also help women integrate activity into their daily routine.

Diet can also change the way a person feels. Eating regular, nutritious meals can help keep blood-sugar levels constant, which can play a role in stabilising mood. Women should try to incorporate wholegrains, fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats, fish and low-fat dairy into their diets. Women should avoid processed foods where possible because these can be high in saturated fats, salt and sugar, and low in essential nutrients, and if they feel particularly anxious, avoiding stimulants such as coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks can help, as these can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.

4) Get enough sleep

When people are well-rested, they tend to make better decisions. If a person doesn't get enough sleep, or sleeps too much, they can become tired and irritable, develop muscle aches and pains, and experience low immunity, low energy levels, poor concentration and longer periods of depression. Women should try to establish a regular sleeping pattern by going to bed at about the same time each night. Getting plenty of fresh air, avoiding napping and doing some physical activity during the day can help people fall asleep more easily. Women should avoid stimulants such as caffeine in the afternoon, and try not to smoke or do vigorous exercise within an hour of going to bed. It's also a good idea to avoid using alcohol to help fall asleep; as it breaks down in the body, it causes people to sleep less deeply and wake frequently.

5) Ask for help

Seeking help early can lead to a quicker recovery. If a woman feels unwell or overwhelmed, she should talk to her doctor straightaway and remember that it's okay to approach somebody else if the first person she speaks to doesn't offer the help she needs. The GP can teach women short-term coping strategies and put them in touch with a counsellor or community mental health service. A number of online mental health services can also provide support and information. Some good websites are listed below.

For more information

Last updated: September 2012

© Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Joanna Egan and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey Issue 3 2012.


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