In September, Malaysia’s Health Ministry revealed that one in three people throughout the country is struggling with mental health issues – whether they know it or not.
This is a shocking statistic but sadly, it’s not a surprising revelation given the combination of the lack of awareness of mental health, increased stress in the workplace, and the fact that we talk so much about the importance of being physically fit, but think very little of our mental well-being.
This, I believe, is for two main reasons. First, there is a dangerous misconception that only those with chronic conditions such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia have mental health issues. The implication here is that if you aren’t in need of professional help, your mental health is fine.
Second, it’s hard to perceive the impact of mental health issues for those of us who don’t have chronic conditions. If we lose or gain too much weight or we injure ourselves, the physical impact is obvious, and so we pay close attention to our physical health.
However, when we feel stressed or fatigued, angry or frustrated, we tend to get caught up in those emotions and then, when they eventually pass, we don’t think much – if anything at all – about our mental health. This is something we neglect at our peril: By not taking care of our psychological well-being, we are bound to suffer potentially severe consequences in our later years, as well as difficulties over the short-term.
The good news is that there is increasing awareness of the importance of mental health and people are now much better informed about emotional well-being than they were in decades gone past, when mental ill health was viewed as being exclusive to those with chronic conditions.
As part of World Mental Health Day earlier this month, I was delighted to be invited to co-deliver a workshop on mindfulness by Mentem Psychological Services. I was joined by Dr Eugene Tee – an emotions researcher and lecturer at HELP University – and we explored how our minds function and ways in which we can effectively reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and fear, while increasing our clarity of thinking, decision-making and awareness.
While mindfulness has been in vogue over the past 10 years, there is some misinformation out there that, when people apply it to their lives, brings them more harm than good.
Advice to “be in the present” and to “just let go” are nice ideas – but as Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer suggests, if you’re not in the present, then you’re not there to know that you’re not there. In short, being mindful in the present moment takes practice – it’s not a quick-fix or an immediate choice one can make.
With that in mind, I’d like to share a few of the tips Dr Tee and I presented at our workshop, which can bring a number of benefits as mentioned before, as well as a decrease in excessive “fight or flight” responses, and a decrease in heart rate, which brings about a sense of calmness.
It should be noted, however, that mindfulness is a supplementary practice and that if anyone experiences significant mental health issues, the best course of action is to first seek professional support.
For those who experience everyday feelings of stress, anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions, the following steps – when practised regularly – can help to reduce these feelings.
- Consciously remind yourself that you are not your thoughts or your feelings – like weather patterns, they will soon pass. By having this “mindful conversation” with yourself, you’re training your mind to be an observer, rather than to identify with and get caught up in the emotion.
- Whenever you slip up, give yourself a break. Strive for progress, not perfection. We all make mistakes and we all mess up – that’s OK. In your mind, lessen the negative talk by talking to yourself as though you were supporting a friend. Encourage rather than criticise yourself.
- Spend five to 10 minutes daily “being in contact” with the body. This means to sit with yourself and think about how you’re feeling, physically and mentally and to enjoy a few moments of quiet, honest reflection each day. When was the last time you really stopped to give yourself a moment of peace?
- Commit to doing something for yourself, at least once per week, which is purposeful and meaningful according to your values. You’re as deserving of your own time and support as anyone else – don’t forget you also need care and attention.
These steps are just some of the ways in which we can work to take care of our emotional well-being. The important thing for all of us to keep in mind is, well, our mind – it’s what drives us in everything that we do and the more we take care of it, the better it will serve us in turn.