12/05/2022 | Andrew Tracey
Andrew Tracey is a long time collaborator with Bulldog Gear. A coach, writer and current fitness editor of Men’s Health Magazine, he has been in and around the fitness industry for the past 16 years. Having enjoyed and endured a number of disciplines from endurance racing, to strongman, to Crossfit AT enjoys getting neck deep in the practice just as much as the theory.
It’s mental health awareness week, and I’m sure your social media feeds are not short of professional trainers, enthusiastic trainees and industry influencers extolling the positive affects exercise can have on your mental well-being.
And they’re right to do so.
It’s well documented that increased aerobic exercise or strength training can reduce depressive symptoms significantly in mild to moderate cases, and that acute anxiety responds favourably to regular exercise.
There’s a whole other conversation to be had around the distinction between exercise and training in this context, but in the interest of not being ‘that guy’, raining on any parades, or pooping on any parties- now isn’t the time.
No, instead we’re going to assume that you’ve got the exercise part well and truly covered, and that you’re looking for some other, easily actionable tools that you can build into your life, that have been proven to positively impact your mental health.
What’s to follow isn’t intended to prevent, diagnose or otherwise treat serious mental illness, and it is with the sincerest compassion that we stress how important it is to seek out a qualified set of ears if you have any concerns about your well-being.
Rather, these tools are akin to brushing, flossing and rinsing with mouthwash- small, daily actions that stack up to help with good mental hygiene.
WAKE UP AT THE SAME TIME EVERY MORNING
‘Get enough sleep’ is probably a close second to ‘exercise more’ in terms of the advice you’ll see most frequently this week, so we’ll assume you’re already up to speed on that and spare you the proselytizing (which this author knows can be incredibly frustrating when more sleep simply isn’t an option).
No, instead we’ll look at the benefits of having a consistent, daily wake up time, including weekends.
On the surface this habit creates a basic level of consistency, which in and of itself is a powerful tool for reducing feelings of anxiety. On top of this, a regular wake up time helps to align your ‘circadian rhythm’ the internal clock of each and every cell of your body- there’s stacks of data that show huge positive health outcomes associated with getting into this groove, and waking up at the same time each morning is the quickest way to dial your way in.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll come into contact with the concept of ‘social jet lag’. We’re all living increasingly busy, time consuming lives, the hours soon catch up with us and the temptation arises to ‘catch up’ with sleep on the weekends. This may be erroneous in that ‘sleep debt’ can’t really be paid off in this fashion, and we’re risking upsetting that same circadian rhythm which can lead to decreases in mental well-being. Beyond that, I’m sure many of us can relate to the scenario of catching a few extra Z’s at the expense of things we wanted to get done, pushing them further into the week and forcing us into a vicious cycle of trying to play catch-up across the board, thus the term ‘social jet lag’.
Yes, trying to nail that all important 7-8 hours of shut eye is vital, but attempting to ‘average it out’ across the week might not be the solution you were hoping for, so keep that alarm set.
BREATH, ON PURPOSE
If you pride yourself on the calibration of your bullshit detector and have already filed ‘breath work’ under the ‘hippies with joss sticks’ category- please suspend your disbelief and stick with me for a minute.
If you’re already on the mindfulness train, please take this as your cue to return to the sensations of your body for a minute or two, then we’ll crack on.
A mindfulness practice, which can be as simple as focussing on your breathing, has been shown in multiple studies to lower the activity of ‘the default mode network’, the part of your brain most heavily associated with rumination, overthinking and the ‘sense of self’ that can lead to feelings of anxiety and low moods.
By slowing down the default network, not only can we generate feelings of calm and composure in the short term, but through a sort of ‘mental decluttering’ you can free up your mind for clearer thinking, better decision making and optimised problem solving.
We won’t go too hard in the paint here, but a dedicated meditation practice is a fruit that’s more than worth the squeeze, and a life long project that can lead to remarkable outcomes by all measures (and indeed, beyond all measures, IYKNYN). But to keep it actionable- take some time every day to connect with your body by simply following the sensations of breathing, from the beginning of each inhale, right through to the end of each exhale. Observe what you feel, where you feel it and then let it go with the next breath.
Some cliff notes for a scientifically backed way to shift yourself into a calmer state- we want to aim for our exhales to be longer than our inhales, so take a steady but deep breath in through the nose, then slowly let is out, for as long as it naturally takes. Repeat.
Try and be fully present for 10 breaths.
Plot twist: it’s harder than it sounds.
Before you forget about the default mode network or ‘DMN’, we want to bring up another method of decreasing activity in the part of your brain that seems to be primarily charged with helping you to get on your own nerves. Moderate exercise, ie not training, such as brief daily walks have been shown via fMRI scans to lower the light show in the DMN, leading to the same positive outcomes mentioned above.
With that being said… Your DNM isn’t all bad, in fact it’s essential for the sorts of cognitive tasks that make humans, human, such as planning, scheduling, multi-tasking and working-memory; and the good news is, whilst brief walks may slow the DNM down in the short-term, in the long-term they may actually help to strengthen it’s connectivity and stave off the decline of the above functions that are commonly associated with ageing.
Win, win. Get your trainers on.
Walking outside also generates ‘optic flow’, as your brain steadily notes from the landscape in your peripheries that you’re moving forward, possibly away from danger, lowering activity in the areas of the brain associated with anxiety.
There’s also some good physical stuff too, which we may have mentioned before.
Okay, we may have misspoken when we ranked ‘getting enough sleep’ and ‘exercise’ as the tips on looking after your mental health that you’re most likely to hear, as- ‘talk about it’, clearly deserves the top spot. And we cannot stress enough: rightly so.
Getting your inner thoughts out and sounding them off of a caring and compassionate listener can be powerfully cathartic, and can help you to properly articulate and rationalise any problems you may be facing.
But, just as we said with regards to being told to get more sleep, if you feel as though it’s really not an option at this point, then hearing constant admonitions to ‘talk more’ can feel incredibly frustrating, and may even further dim the lights of your mental landscape.
If this sounds familiar, then first of all, know that you are not alone. Many, many people feel as though they don’t have the proper support network, or people with whom it’s applicable to discuss private matters without consequence. We advise everyone to seek out external, impartial help, where possible, but we know that this in itself can sometimes prove difficult, and better resources must become available.
By no means a cure-all, but a useful tool can be to simply write down the things you would like to express outwardly, if you had the means.
Unpacking nebulous thoughts and feelings and articulating them into a language you actually understand and can better process, can be profoundly helpful.
You are not obliged to show anyone, you can throw away your scribbles or delete any documents as soon as you’re done, but just the act alone may be enough to begin turning the lights back up.
It’s especially important to highlight any positive experiences you’ve had throughout the day and week. When we go deliberately searching for enjoyable experiences to jot down, we begin rewiring our brains to recognise them as they arise in real-time, which can help to add to the quality of your mood.
We understand that activities like this can seem a little ‘off-brand’ and unapproachable for some, but we hope that you’ll see these as scientifically backed methods for engineering change, not to be cringed at or brushed off
Just as you’d be tempted to try any tip, trick or adjustment to increase your deadlift or make your runs feel easier, consider these these similar tools for your mind to be experimented with and impartially judged through experience.