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Be kind to yourself and spend time on things you enjoy

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Getting into nature has proven benefits for mental health.
Getting into nature has proven benefits for mental health.

RECENTLY, we have seen an increasing media focus on issues collectively described as “mental health problems”, writes Dr Tim Agnew.

The term is now commonly used to describe such diverse situations as having “a few bad days”, the experience of grief, and severe mental illness such as schizophrenia.

These are such very different experiences that it makes no more sense to categorise them together under the umbrella term than it would to collectively refer to such different conditions as tiredness, a broken ankle, and terminal cancer as “physical health problems”.

For a number of reasons, perhaps in part including the vagueness of the concept itself, there has been an increase in people framing their own understandable emotional responses to difficult situations as mental illness. This is almost always counterproductive, even for very intense responses such as grief. Thankfully, most of us experience grief a good deal less frequently than we encounter “a few bad days”, although even the latter can feel pretty unpleasant. A small number of people will even find “a few bad days” becoming “a few bad weeks”, with a reduction in their ability to function as usual, in which case they may benefit from seeing their GP to exclude a clinical depressive or anxiety disorder. However, for most people, their emotional responses are largely understandable in the context of the situations in which they find themselves.

Most people will have had more than their usual quota of unpleasant days over the uniquely challenging past year. You may have noticed yourself feeling shut down and withdrawn, or perhaps keyed up and on edge. The good news is that although a medical response may not be helpful, there are some things you can do to help yourself feel better.

Start off by validating your own experience. In other words, acknowledge this is an extraordinarily difficult time during which it is both understandable and acceptable to find things more difficult.

Dr Tim Agnew.
Dr Tim Agnew.

Next, by deliberately scheduling activities which give you a sense of pleasure or satisfaction, you can enhance your emotional fitness and resilience. These may be activities you have stopped or new activities you wish to take up. Given the current restrictions, you may need to be creative – the aim is to identify things you can do right now, not only in an ideal situation. You may need to purposefully plan these activities and set goals for yourself. Reward yourself when you meet your goals – this will make you more likely to repeat an activity and will also make you feel better straight away. If you are not doing anything you feel good about, you are unlikely to feel happy. Some types of activity may be particularly constructive. For example, spending time in nature and green spaces can have an especially positive impact. We also know that spending enjoyable time with other people can be beneficial. Although face-to-face opportunities have been severely curtailed, you can still use video-calls or the good old-fashioned telephone to stay connected.

This remains a difficult time for everyone. Try to recognise that, go easy on yourself and aim to make each of these dark days as bright as they can be.

- Dr Tim Agnew is a consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist with NHS Highland’s personality disorder service.

Related news: HEALTH MATTERS: We can learn skills to build resilience in face of adversity

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