Monday of this week was World Mental Health Day. It was really encouraging to see the number of LinkedIn posts from leaders across my network championing the need to understand and support people who are experiencing poor mental health.
There’s no doubt that our experiences in the workplace can have a big impact on our mental well-being and leaders, quite rightly, are becoming ever more aware of the role they play in this.
At the same time, however, all too often leaders don’t put the same emphasis on protecting their own mental well-being. This is a mistake. Taking care of yourself is not an indulgence – it is an investment in your ability to perform at your best and to create an environment that allows others to do the same. However, it can sometimes feel that taking care of our mental health becomes just another pressure on the ‘to do’ list.
It doesn’t have to be like that and in this week’s email I’m sharing five ways to improve your mental well-being with minimal effort and no more than a couple of minutes time investment to get results.
Before I share my top five tips for protecting your mental health, let’s get clear what mental health is and why it matters.
“Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices”
I think this captures it all. As a leader, how you think, feel and act impacts not only you, but every other person you come into contact with. And your ability to handle stress, build good relationships and make solid decisions are central to success. And so, I repeat, taking care of yourself is not an indulgence – it is an investment.
But how do you take care of your mental health? For me, this all comes down to recognising that I need to take care of my brain health as much as I take care of my heart health or my gut health. If you were preparing to run a marathon, you’d take care of your body – what you eat, what you drink, how much you rest your muscles.
We run emotional and mental marathons every day – we make decisions, we respond appropriately, we use will-power, we exercise self-control, we analyse complex information, we learn, we empathise, we process what’s happening around us. We will benefit from proactively preparing our brains for these mental and emotional marathons.
The great news: putting in place effective habits for good mental well-being doesn’t have to be time-consuming or unpleasant. It doesn’t require the self-discipline of long runs at 5:30 am to get enough training in 😊.
And so, here are my five top tips for easy habits that have a big impact on mental well-being.
Mind your language
Our brain reacts to the language it hears. You’ll have noticed this if you spend time in the company of someone whose language is constantly negative. You end up feeling bad yourself and yet all they’ve done is use words.
Words are powerful.
And that includes the words you use too.
Feed your brain with negative, anxiety-inducing words and it will feel negative and anxious. Feed it with positive, action-focussed words and it will feel positive and action-oriented.
To feed your brain a healthy language diet, notice those times when you habitually tell yourself that you’re overwhelmed, stressed out, exhausted…and change to a more positive message such as I’m in control, I’m on top of this, I can handle this…
I used to be really sceptical about this one until I researched the evidence of its impact on both mental and physical well-being. I decided to give it a go and WOW! – turns out Pollyanna was right. Changing from the mindset of what we don’t have to what we do immediately starts a positive chain reaction in the brain. There are many big things to be grateful for but you don’t have to look for the big things for this to work. Counting the little things that are around us every day will make all the difference.
One thing here – take time to feel that you are genuinely grateful. This isn’t about ticking off a list as an intellectual exercise.
Stare at the wall
Like practising gratitude, there’s lots of evidence about the benefits of meditation, a calming effect on busy brains being just one of these. But, if you’re like me, you might find it difficult to just stop and, well, meditate. That’s because we tend to associate ‘meditating’ with doing nothing and our brains find it hard to make sense of ‘nothing’. To manage this, many forms of meditation recommend using a mantra because it gives the brain something to focus on.
But, if having a mantra, sounds a bit much, try just staring at a wall. The wall gives your brain something to notice and, if you want to think about something as well, just think about the colour of the wall – ‘white wall, white wall, white wall….’
This will work just as well as more formal approaches to meditation because you are letting your brain rest deeply for a few moments. It’s a mini-break without leaving the room. Try this for two or three minutes, breathe in deeply, and see just how much calmer your brain feels.
Focus on progress, not perfection
Focussing on perfection is guaranteed to bring disappointment and unhealthy stress – neither of which is great for mental well-being. That’s because perfection is always a bit further away than the point we’ve reached. Plus, it’s fleeting. I’m sure you’ve been there – you’ve had that feeling when you’ve achieved The Big Goal but then, before you know it, the excitement goes and you’re faced with the next big task or get hung up on what didn’t turn out exactly as planned.
Progress, on the other hand, is reality, is constructive and is action-oriented. So, for good brain health, rather than getting frustrated at the lack of perfection you’ve achieved, instead ask yourself one or both of these questions:
- What have I achieved? (Particularly good when you have made progress)
- What three steps can I take to move this forward right now? (Particularly good whether or not you’ve made progress, because it refocuses the mind on action)
If you find yourself getting hot under the collar about what’s not working, refocus. You’ll find that one or both of these will help you to get back on a more productive track.
Keep some great photos within easy reach
With most of us carrying a library of happy memories round on our phones, this one is incredibly easy. Just create a folder with nine or ten photographs that are ultra feel-good for you. For me, this is a few photos of my wedding from a couple of years back, several photos of my two mini Schnauzers and a particularly funny video of my two-year old niece. Just thinking about them even as I write this email makes me smile.
As with practising gratitude, taking a minute to look at these photos will bring powerful benefits for your brain health. It will start the happiness hormones flowing and you’ll move into a more positive, constructive mindset from which the challenges of the day will seem more manageable.
So, there you have it. Five positive things you can do for your brain health with minimum effort.
I do have a caveat to add here though. These tips are designed to boost your mental well-being when it’s in pretty robust order to start with. They’re effective to get you out of the doldrums on a wet Monday morning, or to help you move away from energy-draining frustration about a project, or to get you back on track when you’re having a mini meltdown.
If you are experiencing more serious mental pressures such as clinical depression or severe anxiety, please seek help from a medical professional or therapist. Your mental well-being is of the utmost importance and you deserve to have the in-depth help you need. Do prioritise this.
And, as always, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.