Why is mental wellbeing important, and how can I help improve mine?
You’ve probably heard these terms thrown around when the topic of mental wellbeing pops up.
But talking about it often raises questions. Why is mental wellness important in the first place? How do you take care of it? Does socialising improve mental wellbeing? How about exercise?
To answer these questions – and more – we asked Consultant Psychologist Dr Bec Jackson for her thoughts on the essential life skill that is maintaining mental wellness.
What actually is mental wellbeing?
According to Dr Bec, mental wellbeing is a holistic term that covers both social and emotional wellbeing. Specifically, it relates to our ability to:
- enjoy life
- cope with challenges and ‘bounce back’ from them (AKA resilience)
- set and fulfil goals
- live according to our values
- build and maintain relationships with others
Dr Bec says that you may have heard this described as “having something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to.” She adds that this is a great shorthand way of thinking about emotional and mental wellbeing.
She also comments that factors in several areas influence our mental wellbeing, including:
These factors interact with each other in complex ways.
Why talking about mental wellbeing is important
We all face challenges in life, and they don’t stop coming. “We can’t get rid of these challenges,” says Dr Bec, “but we can control how we react to them.”
That’s one huge reason we need to talk about and focus on our mental wellbeing. Stress comes from the perception that we can't cope with our challenges, and ongoing stress has long-term effects on both our minds and bodies. Improving our mental wellbeing can help to reduce these effects.
For example, here are a few situations in which focussing on mental wellbeing can help to offset the stress of major life challenges:
- Fred loses his job. He uses his love of learning to retrain with a new skill, so he can start on a different career path that better matches his interests.
- Helen experienced a period of homelessness. She now gives back by volunteering in the organisations that helped her out.
- Melissa has a history of anxiety and low mood. She now gets out of bed every day and creates a goal for that day in her planner. Then she takes small steps towards it. At the end of the day, she acknowledges her courage and any progress she’s made.
“Developing the skills and good habits to improve your mental wellbeing can feel a little overwhelming at first,” Dr Bec acknowledges, “but the good news is that it gets easier with practice.”
12 Top tips to improve mental wellbeing
We asked Dr Bec for her top 10 ways to help improve mental wellbeing, and she gave us 12! Here’s what she recommended…
1. Get enough sleep and rest
Sleep is immensely important for our physical and mental wellbeing, but it’s often the first thing we trade in when we’re busy or stressed.
Especially if you’re juggling kids and work, Dr Bec says that sleep is paramount. Not getting enough over a prolonged period can affect your brain, which in turn impacts your wellbeing.
2. Take time out for things you enjoy
Dr Bec reckons that people don’t focus nearly enough on joy in their lives. She comments that a good life balance is vital, so taking time out for things you enjoy can make a world of difference to how you think and feel.
3. Get active
Many people associate exercise with improving and maintaining their physical health. So you might wonder how physical activity improves mental wellbeing.
The answer, says Dr Bec, is that motion stimulates emotion. “Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin, which actually changes your brain chemistry,” she explains. The physical movement changes your emotional state, often improving your mood.
Also, getting active can improve your sleep. If you’ve got kids, consider encouraging them to exercise with you for more quality family time. Not only will that make them more healthy, but it can help to boost their resilience too.
4. Eat well to fuel your mind and body
Given the connection between physical and mental wellbeing, it makes sense that eating nutritious food every day would improve our emotional wellbeing.
And research supports this connection: foods like oily fish, wholegrains and nuts and seeds all contain nutrients that can help to maintain an even, balanced mood.
5. Nurture relationships and connect with others
Building quality social connection with others actively builds us up and keeps us strong, says Dr Bec. “It probably accounts for 50% of our mental wellbeing.”
6. Get involved
“Being part of a group with common interests provides a sense of belonging, which can be important for mental wellbeing,” Dr Bec says. It can also provide a great opportunity to connect and build relationships with others (see tip 5).
Some of her suggestions are:
- team sports, which combine being active and connecting with others
- music, which offers a great stress release
- community volunteering, which offers a chance to increase your own wellbeing by contributing to others’
7. Reduce your stress
There are many ways to reduce stress, so explore, experiment and find one that works for you. Perhaps try a form of meditation, relaxation exercises, yoga or writing your feelings down.
Dr Bec finds that journaling is a great way to reduce stress and sort through any unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Developing a mindfulness practice can also help.
8. Learn something new
Learning improves your mental fitness. “Taking on a new challenge can build your confidence and give you a sense of achievement,” adds Dr Bec.
Why not try learning a craft? Many people enjoy knitting or other needlecrafts, which combines learning with relaxation.
9. Get self-aware
Spend time exploring who you are and what makes you happy, then prioritise doing those things.
You may find that journaling helps with this, or perhaps reach out to a mental wellness professional for guidance.
10. Set realistic goals and tackle one task at a time
Dr Bec recommends putting no more than three things on your to-do list at any time. “Then, once you’ve done those tasks,” she says, “create a new list.”
She also suggests ensuring that any goal you set is specific. “If you find specific, measurable goals overwhelming, try breaking each goal down into smaller ones.” Often, she adds, seeing clear improvements in a behaviour, even if they’re just small, can feel more empowering.
11. Get outside in nature
Green and blue spaces like forests and oceans are great for our mental health and wellbeing.
In fact, our innate human desire to seek out connection with nature is so well known that it has its own name: biophilia. Dr Bec 100% encourages everyone to explore their biophilia, because being in and around nature can have a huge positive impact on:
- mental recovery
As a bonus, getting out into nature gives us natural exposure to sunlight, which can help to regulate our sleep cycles. Dr Bec recommends getting outside for at least 20 minutes a day.
12. Combine these tips
Dr Bec recently took up mountain biking. This allowed her to ‘package up’ several of the tips above, including:
- learning something new
- physical exercise
- getting out into nature
- doing something she enjoys
Mountain biking may not be your thing. But plenty of activities would enable you to combine several of Dr Bec’s tips together. It’s just a matter of finding one that you enjoy.
Need more help?
Everyone needs support from time to time, but we often feel bad about asking for it.
If you’re struggling to develop and stick to the good habits that will improve your mental wellbeing, we encourage you to reach out for help. Try talking to your:
- family members
Or, alternatively, Lifeline provides 24/7 support if none of the places mentioned above are available.
- How can I get better foods in my diet?
- How to boost your energy levels when you’re tired
- How to improve my focus and productivity
Dr Bec Jackson is a Consultant Psychologist with 20 years’ experience across clinical psychology, academia, therapy and education in clinical, forensic and organisational psychology.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021