Keeping our mind healthy is essential for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us, especially our partners and kids. This is true at any time but is often more challenging and perhaps more essential in times of acute stress, the likes of which most of us are experiencing right now.
The Healthy Mind Platter
So how can we cultivate the healthiest mind possible? This was a question that clinical professor of psychiatry Daniel Segel and his colleague David Rock sort to answer. They recognised that many countries were creating health campaigns focusing on what a daily diet should consist of to optimize physical health. However they noted that sadly the same attention was not being given to people’s mental health. Segel and Rock felt many peoples lives were deficient in a daily regimen necessary for mental wellbeing and in response to this they developed what they called The Healthy Mind Platter (HMP). The HMP diagram below shows the seven daily essential activities (like mental nutrients) to develop optimum mental health…
So let’s take each ‘nutrient’ in turn…
When we focus on a task in a goal orientated way this helps to make new healthy connections in the brain. For many people work provides focus time but sadly often to the detriment of the other six activities as many people prioritise work over other important areas of their life especially during the working week. This is like eating pizza 5 out of 7 days and thinking it’s OK because you eat veg on the weekends!
Those fortunate to be able to shift their work online during the pandemic can still use work as their focus time but of course for some this isn’t possible. However focus time doesn’t just have to be work – anything that requires us to concentrate hard will count…so doing the crossword, putting together a tricky jigsaw puzzle or learning a new instrument or language all contribute to focus time.
When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative and enjoy novel experiences we create new connections in the brain. Laughing is part of play time and there have been many humorous memes during the pandemic giving some much needed levity. We could try getting into something new like cooking and doing bake off’s with friends/family, playing online trivia games with friends, dancing to music and, if we have children, playing with them.
When we connect with other people or nature we richly activate the brain’s relational circuitry. Although ideally we would be connecting with people in person, most of us right now are having to physically distance from everyone other than those we live with so this isn’t possible. I am sure many of you are however finding ways of staying in touch with friends and family online and actually the pandemic may be allowing some of us to have more not less connected time as people make efforts to check in with one another.
However it is also true that many people may be feeling isolated and disconnected due to the restrictions necessary to control the pandemic and the use of the word ‘distancing’ might not be helping. Paul Gilbert, who developed Compassion Focused Therapy, has written a very interesting article in the Metro calling for ‘social distancing’ to be swapped to ‘safe relating’ because it ‘refocuses the steps we’re taking to stay safe as simply an adjustment to the way we relate to each other’ not as a way of distancing from each other. The full article can be found here.
This pandemic shows us how interconnected we all really are and if we see that ‘safe relating’ is a way of us all deeply caring for our fellow human beings then this can actually foster rather than hinder our sense of connectedness.
The daily nutrient of connection is broader than just human to human connection. It also encompasses the natural world and animals/pets. With the noise of transport and industry quieting we have a unique opportunity to connect more to the sights and sounds of nature. Taking just five minutes to open a window and look up at the sky is all that’s needed but if you can walk through greenery or by the sea then that’s even better. And when we are out in nature we can deliberately take time to notice the wildlife-the birds or ducks or cows in the field and this really can grow our sense of connection to the natural world which has tremendous mental health benefits. Finally, with working/staying at home being most people’s new normal we may have more opportunity to cuddle up with our furry friends-although I’m not sure my cat is very impressed by this-but at least it’s good for my mental health!
The government understands the importance of exercise to our physical and mental wellbeing which is why we are allowed to exercise even during the pandemic.
When, if medically possible, we move our bodies aerobically we strengthen the brain in many ways and not just because of the well known endorphin release. Here’s a link to an article on ten neurological benefits of exercise that you might find interesting; https://positivepsychology.com/exercise-neurological-benefits/.
This is about moving our attention away from external stimulus and reflecting instead on our inner world of sensations, feelings and thoughts. We can use journaling and quiet contemplation as a way of having ‘time in’ and therapy (either online or face to face) can also provide a safe space for understanding and reflecting on our inner world.
Many people will recognise time-in as a fundamental part of mindfulness meditation but If you are new to mindfulness meditation or are an experienced meditator but like to use apps here are a few recommendations;
When we allow our mind to simply relax, without any specific goal, we help our brain recharge. This has become a real challenge for many people who have become used to their brains being constantly stimulated. Although during the pandemic we are not getting out and about as much, many of us are still finding down time a challenge-we might be very focused on utilising our time as ‘best’ as possible or spending hours whats app messaging our friends or listening to the news which can fire up our threat system. Many people have sadly learnt to equate down time with being lazy and our society over values busyness. But our brain does not recharge when we are in a state of busyness so if you want to have a healthy mind then set boundaries around your tech and see if you can lean into down time!
Is about giving our brain the rest it needs to consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day. Mat Walker is a professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California Berkeley and Founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science and if you aren’t already familiar with his work and/or you doubt the importance of sleep then you may wish to check out some of his podcast interviews here; https://www.sleepdiplomat.com/speaker.
It’s obviously important to give ourselves the best chance of quality sleep so understanding sleep hygiene principles and minimising alcohol consumption, caffeine and stress can go a long way in improving sleep quality. If you struggle with getting good quality sleep then I have developed a sleep section in the covid resources section of my website which you might find helpful.
Keep a Healthy Mind every day
You are now aware of the full spectrum of essential mental activities that will help give you the healthiest mind possible. So, if you can, I invite you to at least every day to try and get each one of these ‘ingredients’ into your mental diet. Given the world health crisis that we are in the midst of right now ensuring we have the healthiest mind possible can really help protect our mental health. But one day this pandemic will be over and then is it still necessary to look after our mind? Of course…it helps us to show up in all areas of our life as the best version of ourselves and when stress and adversity come back around (in the form of a pandemic or the many other challenges we face during the course of this human life) we are likely to be more mentally healthy, more grounded and more resilient.
Written by Dr. Olivia Thrift – registered Counselling Psychologist and founder of The Psychology Company.