Tanya Byron and Alex Scott

The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health: this eye-opening documentary reveals some fascinating truths

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The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health provides an in-depth look at the latest research changing the way we approach wellbeing. Here are three things we learnt from the BBC’s fascinating new documentary.

The coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the mental health of people across the world.

Whether you’re feeling anxious about the rising death rates, struggling with loneliness as a result of the ongoing lockdown or dealing with low mood because of the monotony of working from home, you’re certainly not alone. 

And because of this, it’s never been more important to have a toolkit of resources and methods you can use to take care of your mental health on a daily basis.

That’s what makes a new documentary from the BBC so fascinating. The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health, hosted by former professional footballer and TV presenter Alex Scott and psychologist Tanya Byron, takes a closer look at the latest developments in mental health research and highlights tangible ways we can all look after our wellbeing.

From the impact of brain waves on sleep to the ways social media can actually benefit our mental health, there’s plenty to take away from this eye-opening documentary. Here, we’ve put together a list of the most intriguing things we learnt while watching.

1. Counting your heart rate can help with anxiety

A screenshot from The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health
The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health: Professor Sarah Garfinkel's research looks at how interoception can help people dealing with anxiety.

The first intervention Scott investigates is that of interoception (our ability to be aware of what’s going on inside our body), and how developing our awareness of our heartbeat can help us to control our anxiety levels.

The premise, as Professor Sarah Garfinkel explains, is pretty straightforward. By focusing on our heartbeat (and improving our awareness through regular practise), we can sense when it begins to speed up – a tell-tale sign of rising anxiety levels – and intervene before that anxiety gets out of control.

To do this, Prof Garfinkel simply asks Scott to turn her attention back towards her heart when she feels herself getting anxious – by focusing on the sensation within her body and trying to control her heart beat she is able to send a signal to her brain that everything is OK, which in turn lowers anxiety levels.

This is important because, as Scott also highlights in the documentary, when problems such as anxiety are caught early, they are much more easily treatable. 

2. Your gut health plays a massive role in your mood

If you weren’t aware of how complex the relationship between gut and brain health actually is, you’re in for a surprise.

To find out more Byron speaks to Professor Phil Burnet, an expert in the field of psychobiotics – a field of study which looks at how the microbes in our gut can influence our mood because of the vagus nerve, which provides two-way communication between the brain and gut.

To demonstrate how taking care of our gut could benefit our mental health, the pair conduct a study using six participants who struggle with low mood. As part of the study, half of the group took a placebo, and half took a probiotic. Both took their supplements two times a day for a month, and neither group knew which ones they were taking.

The results were seriously impressive. While the placebo group showed a 20% improvement in their mood, those taking the probiotic reported a massive 50% improvement in their mood, as well as a 50% improvement in their concentration. Those taking the probiotics also saw a drop in their cortisol levels, the hormone which is responsible for stress

3. Listening to a podcast while exercising can amplify the benefits

A screenshot from The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health
The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health: Professor Damien Bailey’s team look at how blood flow to the brain increases during exercise.

We all know that exercise has the power to benefit our mental health, but according to Professor Damien Bailey at the University of South Wales, it’s not just because of the rush of endorphins it produces.

As Scott finds out in the documentary, exercise actually increases the flow of blood to the back of the brain (by 63%, in her case), the area Prof Bailey points out is particularly prone to impairment in people with mental health disorders. By increasing this blood flow, the brain gets more ‘fuel’ and is able to function better.

However, as Prof Bailey points out, there’s a way to increase that blood flow even further – by doing something which engages our brain such as looking at a screen or listening to a podcast.

Indeed, when he asks Scott to look at a mental stimulus while working out, the rate of blood flow to the back of her brain increases an extra 29%.

The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

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Images: BBC

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.