Who better to advise us on boosting our mental health than bestselling author Matt Haig? Read on to hear about his mental health journey and the gentle advice he recommends for ways we can try managing our minds.
Up until I became ill when I was in my 20s, my mental wellbeing was something I never thought about.
Now, I’m generally in a better place than I was when I had a breakdown at 25, but mental health is like a garden – you have to keep tending to it. After all, you’ll never reach an end point where you think, ‘OK, I don’t have to look after myself anymore’.
I had a very slow recovery after my breakdown because I went down a very long and winding road. The pills I was given didn’t work, and I had no idea how I’d become so ill. It was very difficult to work out how I could get out of the illness when I didn’t know how I’d gotten into it in the first place.
The first things I became aware of were that I needed to stop drinking and smoking, so I went eight years without alcohol. I got healthier and lost around two stone in weight without even trying, and started thinking about what I was eating and how it affected me. Then I got into running and exercising, and it wasn’t until I turned 40 a few years ago that I started thinking about the impact that technology has on my mental health, too.
Below are a few gentle ways that you, too, can start to look after your mental health and wellbeing.
Get enough sleep
I’m starting to realise the importance of sleep, and I’m trying to get seven hours a night (eight is sometimes unrealistic for me as I wake up so early). To help with this, I try not to do anything that makes me alert late at night, such as watching something stimulating on TV. I don’t ever have my laptop in bed, and I charge my phone in the kitchen rather than my bedroom, which is a big thing for me. If I need to set an alarm, I do it on my watch. I also don’t drink alcohol on consecutive days… it’s all those boring things you can do that just help to keep you on an even keel.
Find the right type of exercise for you
My dad was a marathon runner and he was the one who first encouraged me to get into running. That was the first activity I discovered that was really good for me; I think it’s the combination of exercise and getting outside in natural light.
The first diagnosis I had was for panic disorder. Running is so good for panic attacks because it’s a safe space – during the run you’re essentially replicating the symptoms of a panic attack, so you don’t worry about why your heart is racing, or why you’re breathless or sweating, or anything like that. You’re meant to be, because you’re running!
So running helped in a weird way because, for an hour or so, I would know that I wasn’t going to have a panic attack. Then it became about the pain of running, which was somehow comforting compared to the pain of panic disorder. That led me to eventually discover other forms of exercise, and I started doing yoga to balance out the running. Now, if I’m in an anxiety dip, then (apart from sleep) the two most essential ingredients for me are running and yoga; not really intense yoga, just comfort stretches that I follow from videos.
Monitor your use of technology
It wasn’t until I was 40 that I really thought about my relationship with technology and how it was affecting me. I found myself getting into a lot of pointless arguments on Twitter and comparing myself to people on Facebook. I was doing toxic things like searching my own name and getting really neurotic about it.
But because it’s not a physical thing, like when alcohol damages your liver, it’s hard to recognise when you’re addicted to technology. But it can take over your life in a negative way, and you can lose track of time with it, spending hours in bed scrolling through Instagram or another platform.
We’re not conditioned to think of mental health as health, and we’re certainly not conditioned to think of technology as a health issue. But I think there’s a parallel between them. We all know that if we sat and ate ice cream for six hours it would be fun to start with, but there would be diminished returns and a consequence to our health. Likewise, if you spend a Saturday morning just scrolling through Instagram and Facebook for hours on end, that’s not helping you either. So it’s about being a little bit more mindful and aware of that.
But it’s not about never using these platforms, because I do think there are positive links between social media and mental health. For instance, I wish I’d had somewhere to go to find people who had the same symptoms as me back in 1999. I’d have felt less alone. And now you can definitely do that, because social media is great at highlighting these issues.
The problem is when we use social media to feel bad about ourselves. Our minds are already overloaded, then social media overloads us even more. We haven’t really evolved mentally or physically for up to 30,000 years; back then we would have been living in a village with no more than 150 people, and we’d have known at most 150 people in our lifetimes. But now we can encounter 150 people by scrolling on Instagram or Twitter in the morning, before we’ve even had breakfast. So the hardware of our minds is not quite equipped for the software of the 21st century.
We can’t really do anything about that, but we can monitor our use of social media and recognise that we probably shouldn’t stay up until 3am comparing ourselves to strangers on the internet. Once we have that awareness we can start phasing that out and editing our lives a bit, as and when we need to.
Be selective with notifications
One of the key things that helped me was switching off my notifications, so that social media became a place I went to, rather than it coming to me.
I also try not to have any unnecessary emails on my phone; I see them as the equivalent of unwanted thoughts that come into my mind.
I’m also very careful not to ‘hate follow’ people on Twitter, such as those who annoy me, just to see what they’re up to. It prompts me to argue with them, ruining my day as well as theirs. So I try and limit the amount of negative information I get on my feed.
Of course, sometimes we follow people who are perfectly nice but, for whatever reason, they make us feel a little bit worse about ourselves. I don’t have any shame in unfollowing strangers who don’t make me feel good about myself; you have to put your mental health first.
Often we’re looking for a solution to things, and we’re trying to add something new into our lives. But mostly the solution to our overloaded, 21st Century lives is to take things away, such as removing apps from our phones or clearing out our cupboards and taking things to the charity shop.
We’re mentally and physically cluttered, and that is a massive source of stress. A lot of things that are bad for the planet are also bad for our minds, such as overconsuming. Often its not about adding a perfect mindfulness app to our routine, but about taking something out of the mix.