5 - Managing your mental and physical health

Managing your mental and physical health

We all have mental and physical health and it’s important to consider on a regular basis how we’re feeling in general, and if anything has changed how can we make it better. 

We’ve put together some tips that may help you through responding to COVID-19.


Managing your expectations

The thought of a long period of lockdown and personal quarantines might bring a false sense of more free time to get things done. Implying everyone should raise the bar of productivity, rather than lowering it. However, as time has lapsed we have all underestimated the cognitive and emotional load that this pandemic has brought, impacting your productivity short term. Leading onto difficulty in motivation, low concentration and the constant feeling of distraction. Adapting to the situation has been hard on us all, but go easy on yourself! Settling into a new rhythm of how to work successfully remotely, rather than being in las and having realistic goals to work towards, are key in keeping your mental health on the right side.  

 

Proactively manage your stress threshold with the power of three simple changes (Sleep, eating well and exercise) 

We’ve all lost some sense of routine in lockdown, so its time to start being proactive on your wellbeing. Prioritising your personal needs will lay a strong foundation for your mental health, such as:

 

Prioritise your sleep and put in place a good sleeping routine.

Getting quality sleep doesn’t just feel good. It’s important for your health. It strengthens your immune system, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and lowers your risk of developing serious health conditions.

Good quality sleep can also improve your mood, and even your memory. While you sleep, your brain forms new pathways to help you remember information. Whether you’re learning skills or studying a new topic on your course, restful sleep supports better comprehension and problem-solving skills.

Research shows that after a good night’s sleep, you’re likely to feel less anxious and more confident.

 

10 tips to help you get a better sleep:
 

1. Set a consistent sleep schedule. Topping sleep specialists’ lists — and hardest for many people — is keeping a regular sleep schedule. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, give or take 20 minutes, including weekends.

2. Create a relaxing bedtime/pre-bedtime routine. Whether it’s a warm bath, reading a book, listening to sleepcasts, nature sounds, sleep music, or meditating, any relaxing activity about an hour before bed helps creates a smoother transition between wakefulness and sleep.

3. Keep your room cool and comfortable. The ideal room for sleeping is cool, quiet, and dark. Studies show that a bedroom temperature of around 18 degrees is most conducive to healthy, restful sleep. Your mattress and pillows should feel really comfy, allowing your body to settle down and relax.

4. Dim the lights after dark. Getting enough natural light during the day is important for keeping your circadian rhythm, or body clock, on a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Bright light from lamps and electronics at night, however, can mess that cycle up, making it harder to fall asleep. That’s because light, especially blue light from your laptop or cell phone, interferes with the release of melatonin, a hormone that tells our body that it’s time to wind down. Think about dimming the lights at home after you finish dinner, or once you get into bed. And, of course…

5. ...unplug an hour before bed. You’ve probably heard this a million times, but it’s worth repeating: Screens and sleep are incompatible. Keeping screen use to a minimum, at least an hour before bed, is essential for sound sleep. Besides the light disrupting your body clock, games, videos, work emails, and social feeds all conspire to keep your mind active — and keep you awake way later than you should be.

6. Steer clear of stimulants late in the day. Who doesn’t love a good cup of coffee as a pick-me-up? Caffeine, however, is a stimulant. If you’re having trouble sleeping, you’ll want to avoid beverages and foods that contain caffeine — coffee, non-herbal tea, colas, even chocolate — at least 6 hours prior to bedtime.

7. Avoid foods that can disrupt sleep. Citrus fruits, spicy food, fatty or fried food, and heavy meals are all tough on the digestive system and can trigger indigestion.

8. Ditch the nightcaps. Even a single glass of your favourite alcoholic drink before bedtime can impact your sleep. Though alcohol initially will make you feel drowsy, ultimately it can interfere with the quality of your sleep. Drinking can also lead to lighter, more restless sleep, diminishing sleep depth and quality, so you’re more likely to wake up feeling tired.

9. Get regular exercise. Studies have found that a regular exercise routine can help contribute to improved sleep. The study results suggest that the effects of exercise on improving your sleep may not be immediate, however an exercise routine creates a substantial impact on the quality and quantity of your sleep. 

Note: You may want to get your workout in earlier in the day, or at least 3 hours before bedtime. Exercise stimulates your body to produce the stress hormone cortisol that keeps your brain alert. 

10. Limit or avoid naps during the day. If you are experiencing trouble falling or staying asleep, it can be best to avoid naps altogether. A late-afternoon snooze will decrease your homeostatic sleep drive, making it harder to drift off at bedtime.


Tips for eating well

The key to a healthy diet is to eat the right amount of food calories for how active you are, so you balance the energy you consume with the energy you use. If you eat or drink more than your body needs, you'll put on weight because the energy you do not use is stored as fat. If you eat and drink too little, you'll lose weight.

You should also eat a wide range of foods to make sure you're getting a balanced diet and your body is receiving all the nutrients it needs. It's recommended that men have around 2,500 calories a day; women should have around 2,000 calories a day.

These tips from the NHS cover the basics of healthy eating, and can help you make healthier choices in the long term.

 

1. Base your meals on higher fibre starchy carbohydrates

Starchy carbohydrates should make up just over a third of the food you eat. They include potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and cereals. Choose higher fibre or wholegrain varieties, such as wholewheat pasta, brown rice or potatoes with their skins on. They contain more fibre than white or refined starchy carbohydrates, and can help you feel full for longer. Try to include at least 1 starchy food with each main meal. 

 

2. Eat lots of fruit and veg!

It's recommended that you eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and veg every day. They can be fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced. Getting your 5 A Day is easier than it sounds. Why not chop a banana over your breakfast cereal, or swap your usual mid-morning snack for a piece of fresh fruit?

 

3. Eat more fish, including a portion of oily fish

Fish is a good source of protein and contains many vitamins and minerals. Aim to eat at least 2 portions of fish a week, including at least 1 portion of oily fish.

Oily fish include:

  • salmon
  • trout
  • herring
  • sardines
  • pilchards
  • mackerel

 

Non-oily fish include:

  • haddock
  • plaice
  • coley
  • cod
  • tuna
  • skate
  • hake

You can choose from fresh, frozen and canned, (but remember that canned and smoked fish can be high in salt).

 

4. Cut down on saturated fat and sugar

Saturated fat - You need some fat in your diet, but it's important to pay attention to the amount and type of fat you're eating. There are 2 main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which increases your risk of developing heart disease.

Saturated fat is found in many foods, such as:

fatty cuts of meat

  • sausages
  • butter
  • hard cheese
  • cream
  • cakes
  • biscuits
  • pies

Try to cut down on your saturated fat intake and choose foods that contain unsaturated fats instead, such as vegetable oils and spreads, oily fish and avocados.

For a healthier choice, use a small amount of vegetable or olive oil, or reduced-fat spread instead of butter, lard or ghee. When you're having meat, choose lean cuts and cut off any visible fat.

 

Sugar - Regularly consuming foods and drinks high in sugar increases your risk of obesity and tooth decay. Free sugars are any sugars added to foods or drinks, or found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices and smoothies. This is the type of sugar you should be cutting down on, rather than the sugar found in fruit and milk. Many packaged foods and drinks contain surprisingly high amounts of free sugars.

Free sugars are found in many foods, such as:

  • sugary fizzy drinks
  • sugary breakfast cereals
  • cakes
  • biscuits
  • pastries and puddings
  • sweets and chocolate
  • alcoholic drinks

Food labels can help. Use them to check how much sugar foods contain.

 

5. Eat less salt

Even if you do not add salt to your food, you may still be eating too much. About three-quarters of the salt you eat is already in the food when you buy it, such as breakfast cereals, soups, breads and sauces. Use food labels to help you cut down. More than 1.5g of salt per 100g means the food is high in salt.

 

6. Are you thirsty rather than hungry?

You need to drink plenty of fluids to stop you getting dehydrated. The government recommends drinking 6 to 8 glasses every day. All non-alcoholic drinks count, but water, lower fat milk and lower sugar drinks, including tea and coffee, are healthier choices. Try to avoid sugary soft and fizzy drinks, as they're high in calories. They're also bad for your teeth. Even unsweetened fruit juice and smoothies are high in free sugar. Remember to drink more fluids during hot weather or while exercising.

 

7. Do not skip breakfast

Some people skip breakfast because they think it'll help them lose weight. But a healthy breakfast high in fibre and low in fat, sugar and salt can form part of a balanced diet, and can help you get the nutrients you need for good health. A wholegrain lower sugar cereal with semi-skimmed milk and fruit sliced over the top is a tasty and healthier breakfast.


Exercise

Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, and ADHD. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts your overall mood. And more importantly, you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. Research indicates that modest amounts of exercise can make a real difference. No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn to use exercise as a powerful tool to deal with mental health problems, improve your energy and outlook, and get more out of life.

 

Mental health benefits of exercise

Even if you’re not suffering from a mental health problem, regular physical activity can still offer a welcome boost to your mood, outlook, and mental well-being. Exercise can help provide:

 

  • Sharper memory and thinking. The same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.
  • Higher self-esteem. Regular activity is an investment in your mind, body, and soul. When it becomes habit, it can foster your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong and powerful. You’ll feel better about your appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, you’ll feel a sense of achievement.
  • Better sleep. Even short bursts of exercise in the morning or afternoon can help regulate your sleep patterns. If you prefer to exercise at night, relaxing exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching can help promote sleep.
  • More energy. Increasing your heart rate several times a week will give you more get-up-and-go. Start off with just a few minutes of exercise per day, and increase your workout as you feel more energized.
  • Stronger resilience. When faced with mental or emotional challenges in life, exercise can help you build resilience and cope in a healthy way, instead of resorting to alcohol, drugs, or other negative behaviours that ultimately only make your symptoms worse. Regular exercise can also help boost your immune system and reduce the impact of stress.

Manage your expectations

The suggestion that periods of quarantine might bring unprecedented productivity implies we should raise the bar, rather than lower it. Do not underestimate the cognitive and emotional load that this pandemic brings, or the impact it will have on your productivity, at least in the short term. Difficulty concentrating, low motivation and a state of distraction are to be expected. Adapting will take time. Go easy on yourself. As we settle into this new rhythm of increased remote working and continued restrictions, we need to be realistic in the goals we set, both for ourselves and others in our charge. 

 

Know your own personal red flags

One way to manage moments of distress is to identify key thoughts or physical sensations that tend to contribute to your cycle of distress and feelings of being overwhelmed. Our thoughts (“Why can’t I concentrate?”), feelings (frustration, worry, sadness), physical sensations (tension, upset stomach, jitters) and actions (such as compulsively checking the latest COVID statistics) each feed into and amplify these negative emotional spirals. Addressing one aspect of this loop by, for example, actively reducing the physical symptoms (e.g. use box breathing: breathe in for four counts, hold for four, breathe out for four and hold for four, then repeat) can de-escalate the cycle and help you regain control.

 

Routine is your friend, not your enemy!

As mentioned above, routine helps to manage overall anxiety, and will help you to adapt more quickly to this current everchanging reality. Create clear distinctions between study and non-study time, ideally in both your physical workspace and your head space. Find something to do that is not University work and is not virus-related that brings you joy. Studying in short bursts with clear breaks will help to maintain your clarity of thought.

 

Be compassionate with yourself and with others

There is much that we cannot control right now, but how we talk to ourselves during these challenging times can either provide a powerful buffer to these difficult circumstances or amplify our distress. Moments of feeling overwhelmed often come with big thoughts, such as “I cannot do this,” or “This is too hard.” This ongoing pandemic will cause a lot of stress for many of us, and we cannot be our best selves all the time. But we can ask for help or reach out when help is asked of us. 

 

Maintain connections

Even the most introverted of us need some sense of connection to others for our mental as well as our physical health. We have created Brew & Chat, held every Tuesday at 2pm, where you can contribute or just sit back and enjoy the chatter. We are more isolated than ever before, but we need not feel alone. Reach out to those who might be particularly isolated. 

 

Manage uncertainty by staying in the present

Take each day as it comes and focus on the things you can control. This will probably be a stressful time for all of us; by embracing good mental-health and well-being measures, and by relying on others when necessary, we can protect ourselves and those around us.

Mindfulness and meditation can be great tools to help us persevere through our current lifestyle changes.


7 tips to improve your mindfulness 

  1. Meditate - Taking even just 5 minutes to sit quietly and follow your breathing, can help you feel more conscious and connected for the rest of your day.
  2. Focus on one thing at a time - Studies have found that tasks take 50% longer with 50% more errors when multi-tasking, so consider “uni-tasking”, with breaks in between, whenever possible.
  3. Slow down - Savour the process, whether it’s writing a report, drinking a cup of tea, or cleaning out closets. Deliberate and thoughtful attention to daily actions promotes healthy focus and can keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
  4. Eat mindfully Eating your meal without the TV, computer or paper in front of you, where you can truly taste and enjoy what you’re eating, is good, not only for your body, but for your soul as well.
  5. Keep phone and computer useage in check - With all of the media at our fingertips, we can easily be on information overload. Set boundaries for screen time – with designated times for social networking (even set an alarm) – and do your best to keep mobile devices out of reach at bedtime.
  6. Move - Whether it’s walking, practicing yoga, or just stretching at your desk, become aware of your body’s sensations by moving.
  7. Spend time in nature - Take walks through a park, the woods, mountain trails or by the beach – wherever you can be outside. Getting outdoors is good for body, mind and spirit, and keeps you in the present.

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