Today, the third Monday in January, is so called 'Blue Monday' – a claim initially made in 2005 by holiday company Sky Travel to be the most ‘depressing’ day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Fast forward fourteen years and the science behind the claim is certainly questionable and strongly challenged. However, like all catchy calendar awareness days, 'Blue Monday' continues to attract attention and it does offer us the opportunity to reflect on how we look after ourselves in these gloomy winter months.
I know lots of folk don’t care for, or actively disapprove, of new year resolutions. I however enjoy making them. As the year ends I get pleasure from reflecting on and smiling (and cringing) about the adventures, experiences and lessons of the year finishing and to think about the year ahead. For me it’s a chance for a reset; a chance to try to ditch some habits I don’t want, (re)commit to behaviours I do and set some new goals or challenges for the year ahead.
For at least the past 15 years I have made versions of the same resolutions; eat healthier, drink less alcohol, do more exercise. And each year I take two steps forward and one step back. I am not self-shaming, apologetic or remorseful that I don’t keep wholeheartedly to the regime but sometimes I do wish I tried a bit harder. I was once told that you could get away with bad health habits as long as you changed said habits before you were 30 (they weren’t a doctor so I don’t know how true that is!). And so as my 20s drew to a close - a decade in which I hadn’t cared too much for my physical health - that I started trying to change some habits including giving up smoking.
The initial driver for my exercise, food, tobacco and alcohol resolutions was improved physical health, but of course with the small changes I have made over time, I also noticed the mental benefits (or detriments). The evidence is really clear: what we eat, how much alcohol we drink and the exercise we do impacts our wellbeing.
As a social enterprise MHFA England fundamentally believes in the importance of self-care and it’s built into our policies and practices. As well as running our MHFA courses we use our social channels and digital content to promote positive wellbeing and self-care.
Since joining MHFA England in October 2018 I have been on a learning curve on lots of issues including self-care. In the 80s civil rights activist and poet Audre Lorde said ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’. We often think of self-care as luxuries and treats but it also includes how we live our life on an day to day basis – food, exercise, alcohol, working hours and screen time are some key areas that we can harness to look ourselves day to day.
This year as I planned my new food, exercise and alcohol resolutions, I had a quick hunt on the internet to learn a bit more about the impact of them on wellbeing. There is so much information available with a quick google search, but in summary;
What we eat impacts the chemicals in our brain: this blog from Harvard Medical School summarises the impact of diet on the brain and the ever increasing recognition of the link between food and mood. It includes links to systematic reviews showing the association between the quality of our diet and mental health across countries and cultures.
Alcohol is a depressant: whilst it can and does increase pleasure and relaxation when we drink in moderation, all the research shows that in the UK a significant number of us tend to drink too much, too often, frequently in response to stress which can contribute to a cycle of tiredness, stress, anxiety and depression. Loads more information at www.drinkaware.co.uk.
Exercise is good for the body and mind: the evidence shows it doesn’t have to be hard core athletics, squash or marathon running to reap the rewards of exercise. Regular moderate exercise – whatever our abilities and disabilities will allow – can improve stress, contribute to a positive sense of wellbeing, help us sleep better and boost our overall mood. This article takes wise ideas from psychology, behavioural economics, business and activism.
I don’t want to – or have any right to – be preachy in any of these areas. Nor, of course, am I suggesting that the universal panacea for mental health and wellbeing lies in each of us changing our eating, drinking and alcohol habits. For all sorts of reasons that might not be possible right now, or achievable without professional help and support.
And yet as I have said before the evidence is indisputable: however dark, cold and miserable it is outside or feels inside, if we can sustain the motivation and good intention of our new year’s resolutions, or indeed find the energy now to make some adjustments to our diet, drinking and exercise, however big or small those adjustments are, we will hopefully feel the positive benefits to our mental wellbeing.