Maintaining mental health takes work, whether that be via medication or lifestyle choices (it’s a combination of both for many). Whilst I’m not qualified to speak to the medical side of things, I can share with you 3 simple habits that I have built into my daily routine that have had a significant positive effect on my mental wellbeing, and I believe they are ones all of us can implicate.
#1: Sleep with your phone in another room
Just in the same way you might choose to take a shower before turning in for bed to wash away the day’s sweat and grime, so too does your brain need a little clean of its own. There is a reason why practices such as leaving your phone in another room have come to be known as aspects of ‘sleep hygiene’. Not only will the blue light of your phone screen flashing away in the night by your bedside block melatonin secretion i.e. the hormone that tells your brain its time for sleep, but then if you do wake up in the night, you will end up scrolling through messages, email and social media, further stimulating your nervous system and making that much needed sleep even more elusive.
But how will I wake up if my alarm is on my phone? Remember the old days before smart phones? What did you use? An analog alarm clock? Or *whisper it* the sunrise? Whilst the latter might seem a little risky to use as a reliable wake up call, you can get special alarm clocks that mimic a sunrise; you simply set the time you want to wake up and then half an hour before that a gentle light gradually becomes brighter. I often wake up before the set alarm with mine and what’s more, it feels like a gentle, natural awakening, which is then almost always followed by a better day ahead.
A lot of the benefits of sleeping without your phone can be swiftly undone if you immediately run next door to check it upon waking. The first hour of being awake is key. I actually wake up an hour earlier to have this precious time. Yes, in the winter months particularly it can be rough, but what I gain in that first hour is so worth factoring in an earlier bedtime.
#2: Wake up earlier
Being an early riser, caffeine is important to me and although everyone’s favourite morning drug has its naysayers, I believe when consumed mindfully, it can have tremendous benefits to mental health. Although it might feel like you need a cup of coffee to physically make it out of bed, the science shows that waiting at least an hour, even two if that’s possible makes your morning cup of joe way more useful. At the moment you wake up, your body’s cortisol levels, i.e. the ‘stress’ hormone, are at their highest. Meeting those with a blast of caffeine might feel like a fun trip in the moment, but as we know, what goes up must come down. The crash that follows a caffeine/cortisol party can feel rough and for many of us, a lot like depression. So don’t forgo your coffee, but delay it, that way you can also leave space to really feel the benefits of what you decide to implement in the first hour of your day.
The reason I haven’t called this habit ‘meditation’, is because it may not look like that for you. At present, I enjoy an un-timed sit which can sometimes go up to 20 minutes, but other days just 8 might be enough; I can usually tell. That seeming lack of structure has come from practise however, so if you’re new to meditating, I recommend that you do time yourself, starting short with just 5 minutes and then building up. You can also follow a guided meditation, which is really helpful if your thoughts get very busy as soon as you become still. You can try this one if you’re new.
If sitting still in silence isn’t your thing, maybe moving is. It doesn’t have to be a punishing workout or a long-winded yoga class, but maybe just 15 minutes of mindful movement to quieten the thoughts and let the body talk. This could be your own free movement, think dancing, shaking, shimmying, skipping, or if you need some guidance, try this. A lot of what causes us to feel anxious or depressed is the result of an emotional blockage that can’t always be worked out through talking alone, and often needs to be physically moved through the body to bring about feelings of lightness and clarity. As a chronic over-thinker, I have found movement and tapping into the language of the body to be a far more liberating form of therapy than any talking method.
It’s important to add here that not all of us are in a position to move with ease, or sit comfortably, whether that be due to injury, chronic pain or a disability. In these cases, writing can be a powerful tool. I and so many others I know swear by the practice of ‘morning pages’ taken from The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron.
In truth, even if your first hour upon rising was spent doing household chores, it would be incredibly beneficial for your mental health. This first hour isn’t so much about achieving something, or getting something done or ‘out of the way’, but instead it’s about having that time carved out for yourself where you can be fully present with yourself and whatever you choose to do. It is in the quality of your presence that you will find that one hour feels like 4 of the hours in your working day, when your attention is generally spread more thinly. Even when your day does end up becoming stressful, you’ll have that first hour to draw on as a baseline of calm awareness.
#3: Cold exposure!
Cold exposure has been used as therapy for millennia, but it really took off in 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Since people were already facing significant discomfort in their lives at the time, cold exposure seemed to provide an outlet, or even a focus for that discomfort. I personally used it, in the form of a 2 minute cold shower every morning, in conjunction with, and to support the reduction of, my anti-anxiety medication. The way it works is by improving the body’s response to anxiety triggers by reducing cortisol; that same hormone we try not to let spike in the morning by delaying our first cup of coffee. It has also been used in the treatment of those suffering with bipolar disorder, often seeing many into remission. The mood lifting qualities of cold therapy can be further enhanced by special breathwork, known as holotropic breathwork. A great free resource that introduces this is the Wim Hof Method.
As well as the psychological and physiological benefits, it would seem that cold therapy is significant in the bolstering of emotional wellbeing. Two people I know tragically lost their husbands last year, both of them in their early 30s, and both have become huge proponents of cold exposure. Their main reason behind doing this is to regularly face something challenging and uncomfortable as a reminder that they can do hard things. Wim Hof, the pioneer of the method by the same name that combines holotropic breathing with cold exposure was inspired to begin when he suddenly lost his wife to suicide. His working mantra is ‘You are stronger than you think you are’, and the regular cold dips and taking his senses to (healthy) extremes serve as his reminder, and perhaps yours too.