Optimal Mental Health: An Intentional Approach in the 21st Century Dr T Ayodele Ajayi

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It’s no myth that 21st century life is taking its toll on mental health. Though the UK figures for prevalence of mental health problems remain relatively static, there has been a steady increase in those with severe forms of common mental health conditions since the 1990s (NHS Digital, Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2014). Increased awareness and willingness to admit and report does not fully account for this spike. The other suspected factors include economic uncertainties, social media and unmitigated stress from various sources, including those experienced by young people relating to career progression.

Optimal mental health is no longer a given assumption. An intentional approach to maintaining mental wellbeing has become more relevant than ever.

What is Optimal Mental Health?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says ‘Mental health is a state of wellbeing, in which every individual realises his or her own potential; can cope with the normal stresses of life; can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’

Another way to look at it is as a spectrum, a continuum that we all sit on. At one end is mental health, where we are thriving, fulfilled and at ease. In the middle reaches, people can be described as coping, surviving or struggling. At the far end sits the range of mental illnesses. Most us move back and forth along this line our entire lives (The Guardian).

Conversely, the American Psychiatric Association expresses mental illnesses as ‘health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behaviour (or a combination of these). They are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.’  These conditions usually result as an outcome of a complex interaction of several vulnerabilities, which may be genetic (inherited), biological (relating to physical health conditions, infections, injuries or use of substances), or environmental (including unmitigated stress, social pressures, childhood adversity and trauma).

A simple quick-win approach to optimal mental health is aiming to care for your body, and treasure your important relationships.

Body-Mind Relationship

The enormous evidence that physical and mental wellbeing are very closely linked is convincing. Mental illnesses, particularly depression, occur more commonly in chronic physical health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. People with severe enduring mental illnesses also carry a higher risk of heart diseases and other chronic physical illnesses.

Regular exercise has been proven to be of benefit to both the body and mind. People involved in regular physical activity are at up to 30% lower risk of depression and dementia. Exercise releases endorphins (‘happy chemicals’) in the brain regions relating to mood regulation. The recommendation supported by the NHS is that adults aim to be active every day, and to achieve 150 minutes of physical activity over a week in a variety of ways. The intensity of physical activity that confers health benefits is one described as moderate. This is one in which your heart and breath rates are increased, and you feel warmer. One should still be able to talk, but not be able to sing the words to a song. 

Excessive alcohol, and use of any illicit intoxicants, puts mental health at great risk. The weekly safe recommended alcohol intake is no more than 14 units. One can of 4-5% lager contains 1.5 units of alcohol. Some apparently harmless beverages, such as caffeinated drinks – including tea, coffee, colas and energy boosters – are no less harmful, when taken in excess. Excessive caffeine is associated with anxiety, depression and impaired concentration. No more than a daily intake of four cups of coffee for non-pregnant adults (three cups for pregnant women) is deemed safe.

Sleep is a Healer

One of the myths of the 21st century is that you can improve productivity by cutting back on sleep time. The brain is restored and cleared of toxins during sleep. There is mounting evidence that chronic sleep deprivation is detriment to mental health. The question is ‘How much sleep is adequate?’ Most adults require an average eight hours at night to function optimally in the day. Clues that you are not getting enough include feelings of fatigue, undue daytime drowsiness, irritability and impaired concentration. Sleep deprivation is linked to mood disorders, anxiety, poor productivity and increased risk of accidents.

Treasure Relationships

Forget the bank balance for a moment. A crucial treasure to manage for optimal mental health are your relationships. Research shows that those who invest regular, quality time in meaningful relationships with friends and family live longer, and are more likely to be mentally sound. Lack of confiding relationships is a risk factor for depression. If you are too busy to spend regular time in relaxation and leisure, your schedule certainly needs a review.

Managing your thoughts is another important strategy to optimal mental health. This is however a theme worthy of a full article, so look out for the next article in this mental health series.

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