Section 3: Ways to maintain good mental health
All is going well. You like your new town, you’ve made new friends and you impress your new workmates with your polished clinical skills. Try some of the following exercises to help you stay on top of the world, make the most of your placement and maintain optimal mental wellbeing.
Tip: Find a comfortable and quiet place where you won’t be interrupted before practising these.
Abdominal breathing exercise
When you are stressed, directing your attention to your breathing enables you to slow and deepen your breaths. This can help reduce the feeling of tension or restlessness.
Learning to change your breathing to a more relaxed pattern is a simple, yet effective skill.
- Sit down with your legs crossed.
- Place one hand over your navel.
- Take a deep breath and blow it out completely through your mouth like a sigh.
- Allow your next breath to flow in by itself through your nose.
- Note: Your hand on your stomach should rise or move upward.
- Keep breathing through your nose and breathe in slowly for three seconds, then out for three seconds, and then repeat these slow breaths for at least a minute, or until effective.
- Note: If you catch yourself getting distracted or worrying about something during the exercise, just return to the breath, or jot the thought down somewhere so you don’t forget to deal with it later.
Most useful for: maintaining composure before a difficult task or conversation.
Muscle relaxation exercise
- Sit or recline comfortably with your eyes closed.
- Tense up one set of muscles e.g. arms or legs.
- Now let them go limp. If you do this effectively, the contrast between tensed and relaxed should show you what relaxed feels like – you want to remember that feeling.
- Move on to another set of muscles e.g. back, stomach or face.
- Now let them go limp. Notice the relaxed feeling. Try to hang on to it.
- Repeat for all muscle groups.
Most useful for: relieving physical tension or anxious, or if you have trouble getting to sleep.
Word repetition relaxation exercise
- Sit down with your legs crossed and close your eyes.
- Allow your muscles to relax completely, beginning with your feet and progressing up to your face.
- Breathe through your nose and direct your attention to the breath.
- As you breathe out say the word ‘ONE’ silently to yourself. For example, breathe in …then out … saying the word ‘ONE’, breathe in … then out … saying the word ‘ONE’, and so on. The repetition of ‘ONE’ will help to break the train of distracting thoughts.
- Note: There is no need to try and control the breath, just breathe naturally and rest your attention on the breath.
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.
- When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed, and then with your eyes open.
Most useful for: restoring focus or gaining clarity over a situation, before important decision making.
- Sit down with your legs crossed and close your eyes.
- Use one of the above exercises to relax yourself.
- When you are very relaxed, visualise yourself in a favourite place where you feel relaxed, peaceful, safe and tranquil.
- Imagine the sounds you can hear, the fragrances you can smell, how it feels to be there and the relaxed body sensations.
- For a couple of minutes just stay in that peaceful place enjoying these sensations.
- Imagine how you look while you’re there, feeling peaceful.
- Allow your mind to come back to the room you’re in.
- Move and stretch a little.
- Open your eyes and feel alert and refreshed.
Most useful for: during busy days or breaking through heavy moods and emotions, visualise your end goals using this same exercise for a motivation boost.
While you may not have practiced meditation most people have experienced a meditative state, or a ‘flow’ state. You may have felt this after driving or going on a run - suddenly you’re at your destination unable to account for the time that has just passed. This is because you were totally immersed in that activity, so much so that you became unaware of yourself, of time and place. On an elementary level, this is meditation!
Spending more time in such a state can help to centre and relax you. It may enable you to be more aware of yourself, your needs and the needs of others. It can bring increased clarity and calmness to your everyday life. It can also help your body to repair itself from the impact of stress and allow you to recharge your batteries both physically and mentally.
Find activities that can put you in a state of flow and ensure that they are included in your regular routine. The benefits of meditation may not be immediately apparent and regular meditation may be necessary before you notice a change in your everyday life.
A simple meditation technique is as follows: sit comfortably in a quiet place and close your eyes or have them slightly open. Bring your attention to your breath – simply observe the process of inhaling, exhaling, and the spaces in between.
You will probably catch yourself getting distracted by thoughts popping into your mind. This doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong or that you’re not trying hard enough, you’re just noticing how easy it is to become distracted and for the mind to wander. Just let these thoughts pass and return to your breath.
If you meditate regularly any noise or mindless chatter decreases and it is common for regular practitioners of meditation to report feelings of improved mood, cognition, and decision making. Regular practice of meditation has also been shown to increase ‘gray matter density’ in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory, as well as self-awareness and compassion.
If you’re interested in learning more about meditation or the benefits, there are some excellent apps available that make it easier for you to incorporate the practice into your life. Some of these include guided meditations or sessions that are specific to whatever mood you’re in, whether it be stressed, anxious or even happy. Check out section 8 for some handy meditation apps. This video also explains meditation in an understandable and relatable way.
”It is common for regular practitioners of meditation to report feelings of improved mood, cognition, and decision making”
The ability to release and let go is not only a great technique for relaxing if things are becoming overwhelming but is also excellent at helping to maintain good mental health. Where meditation is about letting go, mindfulness is about being in the present moment and just allowing whatever might be happening to happen. Just be aware of the present, accept and embrace what is happening. You can also practice mindful meditation, which is about focussing on one thing – this may be your breath or repeating a phrase under your breath. Whenever your mind begins to wander bring it back to your focus. Just be, moment to moment.
Check out this video.
Alcohol and drug use
A respectful relationship with alcohol and drugs means understanding the law and the effect that these substances can have on the body. You will find people abusing alcohol and other drugs in all settings, but rates of alcohol and drug abuse are higher in rural and remote areas. Beyond Blue provides up-to-date resources containing information on the effects of alcohol, cigarettes and illicit drugs, along with advice on how to manage problems with any of these substances.
Beyond Blue’s resources on alcohol and drug use are available. Black Dog Institute also have a podcast on this topic.
It’s easy to get into bad eating habits by skipping meals and not maintaining a balanced diet. You are a health professional in the making and you will be advising others on good eating. So, take a leafy-green vegetable out of your own book and eat it!
Regular exercise and a nutritious diet contribute to a strong and healthy body that will be better able to withstand the wear and tear of short and long-term stress. Exercise ‘burns off’ the excess physical energy created by stress, helping to prevent a slow drift towards a chronically stressed state.
Exercise can also be useful as a circuit breaker at the end of the day. It can help put a boundary between work and home and provide time for reflection or an escape from the daily grind (a “meditation” if you will). Not only that but getting involved in local sporting competitions is a great way to get to know people and build up a social support network in your new town. If ‘time out’ is what you’re after, consider joining the local gym or just going for a walk around the town with a friend.
More and more evidence is emerging about the importance of regular sleeping patterns in combating the steady onset of chronic disease, maintaining immune function and staving off the common cold. Lack of sleep is also strongly correlated with increased emotional reactivity, a more negative viewpoint, and an overall diminished ability to delay gratification.
Keeping a journal can be useful in helping you reflect on your experiences, keep track of your progress and set goals for your placement (and beyond).
Use your journal to undertake critical reflection of your experiences:
- Recall the event. Don’t include any judgements, but instead focus on what actually happened, not what could have happened.
- Reframe your experience, looking for and exploring positive feelings. Negative emotions, such as anger and fear, can block the reality of the situation and make it difficult to see other ways of looking at the whole view.
- Analyse the issues. Would you do anything differently if a similar event occurred again? Are there any old practices or attitudes that need to be replaced to deal with things better in the future?
- Use your journal to record your goals. Make sure they are in line with your priorities and are realistic and achievable.
Social support network
We are all individuals with different personal attributes and backgrounds. Along with different personal identities, everyone has different levels of need in how they can acknowledge or communicate with people similar to them. Such support can be provided by personal social support networks.
Establishing and maintaining a good social support network is essential for long-term wellbeing. Social support could come from inside the local community or from interest groups containing people with the same values or beliefs as yourself (e.g. places of worship, social events, cultural centres). Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students may benefit from connecting with Elders or community members in the town they are placed. These relationships can provide opportunities to confide painful feelings and help buffer all types of stress.
It is important to accept the support of others to avoid jeopardising your wellbeing. Setting aside regular times to debrief with other students, workmates and friends will help you manage stress, maintain a balanced lifestyle and avoid burn-out. Will you be courageous and speak up if you think a friend is doing it tough? Will your friends feel comfortable voicing any concerns they may have about you? This might be something you could all negotiate.
For more information on finding a community interest group/club and extending your social support network, speak to your university’s student experience officer, or visit the Reach Out.com website.
Maintaining a balanced lifestyle
Maintaining a balanced lifestyle is important for long-term wellbeing. The following strategy may help you to monitor where you are putting your time and energy and how well the different parts of your life are going. This exercise can be used regularly to appraise what is happening in your life, what is good about it and what could be better.
- Draw the spokes of a wheel.
- Label each spoke with an important part of your life e.g. one spoke for family, one for work, one for hobbies, one for study, one for a connection to culture.
- Give each spoke a mark out of ten depending on how well that part of your life is going – ten being the best, one being the worst. Mark a dot on the spoke to indicate this score, for example right at the centre of the wheel for one, right on the periphery for ten.
- Join the dots together and assess how round the wheel looks.
- The aim is to have the wheel as round as possible. A round wheel will indicate a holistic and broad base to your wellbeing. You look like you’re ready to roll!
- If you are allocating all your energy to only one or two areas of your life then the wheel (and your life!) will be off balance. This exercise may show areas of your life are being neglected and need attention.
Are you completely satisfied with how you use your time or do you think you could use your time more efficiently? Consider the following strategies:
- List all the things you want to get done.
- Separate the tasks into what MUST be done and what you WANT to get done. Then list what MUST be done in order of priority. Work through the MUST list first, one point at a time.
- Another way of drawing up this list of priorities is to categorise tasks under deadlines. Organise your list of tasks under the headings DO TODAY, DO BEFORE NEXT WEEK, DO BEFORE NEXT MONTH, and CAN WAIT. This is a simple way of working out tasks that are urgent and important, important but not urgent and not urgent or important.
- Identify the activities you would like to spend more time doing and the activities you would like to spend less time doing. Ask yourself “do I really need to be doing this right now?” and “how essential is this in achieving my goals?” It’s easy to find satisfaction alone in making your schedule for the day as efficient and lean as possible.
- Set some goals for yourself for the upcoming year or the upcoming placement. Think about how you can spend your time now in order to achieve these goals. What obstacles might be in the way and what steps can you take to avoid/overcome these? Can you manage them by yourself?
- When planning your time, space out rewarding and non-rewarding tasks. This will help you keep motivated during tasks that are less satisfying.
- Probably one of the most important time management strategies is learning to say ‘no’. Learning what not to do is as important as knowing what to do. Over-commitment is a sure road to exhaustion.
- Scheduling your days and writing to-do lists are extremely effective at increasing productivity. Have a go at scheduling out an entire day from the moment you wake up until a reasonably set curfew, and see how much you can fit in. Setting time limits and reminders for certain tasks using smart device calendars and organisational apps is a great method of maintaining focus and ensuring task completion.
- We are all prone to distractions, it is part of being human. Try making a list of the things that tend to distract you most and put in place strategies to help - this could mean leaving your phone in a different room!
- Part of effective time management is making sure you have time to relax, reflect and re-orientate yourself. Take the time to lie down, read or meditate. Make it part of your routine. This can deactivate the stress response for a while.