The state of your mind is so much more than a diagnosis, says Sarah Hamid-Balma, director of mental health promotion at the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association. "You can be someone who has a diagnosed mental illness and have good mental health," she says; and conversely, "you can have no diagnosed illness and poor mental health."
The secret to staying well? Nurturing yourself both physically and mentally – that means good nutrition and exercise, to start with – and avoiding excess stress and anxiety, which "can keep going and turn into a more serious problem." Need somewhere to start? Here are seven ways to take care of your mind and soul.
Pick up a bedtime hobby
Poor-quality sleep is rampant, says psychologist and sleep expert Colleen E. Carney, co-author of Goodnight Mind: Turn Off Your Noisy Thoughts and Get a Good Night's Sleep, and it's linked to a myriad of mental health problems. She suggests disengaging from the mad rush for an hour before bedtime and "giving your mind permission just to be," by doing something you enjoy: knitting, painting model planes, reading a novel or taking a bath.
Get your news in print
One huge culprit keeping us from resting well, says Dr. Meir Kryger, former chair of the U.S. National Sleep Foundation, is our addiction to 24-hour news coverage. "I got a big uptick in patients with insomnia right after 9/11," he says. "Looking at something over and over again is upsetting and interferes with sleep." The solution Kryger recommends? "Turn off the bloody TV."
Join a book club
"There's now more and more evidence that not only physical, but also mental activity is a positive thing that you can do for your brain," says Dr. Larry Chambers, scientific adviser for the Alzheimer Society of Canada. "One really important thing is to keep active socially," Chambers adds, as well as doing things "that force you to think and then talk to people about issues." By joining a book club, for instance, you'll build a regular socially and mentally stimulating activity into your schedule, helping keep your mind sharp.
Brush your teeth
Practising mindfulness, a form of meditation, has been shown to improve concentration and memory, boost immune system function, help us manage stress and increase positive feelings – but for many of us, staying focused on the present, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, is challenging. As a gateway into the formal practice, suggests Sheri Van Dijk, author of Calming the Emotional Storm, try being present in everyday rote tasks such as brushing your teeth. "Focus on the feel of the toothbrush in your mouth," she says. "Count your strokes, and talk to yourself about your experience to keep yourself in the moment."
Take a child for a walk
Adding more walking to your day "can help you shake out a lot of stress before you go to work and as you're going home," says Hamid-Balma, who notes that after just 10 minutes of walking, most people will rate their mood as higher. To make the walks more mindful, she says to put the smartphone away and stay present. Another way to do that is to walk with a child. "Take that child's view, noticing the cherry blossom petals on the ground or how cool a pine cone feels in your hands," she says. "You will see that everything is fresh and new."
See it and say it
Forgetfulness is normal at any age, but getting older can definitely make certain kinds of memory worse, says Angela Troyer, program director of neuropsychology and cognitive health at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto. She recommends a memory trick called "see it and say it." For example, if you're in the basement doing laundry and notice you're out of detergent, see yourself writing it on your shopping list, and say out loud, "I need to add detergent to the list." "It's a really powerful little tool," Troyer says. "The research shows people are 50 per cent more likely to remember something."
Remember to breathe
"Stress is a choice," says Danielle Mika Nagel, studio director at Chopra Yoga Center in Vancouver. "It's how you are choosing to react." She suggests bringing regular breath awareness into your day by picking a routine, repeated task – say, replying to an e-mail, or making a phone call – and adding a full, deep inhale and exhale before proceeding. "Breath awareness is important to bring your attention to the present moment," she adds. "If you start breathing deeply through the day, your reactions will be responses rather than a sense of attack or reaction."