This year, mental health has been on the agenda like never before. With lockdown, financial and job pressures, family demands and more – we are all feeling the strain and probably talking about it more than usual.
Having said that, it can still be difficult to address mental health issues. In November, as we focus on male health, it’s time to look specifically at male mental health.
The Men’s Health Forum statistics show that over 12% of men are suffering from one of the common mental health disorders, and nearly 200,000 men report stress, depression or anxiety caused or made worse by work. Sadly men often make less use of access to support and are over twice as likely to ignore a mental issue over a physical one – citing embarrassment about seeking help.
Stress can severely impact our mental wellbeing, as well as our ability to perform. This can be both in a physical way, as well as cognitively.
First of all it must be emphasized, however, that not all stress is bad. Mild stress, such as the kind of nervousness that gives you the motivation to do your best when it counts, can be labelled as ‘good stress’ or eustress. This kind of stress is positive, it can energise, our bodies can handle it and it is generally short-lived. Eustress is vital for people like athletes who need to get ready for a big match for example.
The kind of stress we want to limit is distress. This can feel negative, energy-depleting, and can be a long term pressure that might lead to mental or physical illness. These can include disrupted digestive health that can compromise our immune system. It can also manifest in poor quality and disrupted sleep, increased reliance on stimulants and depressants like caffeine and alcohol, an inability to focus or concentrate and big swings in mood. If you are experiencing some (or maybe all) of the above then it could be a sign that you’re overly stressed. If you are exercising, this would mean reduced capacity to work hard, and can result in injury as you’re less on form than usual.
For me, exercise has always been a way to help body and mind and I train as much for one as I do for the other. Why does it help stress? Well, the physical activity produces feel-good neurotransmitters, otherwise known as endorphins. It will also help your cardiovascular system and your digestive system and help these systems to work to protect your body from stress. Exercise will also promote better sleep, which can easily be disturbed if you’re stressed out.
For me exercise can be like a moving meditation as I switch off from the stresses I’m experiencing and focus on my body’s movements and I find I’ve relaxed by the end of it. A study entitled ‘Stress in America’ cited that 53% of adults say they feel good about themselves after exercise, 35% say it puts them in a good mood, and 30% say they feel less stressed.
I have worked with a lot of high achievers over the years, and a lot of them have needed support to take care of their mental health, as well as being pushed and challenged physically. The two are firmly intertwined.
Many of the causes of stress are not just going to disappear overnight, so we must find ways to cope, and limit the impact on our mental and physical health, as well as our performance. Here are my top three tips for coping with stress.
- Do cardio.
Harvard Medical School published in their Men’s Health Watch journal: ‘Aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart’, and went on to say, ‘Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits’.
Studies have shown that the type, intensity and duration of the cardio makes a big difference when it comes to managing stress. High intensity exercise can actually put the body under stress, so when it comes to stress management ‘low and slow’ is a good motto. Longer and slower activities like jogging, walking, swimming and cycling are best. And as Harvard says, consistency is key.
Of course we breathe all the time, but one of obvious signs of stress is shallow breathing. In its worst form this can lead to a panic attack. Taking time to specifically focus on the breath is vital. For me, vital every day. A great way to do this is to spend the 10 minutes in the morning between taking your Symprove and having your tea/coffee/breakfast by doing some focused breaking exercises.
Here is a very simple one to try. Get comfortable in a place where you won’t be disturbed and close your eyes. Inhale deeply through your nose, expanding your chest for 4 seconds, then do a longer slow exhalation through your month for a count of 8, and repeat. If 10 minutes seems too long try just 5 and then build up. You’re actually meditating at this point, but don’t worry I won’t tell anyone (wink). Also use this trick before a performance, when things feel slightly overwhelming or before bed. Yoga can help too to calm breathing and also add some gentle stretching to your day.
- Take care of what you take in.
This applies to the food you consume but also the information too. I take care that when things are stressful I go back to basics that I know will support my mental and physical health. These are a whole food diet, and lowering alcohol and caffeine to preserve my sleep and maintain my gut health. As well as this I may choose to turn certain notifications off on my phone or just limit the news to 30 minutes per day so I can ensure I’m filling my environment with positivity, and my body with goodness. This is not burying your head in the sand, it is being smart and selective about what you choose to make your daily reality consist of, as we are a product of that daily reality after all.
If you are just starting on your fitness journey I would encourage you to do three simple things.
- Try to add some walking into your week. So simple and easy to do, but so effective for mental and physical health. Perhaps schedule in some a few times in your schedule and try to stick to them.
- Find a friend to exercise with. Having someone to be accountable to will help to motivate and chances are you’ll get some things off your chest by talking while you’re working out – so there’s a double mental and physical benefit right there!
- Just start with ten minutes – even a short period of exercise can bring benefits.
Finally, I would urge anyone feeling stressed to reach out and tell people. Real strength lays in sharing problems and concerns and then finding solutions to challenges. Take care of your mind and your body and in the long term they will thank you and take care of you back.