I truly believe in practising what you preach. If you’re not prepared to do something then you shouldn’t be asking other people to do this. This is as true for Clinical Psychology as it is for cutting down on plastics or flying less air miles. And it’s almost easier to enact for Clinical Psychology because it actually does help life go a bit better immediately. Taking a deep breath when I’m stressed actually does help me focus. Spotting my critical voice when I’m beating myself up really does help me get some perspective.
Keeping mentally healthy is more than just using a strategy when things feel tough. It’s about taking responsibility for looking after yourself, all of the time. That’s not always easy when you’re under pressure, but we’ve got to do what you can. In an age where everything moves fast than it did before (apparently, we’re taking in 5 times the amount of information we did in 1986) we can forget to prioritise ourselves sometimes. Plus, in an age of climate catastrophe and the drive to improve, be better, bigger, faster, we can sometimes neglect ourselves as we focus on the bigger picture. But actually, we need to focus on ourselves, otherwise we can’t tackle any of those other problems.
So, I like to walk. I try and do 10 000 steps a day. It’s an arbitrary target perhaps but a nice round number (and helps to off-set the chocolate/cake I like to eat from time to time). I try to build a walk into my daily routine whenever I can. This isn’t easy. Family life is busy (sometimes crazy busy) and work is ever-present and demanding. But I feel better when I am healthy (that pretty much goes without saying) and I feel more awake and alive and I do a better job at work. I love particularly to walk in places where I can see nature and at the moment, I am really enjoying all the beautiful autumn colours and seeing the season slowly changing. It makes me glad to be alive. (As a complete aside I read a lovely quote this week which said “Autumn is nature’s way of showing us the beauty of change” which I love. Change can be hard and the loss of something (like the summer) can feel sad or bring us down, but autumn helps us remember that there is beauty even in loss and change).
For me, walking is far more than keeping my body healthy. It’s when I get time to think. To indulge in my musings. And when I get time to think I can make links between things. We know that when the brain is relaxed it works better and that movement can help us with learning too. So, for example if I’m thinking about someone I’m working with, I might be able to make a link between what they are telling me and what I know about Psychological theory or sometimes I’ve read in research (see to last week’s blog). Or between one client and another. Or between what they are telling me and what I should do that will help. Or working on formulation (ref last week’s blog). So I’m exercising my brain as I exercise my body. That’s good for my mental health and I feel like I’m doing a better job as a result, which gives me a sense of accomplishment.
I’ve started walking at the same time each week in the same place. It means that I’m seeing the same people every week and having walked past them, and then nodded at them, I’m now at the saying ‘hi’ phase as I pass them. I worry that they think I’m stupid, walking without a dog and doing circuits of the woods. But I park that worry and keep going, and I find that over time I’m making friends and connecting with people I used to see around but didn’t know. That’s lovely too, and all because I made the effort to get out and walk.
I have to walk fast, because I’ve always got something else to get onto and I don’t walk for that long or that far. But I’m getting exercise, fresh air, buoyed up by the beauty of trees, talking to people (albeit as I yomp past them!) and I feel good about myself for getting out and doing something. Plus, I’m practising what I preach. Getting out there and doing something really can help us feel better.
And we don’t have to wait until we’re struggling to do something. Being pre-emptive with a positive strategy is like insuring ourselves for the rocky times. And if we are struggling then taking the first step (literally or metaphorically) can be incredibly hard, but like autumn, change can be beautiful. I often tell kids I work with that bravery is not about not feeling scared. It’s about feeling scared and still taking the first step.
There are plenty of ways to keep ourselves mentally healthy and if walking is not your thing, then here are some other ideas: