How exercise affects mental health

I’m sure we’ve all heard that exercise is good for our mental health. But how exactly does it work and what type of exercise is the most effective?

Just like with any treatment, there is no one size fits all. We’re all different and I advice my clients to find their own, personal formula based on what kind of results they are looking for.

Below is a description of how exercise can help a variety of mental health issues. You may want to experiment to find the right program for you. Try keeping a mood journal and record how you felt before, during and after exercising to figure out what works best for you.

Depression and low mood

When we are depressed we generally have a deficit of the feel good hormone serotonin. Scientific studies show that exercise increases both serotonin production and release, making it a really effective mood booster. The most helpful forms of exercise for this is cardio / aerobic exercise, such as running, dancing or cycling.

Stress and anxiety

When we are stressed or anxious our bodies are in the so called “fight or flight mode”, producing an excess of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise reduces these and also promotes endorphins, the brains natural mood elevators. When we are stressed or anxious blood flow to the brain is also reduced. Exercising will increase blood (and thereby oxygen) to the brain. Vigorous exercise such as HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or spinning is the most effective for this, but other types of exercise, such as walking or swimming work as well.

Confidence and self esteem

All types of exercise help us to be more connected with our bodies and what we can do. This has a positive effect on our confidence and self esteem. Also, when engaging in any type of exercise for a number of months, we can see our performance improve, which naturally boosts our sense of achievement. The key is finding a type of exercise that you enjoy and can incorporate into your daily life, so that you’re more likely to stick with it.

Meaningful activity and distraction

The most prevalent thought processes in depression as well as anxiety are worrying and rumination. In general we tend to have too much time to think unhelpful thoughts and therefore any activity that takes us out of our own head and gives us a break from incessant thinking is good for our mental health. The best types of exercise for this are ones that require a lot of focus, like ball sports, mountain biking or yoga.

Loneliness and isolation

We humans are hardwired for connection and the isolation of our modern lifestyles has been linked to increasing rates of mental health issues. Participating in group activities, such as team sports will build connections and help us achieve a sense of belonging.

Connection with nature

The benefits of being in nature is well documented in relation to mental health, as green spaces and fresh air both contribute to lower stress hormones and increase wellbeing. Any activities that you can do in nature will therefore give you extra benefits. Some nature related activities include hiking, kayaking and wild swimming (*New research is showing that wild swimming is a particularly effective treatment for anxiety and depression as the cold water boosts circulation, regulates our breathing and boosts endorphins.)

How to be kind to yourself

I speak a lot to my clients about being kind to yourself. I think in our eagerness to be liked and to please others we often forget that we are people too and that we can hurt ourselves way more than we realise.

Do you criticise yourself incessantly in your own mind? Do you think unkind thoughts about your appearance, abilities or behaviour? Do you set yourself unrealistic targets and then feel frustrated with yourself when you don’t achieve them? Do you hold yourself to higher standards than you would anyone else?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you’ve probably got an active inner critic. Your inner critic is like a bully living inside your head, telling you you’re never good enough and making you feel inferior to everyone else around you. Listening to the inner critic can be tiring and frustrating in the short term and in the long term it can wear us down and completely obliterate our confidence and self worth. It’s a lonely and scary place to be.

Here are some of my best tools for silencing the inner critic and learning to be kind to yourself:

  • Therapy. Our inner critic is part of a construct in our minds known as conditioning. It is an obscured version of things we have learned through our experiences. Through therapy we can uncover some of our subconscious  beliefs and learn to relate to ourselves with more kindness and compassion.
  • Affirmation. Using positive language when talking about ourselves (out loud as well as in our thoughts) is really important when it comes to changing our inner dialogue. Training the mind to replace harsh words with kindness can feel strange and uncomfortable at first, but if you persist you will eventually become your own cheerleader rather than bully. Try thinking things like: “I believe in myself” or “I am doing my best” and see how different it feels to your usual inner chat.
  • Nourish yourself. Treat yourself as you would treat someone you love. Not just with kind words but with action and gestures as well. Buy yourself flowers, give yourself time to relax, treat yourself to something you love or take yourself on a day out. We are all busy, but when we don’t prioritise ourselves and our own needs we are basically telling ourselves that we’re not worthy of being treated well.
  • Set boundaries. Many of us are people pleasers and think that kindness means putting other people first. This is not the case. You respect others by respecting yourself. If you are constantly compromising yourself to please other people, not only is it depleting you, it is affecting your relationships as well and you may become resentful over time.

If you are suffering from “internal bullying” and would like to learn to be kinder to yourself, contact me to book a consultation appointment:

What is Interfaith?

Since the beginning of time us humans have wondered about the mysteries of life. We have asked ourselves and each other “What’s the meaning of life?” “Why are we here?” I personally believe that engaging with these questions and finding a sense of purpose in our lives is crucial to our wellbeing and fulfilment.

In our modern and increasingly secular world, where we have access to so much information, we can look to for example religion, science, mythology, spiritual and psychological practices to answer these fundamental questions at the core of our very existence. We can create our own world view, based on what makes sense to us personally and we can try different approaches to help us find our truth.

Interfaith is about inclusion, not comparison. It is about acknowledging each path for its contributions to the whole. It is about allowing every person to find their way of engaging with the fundamental mysteries of life in a way that is meaningful and illuminating to them.

The world’s religions supply a wealth of information, insight and practical tools for living in harmony with the world, as do many other schools of thought based on philosophy, science and modern spirituality. Interfaith is about respecting and honouring the truth in each path, whilst navigating the terrain in a way that feels authentic to one’s own belief system. It is unity through diversity, bringing understanding and open-mindedness to shine a light on our own as well as other’s exploration of life.

My work is deeply influenced by this approach on every level as I facilitate individuals in their own unique search. My commitment is to meeting people where they are and creating services that allow them to unfold into their own truth and deeper meaning through personal therapy, courses, workshops and ceremony.

Therapy

Through counselling I offer a safe space to make sense of your feelings, thoughts and experiences. I support you to get to know yourself as you really are, so that you can show up fully and live your life authentically. You will be guided to look inwards, to find your own answers and make any changes you feel necessary to your inner and outer life.

Courses & Workshops

My courses and workshops incorporate different mindfulness based techniques to help you develop a deeper understanding of yourself and the world. I design all my own content for a wide range of subjects such as learning mindfulness, facilitating personal growth and coping with stress and anxiety. My courses and workshops are suitable for everyone, regardless of background or experience.

Ceremony

Through the Interfaith approach I offer complete flexibility in creating a ceremony that is personal, unique and meaningful to you, with or without any religious or spiritual elements. I will guide you through the process of choosing words, readings, music, traditions and rituals.

Through my registration with the Interfaith Seminary I am authorised to solemnise opposite sex as well as same sex marriages and civil partnerships. Your wedding ceremony can be as creative, personal, romantic, lighthearted or quirky as you like – the important thing is that it is “you”.

5 quick and easy tools for dealing with stress

As a therapist and mindfulness coach I am seeing a massive increase in stress and anxiety. It seems to be endemic in our modern culture and while they are normal human responses to our increasingly hectic lifestyles, many people are struggling to cope. If you are suffering from chronic stress and / or anxiety I would advise a long-term program of lifestyle changes including diet, exercise, mindfulness practice and therapy.

But in times of intense stress and overwhelm it can seem impossible to find enough calm and control to start incorporating such changes. Some days are more difficult than others and sometimes we just need simple, foolproof tools to calm down fast, reboot our nervous system and find some equilibrium within ourselves to carry on.

These are some of my best tips to help combat short-term stress, based on physiological, neurological and psychological approaches. I teach some combination of these and other techniques to all of my clients. They are super easy and can be used any time, anywhere. There is no need to practice all of these, find the ones that work best for you and use them as often as you need.

1. 4-5-6 breathing. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 5, breathe out for a count of 6. Repeat as many times as you like. Making the exhalation longer than the inhalation calms the nervous system and the mind. You can do this as part of a mindfulness practice, sitting in stillness with your eyes closed or out in the world, during stressful times at work, on the bus, in the supermarket etc. It is also a useful practice to help you get to sleep at night.

2. Acupressure points. Identify the middle of your palm (where your two middle fingers are touching your palm when you close your hand to make a fist). Press into this point with the thumb of your other hand. This acupressure point is connected to the nervous system and pressing it helps activate your calm response. This technique is particularly useful in stressful social situations as it can be done quite discreetly without other people noticing.

3. Brain dump. When too many thoughts are going through your brain at once and you can’t make heads or tails of anything, try writing your thoughts on a piece of paper or in a journal. The act of transferring your thoughts onto paper allows the mind to let go of them a little bit and make some space in your head for peace. Try doing this before going to bed if you struggle to “switch off” and get to sleep.

4. Aromatherapy oil. Soothing oils like lavender in a diffuser, on your wrists or on a tissue to smell can help soothe stress. (*It is important to get your oils from a trained aromatherapist and only use them as instructed. **Always consult a medical professional before using aromatherapy oils if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have any medical conditions)

5. Mantra. If part of your stress response is to get caught in a loop of worrying thoughts try a short, reassuring mantra and repeat it over and over to yourself quietly or out loud. Try something like “All will be well.” “I am safe.” “Everything is going to be OK.” or “I am calm and relaxed.” It can take a little bit of time but eventually this new thought will begin to drown out the negative ones.

 

Please note that these exercises are quick tools to calm down in the moment. They are not a long-term solution for dealing with severe stress or anxiety. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to book a free consultation session.

 

New Year – New You? Why new years resolutions don’t work – and what to do instead

We all know new year’s resolutions don’t work. Probably from our own, personal experience. Yet every year we seem to get swept up in the January frenzy of gym memberships, new eating habits and grand plans to suddenly change every area of our lives.

There is usually nothing wrong with our intentions or our motivation. We genuinely do want to change and become healthier, happier versions of ourselves. And why shouldn’t we? As humans I believe we all have a tendency for growth and development. So, why is it that about 80% of new years resolutions fail by February?

 

  • Not enough genuine desire. Often the goals we set for ourselves are based on what we think we should want, rather than what we genuinely want. We often feel that our goals need to have obvious benefits, like improved health or financial gain. When we go a little deeper and connect with our true selves, we often find that such goals aren’t really that important to us at all and that there are real dreams within us, which we have been ignoring because they don’t seem to be in line with our current lifestyles.
  • Limiting beliefs. When we uncover some of our true dreams and goals we often realise that the reason we haven’t acknowledged them or acted upon them is because of deep-rooted fears and limiting beliefs. We might think we aren’t good enough, or that we don’t have what it takes to live the kind of life we want. We all have a comfort zone, which we attempt to live within. It protects us from fear and keeps us “comfortably numb”. But this numbness can become painful. It is a sign that we are switched off from ourselves and living a life which is less than we desire. Using tools for self-love and changing our inner dialogue to a more positive one can help us overcome fear and limiting beliefs.
  • Not enough discipline. A lot of transformation comes down to changing the things we do every day and changing our habits ultimately relies on discipline. There is a lot of research out there, suggesting that it takes roughly a month to change a habit but the truth is that habits are not a one time decision. They are a constant choice that we make day after day, so to change them takes a lot of planning, determination and stamina. Understanding this is key to making successful long term changes.
  • Unrealistic expectations. If we expect to change every area of our lives overnight, we are not being realistic. If that could be done we would all have done it a long time ago. While January is a good time to set goals and intentions, there are still 11 other months of the year to work on realising them. Small steps create big change and if we can learn to play the long game with realistic expectations, we will be that much closer to living the lives of our dreams by December 2019.

If you want to learn more about this and make 2019 your best year yet, then join me on my day workshop “Transform your life – transform yourself” on January 5th 12-4pm at Calm on Canning street in Edinburgh (£50)

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