How good is your mental diet?

 

According to statistics from Mental Health Research UK, there is a rising trend in people using NHS specialist mental health services, and mental health issues are actually responsible for more of the UK’s disease burden than physical illnesses…

The mind is also part of the body

The thing is, many of us are so caught up with trying to look after our bodies that we forget the mind is a part of that body too.  You only have to flick open your favourite glossy magazine to notice the stream of new diets that are apparently the answer to all of our weight problems.

Everywhere we look there’s a new diet that some celebrity is deploying as they wage war against the bulge.  And not too far away there’s usually some new superfood that’s been found growing on top of a misty mountain that is the new health panacea, that can now be bought in Sainsbury’s for just £4.99 for 100g.

Your mind needs nutrients too

All too often like a star pupil, our physical diet takes the limelight and our mental diet gets overlooked like the quiet child at the back of the classroom.  We eat this and avoid that, and do this exercise and that, all in the name of getting that perfect bod, but we pay little attention to what we feed our minds, and how we exercise our grey matter.

Lets stop to consider for a moment; If a poor physical diet = poor physical health then perhaps a poor mental diet = poor mental health…

Don’t let poisons sneak into your mind

Staying healthy is an ongoing battle which we need to remain ever vigilant of.  We have to stay perched on our lookout towers for environmental poisons from our air, water and endless food additives.  This is no simple task, these guys are in constant attack mode.

We also have lots of mental poisons sneaking through the back door whilst we’re on the lookout for their environmental counterparts.  And not only do we not try to avoid these guys, but many of us actually seek them out and welcome them in like little red riding hood actually inviting the big bad wolf in for a cuppa.  The big bad wolves I’m talking about here are sugar, stimulants, stress, bad news, gossip etc.

Be a snob when it comes to your mind

When we start to consider the impact of what we let into our minds, we soon begin to realise that if we want our mind to be a nice place to hang out, we have to treat it like a VIP bar and only let in exactly who we want.  But the problem is that nowadays, most of us have sent our doormen off for a cigarette and coffee, and meanwhile all sorts of troublemakers have come into our bar, begun causing trouble, and ruined the atmosphere.

A chain of events

What we allow into our mind affects what we think about, and our thoughts can create very real chemical and physical responses in our bodies.  For example, if you took a few moments to imagine that you were chewing on a lemon, you may actually salivate. By allowing lots of negativity into our minds we can have a detrimental impact on our mood and potentially our health.

Our thoughts trigger our emotions, which create our feelings, which affect our mood, which dictates our actions and so on…

Add in the good & remove the bad

It’s not just what we put into our minds that is important, it’s also what we don’t put in.  Just like with a physical diet, what you keep out is just as important as what you put in.  When following a healthy physical diet we often take care to put in lots of healthy green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, which are all great.  But this can all be undone if we add in sugar, caffeine, trans-fats and alcohol on top, as these things can negate the effect of the good stuff by draining vitamins and minerals from our bodies.

You can design your mental landscape

According to neuroscientists, our brain changes according to what we dwell on. Essentially we become what we think about.  The term for this is ‘Neuroplasticity’.  So by choosing to focus on more positive things, rather than negative things, the landscape of our mind can become more positive.

In order to help point you in the right direction, here are my four top tips for improving your mental diet and tipping your scales in favour of the positive side and lightening up on the negative:

1. Balance the scales…

Many of us regularly think regular negative thoughts about ourselves, life, and other people. This is very normal, but let’s add some objectivity to the process.  So the next time you criticise yourself for something you don’t like about you or something you did, try to balance the scales with a positive comment, such as “I’ve put on a couple of pounds, – but my eyes are nice”.

Aim to balance every negative you place on your thought scales, with a positive on the other side, by at least a 1:1 ratio.  Ideally go for more like 1:2 or 1:3 if you can.  Over time you’ll notice this actually starts to come naturally, and you’ll automatically be able to look for the positive in things.  Remember, our mind’s are wired to more easily seek out negatives than positives, so this is a way of redressing the balance.

2. Avoid too much gossip…

Most of us love a good chinwag don’t we? But remember, our minds become what we dwell on. If our chin-wagging is regularly focused on negativity we will over time become more negative. And let’s be honest here, most gossip is rarely of the positive kind. Negative chat is a bit like constant exposure to bad news, which leads me to my next point…

3. Try a four week media diet…

Due to our inbuilt tendency to pay more attention to bad news, we have a media that capitalises on this fact by pumping out story after story of disaster, scandal and doom. They do this because they know our minds’ are attracted to it. Scan through a newspaper today, listen to it on the radio, or watch it on the tv and count the ratio of positive to negative stories.  You’ll find it’s tipped heavily in favour of the negative.

Is there really this much more bad stuff than good stuff happening in the world?The news gives us an unbalanced and negative view of the world and of other people.  So why not give yourself a 30 day break from the doom and gloom and see if your mood improves.  Most people report that it definitely does, as well as an enhanced opinion of the world and the people in it.

4. Check your physical diet…

The mind and body are one organism, and what you feed your body you feed your mind.  Life is frantic, and frantic living requires energy for us to keep up with it. Our brain runs on glucose, aka ‘carbs’, but many of us give it the wrong type in that we give it sugar.

Sugar is a super-fast hit of glucose which lifts you quickly. But the brain is wired to receive its glucose slowly and steadily over a period of hours from things like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, pulses and seeds etc, not from the fast sugars found in sweets, cakes, white bread, biscuits, white pasta, and sugar itself.

In the modern world although we have more food than ever, most of us are starving. And I’m not talking about the third world, I’m talking about the western world.  We’re eating more calories than ever, but getting less nutrients than ever.  All of the things that create our brain power and mood etc are created from amino acids found in protein, and vitamins and minerals.  So a diet deplete of these things will result in a less than healthy state of mind.

Our over-proceeded diets of white refined goods such as bread, biscuits, energy drinks, etc are our mental healths’ worst enemy.  Combine a poor diet with all of the pollution in our air and metals in our water and it’s a recipe for disaster.  The antioxidants that our bodies need to filter out things such as metals are found in vitamins which are found in fresh foods such as vitamin C that comes from peppers, strawberries and spinach etc.

So starting today, let’s get fresh and start treating our brain’s like the amazing tools they are, and stop feeding them foods our grandparents wouldn’t even have recognised as food. Natural real foods are the way forward, and don’t let any glossy magazine diet tell you otherwise.

 

Jonathan Pittam
Corporate resilience & wellbeing coach, Consultant, Writer, Speaker



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