The holiday season is upon us, and most people are already in a heightened mode of operation. There is activity everywhere, to wrap up the end-of-year tasks, do the Christmas shopping, prepare for family reunion or travelling, and so on; followed by two or three weeks of change from our routines. This can be all good fun, and a restorative period for our mental health if we observe few simple tips.

Here are the five pillars of mental health as described by Professor Anthony Hannan of The Florey Institute of Neurosciences and Mental Health:

  • Diet

  • Exercise

  • Cognitive stimulation

  • Stress reduction

  • Sleep

Let’s find out a bit more about each of these pillars:

Healthy brain

Diet: Let’s be mindful of what we are eating while enjoying the holiday dining and perhaps a bit of indulgence too. Prof. Hannan points out: “We are still genetically cave men and women, and have not evolved to thrive on high levels of sugar, but instead our ‘hunter-gatherer bodies’ expect a healthy, balanced diet to optimise health and nourish our demanding brains.”

Exercise: Whether you are someone who exercises regularly or not, the holiday season could present both a challenge and an opportunity.  Being away from the gym or your group sports bodies poses a challenge, but it can be a new opportunity to discover new and simple ways of exercising; like walking or swimming. For  others a good opportunity to give exercise a try, without necessarily making it a ‘New Year Resolution’  to be abandoned soon!

Cognitive stimulation: It is quite alright to veg out in front of the telly watching the Sydney-Hobart race, or the Boxing Day Test match. But make sure you also give your brain a little bit of stimulation through interacting mindfully  with people and the nature. Paying attention to your thoughts, feelings and body sensations and being more self-aware. Games, puzzles, reading, learning a new language, or taking up a new sport are also quite helpful.

Stress reduction: Prof. Hannan explains: “In our caveman days, evolves stress responses were useful adaptations, with survival advantages when something like a sabre-tooth tiger lurched out of the jungle towards us. Fight or flight would see us hopefully get away safely, but stress responses did not evolve to be constantly active, as they can be for some individuals.” Mindfulness practices have been demonstrated to reduce stress very effectively. See Mindfulness Resources for helpful tips and resources. Why not start your Walking Meditation practice which can help in both areas of exercise and stress reduction (See Walking Meditation).

Sleep: Is often overlooked as an important factor for brain health. Prof. Hannan adds: “People think sleep is just about mental alertness but there is evidence now that bad sleep patterns and chronic sleep deprivation are bad for your body, even down to recent evidence that people who sleep less may be more likely to be overweight and obese. It is also related to modern addiction to electronic screens and digital devices, and people using them in bed before they try to sleep, so maybe consider relaxation and sleep health, as you try try to unwind during the break.”

Your comments and reflections are always welcome.

Happy holidays!