We all know that looking after your mental health is crucial, especially when times get tough. But there’s still a lot of confusion out there on how to actually take practical steps to do this. This goes double when it comes to helping out your friends or loved ones with their own internal battles. Roughly one in six women and one in eight men will be diagnosed with a mental health problem such as depression or anxiety, but men are less likely to seek support.
While his book is aimed at men, the advice it contains is relevant to anyone, particularly because being told to ‘toughen up’, or accept things as they are – ‘it is what it is’ – is so common.
Fortunately, more people are seeing the value in being more open and honest about their own struggles. I read his book to mine some of Cooper’s key advice…
You Are Not A Burden
In It’s OK To Talk, Sam Cooper sets out some no-nonsense practical advice on how to open up conversations with yourself, or with friends without feeling ashamed, or falling into the trap of overcomplicating things. His book is aimed at men, because as he puts it: “male mental health problems have been in the dark for too long as men have tried to struggle on alone, putting on a brave face and hiding their true feelings out of shame, guilt or the need to seem more ‘manly’.”
Cooper quotes a high-profile depression sufferer. “I found that, with depression, one of the most important things you could realize is that you’re not alone.” Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is outwardly the very definition of ‘tough’, but even he had to turn to those around him to get through a dark time.
You can’t go it alone – in fact, the first step to addressing mental health problems is often simply telling someone how you feel. As Cooper says, it only needs to be one person, and you should bin the idea that this will somehow burden them.
“A common barrier to opening up about your mental health is the guilt of burdening another person with your problems. It’s important to drop this thought because it’s simply not true… the people who care about you will want to be there for you, so let them in,” he says.
Find A Teammate
Opening up is a brave step but you only need to find one person to do this. It can be difficult to make that leap of trust when you are already feeling down. As Brene Brown says: “deep inside we know that being brave requires us to be vulnerable.”
If you can’t think of anyone in your life you can open up to, then you can still do so by using an anonymous phone-in helpline such as the Samaritans to talk to a trained volunteer.
The advantage of opening up to someone you know (and it does only need to be one person) is that you can ask them to help you stay accountable to your goal of getting through a difficult period.
“One of the great things about telling someone what you’ve been going through is that you now have someone on your side – a teammate – who will be able to check in on you when you are feeling low.”
Be Kind To Your Mind
This is the title of Part Four of Sam Cooper’s book, which is a breakdown of small practical steps you can take to improve your mood and help you get through challenging times. As Cooper says, the science shows a strong link between physical and mental health. Shoring up your body can prepare you for the emotional storms ahead.
As well as eating healthily and well, getting good sleep and using mindfulness, here are the biohacks that resonated with me:
1. Prioritize Movement Any kind of physical activity can benefit the mind, but Cooper recommends a balance that includes a stress-busting run or cycle, as well as more meditative exercise such as yoga, or even some martial arts.
This also includes a spread of low-intensity exercise like a walk with friends, and high-intensity exercise like HIIT sessions, or strength training.
2. Challenge Yourself One of the causes of chronic stress, and associated anxiety can be getting your evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response stuck in ‘fight’ mode, because our connected and yet protected lives do not feature many actual ‘fights’.
One, counter-intuitive route out of this is to intentionally place yourself out of your comfort zone, to “scare yourself” and reset this fight or flight response, such as an extreme sport. “Doing something that pushes you out of your comfort zone can actually be a great way to ease your stress and worry.
“It’s so effective because anxiety is characterized physiologically by an increase in adrenaline and cortisol in the body, and one of the best ways to release this is to use it in the way it was meant to be used!” writes Cooper.
3. Go Outside Neuroscientist Dr Andrea Mitchell has found that the positive effects of a single exposure to nature, such as a walk outside, can last up to seven hours. These effects can “reduce anxiety, and alleviate mild to moderate depression.” So, as effective as some kinds of medication then!
This powerful effect isn’t limited to the countryside or wilderness, because spending time in urban green space in your lunch hour has the same benefits.
4. Release Some Tension Feeling tense? Chances are your muscles are mirroring your mind, and accumulated tension in either can fuel the other in a vicious cycle. So getting a deep-tissue massage to work out those knots can stop you carrying around tension of both kinds.
“Regular massage has been shown to ease stress and anxiety because it can release oxytocin, the happiness hormone, and help you feel connection and love. It can also help reduce stress hormones like cortisol and can even alleviate mild to moderate depression, so it’s the perfect all-rounder.”
Try to refrain from jumping in with opinions or solutions
What To Do If Someone Opens Up To You Talking goes both ways, of course. So, imagine for a moment that a friend or family member has heeded the advice above, and been brave enough to have opened up to you about their own internal battle. How should you respond?
Well, Cooper has some good advice on what not to do: “It’s difficult not to take on the role of rescuer when someone opens up to you… but try to refrain from jumping in with opinions or solutions. For them, opening up will hopefully be a cathartic experience… Simply sit with them and listen. If they ask for your advice, then go ahead with your suggestions.”
The reason that ‘being a good listener’ is even a thing, is that it’s not easy. When you have a conversation, it’s natural to spend at least some of the time the other person is talking, thinking of what to say next – even interrupting them with this. Or if you’re not that engaged, you might start fiddling with your watch, or check your phone. Spoiler alert: none of these things make you a good listener.
Instead, Cooper says you need to give the person opening up your full attention. “Give the person the space to share what they need to say… Stay focussed on their words, try not to look away… Simply be there for them.”
And when you are required to say something, make sure it’s not dismissive, flippant, or suggests they're not doing well enough. “Saying things like, ‘cheer up’, or ‘it can’t be that bad!’ are not helpful, nor are comments such as, ‘perhaps you need to try harder to be happy, or ‘look on the bright side’,”
Just Breathe A final, extremely practical solution for mental health is to use simple breathing exercises, whenever you begin to feel overwhelmed, but also as part of your daily routine. Box breathing (as used by the Navy Seals), is as simple as it gets and is just: ‘breathe in for three seconds; hold for three seconds; breathe out for three seconds; hold for three seconds; repeat.’
Try it now and you’ll find you’re instantly more alert, centered and perhaps more able to face life’s challenges…
WHAT NEXT? For more on breathing techniques to beat stress, read this RSNG.com article featuring breathwork expert and coach Jamie Clements…
You can buy It’s OK To Talk by Sam Cooper on Amazon
Photos: Adobe Stock, Summerdale