Simple Strategies for Optimising Mental Health. Or….. If all the world could go for a walk…..

In response to Peter May’s post of a few days ago, I didn’t want to leave Mental Health Awareness Week without mentioning some positive and potent lifestyle changes that can be adopted to combat the kind of low-grade  anxiety and depression many of us are now subject to. Anger, frustration, disquiet, helplessness, fuelled by division, have become the daily fare and you might go as far as to say that if you’re not depressed to some degree at the moment, then you might well be in need of some psychological help! It’s not easy. The World Health Organisation website tells us that the current generations is 4 times as depressed as the previous one and the previous one was ten times more depressed than the one before it. This depression epidemic should shock us to the core but we seem to be taking it in our stride. Perhaps it’s because so much is in crisis we don’t know where to look next. Just a thought. 🙂

In the meantime what can we do about it? What works?  Well believe it or not, there are some very simple but underused and undervalued lifestyle changes that make huge differences, both as contributors to, and treatments for multiple pathologies. They continue to be underestimated despite considerable evidence of their effectiveness in both clinical and normal populations. They are all intuitive.

  • Exercise.
  • Nutrition/Diet.
  • Time in Nature.
  • Relationships.
  • Recreation.
  • Relaxation stress management.
  • Religious of spiritual involvement.
  • Service to Others.

Exercise.  Yes, just move more. Your multiple body systems will be grateful. Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise has way more benefits than anti-depressants. Exercise is better still if it’s taken in nature. Being in nature for an hour a day helps the mood go up naturally and improves the clarity of your thoughts.  Furthermore it has no known side-effects except a feeling of well-being. Ask Richard Murphy.

A downside is that it doesn’t make big bucks for drug companies. 🙂  We seem to have forgotten the wisdom of the ages. For thousands of years, wise elders in every tradition used nature as a source of healing and insight. For thousands of years, the ancient Celts, the Shamans in the wilderness, the Yogis in the forest, the Christian Fathers in the desert, the American Indians on their nature quests knew and understood the value of connecting with nature.  Nature is grounding. It reminds you of the important things in life, like the idea that you are already whole, but you have just temporarily forgotten.

Diet- More than 160  separate studies suggests that dietary factors are so important that the mental health of nations may be linked to them. The main advice is to follow a diet that consists mainly of a rainbow assortment of fruit and vegetables. Preference should be given to oily fish (twice a week) which is high in Omega 3, an anti-inflammatory. The Mediterranean diet is particularly helpful and some, like me, favour food combining. I endorse this book as thoroughly common sensical: The Complete Book of Food Combining by Kathren Marsden“.

To diet I would also add sleep.

Too many people, (including me till I worked it the solution for myself) suffer from chronic sleep debt. Not getting enough sleep affects mood badly. The way we eat and drink and what we eat and drink, too much ‘brain work’ combined with oxidative stress, can have knock on effects on sleep patterns. For example, eating a highly refined diet with too much alcohol or sugary drinks, with a high stress lifestyle, has been shown to rob the body of much needed magnesium. When a healthy diet is followed with plenty leafy greens, nuts and pulses, sleep can often correct itself very quickly as the body gets its much needed supply of this nature’s ‘calmer’.


The evidence says that the worst possible thing for depression is isolation. We are a social species. We are meant for relationship. When we connect with others showing love, we can work our way out of depressive episodes. When our social connections are lacking we suffer. Pre- internet, people spent much more time in social groups than they do now. Sitting in isolation at electronic devices for long periods is not what we were designed for, but many young people would rather text, than engage in face to face encounters where they have to read body language or read subtext.

We are an interdependent species hard-wired for empathy and relationship and yet both the number of and intimacy of relationships is declining. We have much yet to discover about the many implications of artificial environments like social network sites but suffice it to say that the idea of good relationships are central to both physical and mental well-being is an ancient theme. Happy relationships=happy people. Spend more time out and about in community and less time on-line.


Involvement in enjoyable activities is central to healthy lifestyles, and the word recreation “re-creation” underlines the main benefit because it actually does help you become more creative. Play and playfulness in children is well known to reduce defensiveness and enhance well-being; it also fosters social skills and maturation. Why should adults be any different? Music and humour are well known mood enhancers. John Stuart Mill— one of history’s outstanding intellectual prodigies—spent his childhood force-feeding himself with facts. However, when at 20 he fell into a severe depression, he turned to the arts—music, painting, and especially poetry—for self-therapy, and these, his biographer reported, were what “saved him.”

Relaxation stress management

Stress is everywhere and to some extent we all suffer, but added to that we are now facing an array of added stressors – you know your own!  Many of us feel the political polarisation badly. There used to be a degree of ideological overlap between the left and the right. We used to be able to come and go with people and compromise, but now compromise seems to mean one side or the other getting it all its own way. We seem to be short of historical precedents from which to draw some wisdom or coping skills. So, many of us respond un-skilfully or even self-destructively yet skilful strategies for stress management are available. As well as exercise in nature and really any kind of aerobic exercise that you enjoy, there’s the Chinese mindful moment of Tai Chi and Qui Gong,  and Self Hypnosis and Guided Imagery which are valuable relaxations tools. Meditation and Yoga practiced by millions of people worldwide with results that speak for themselves.  30 minutes a day can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Religious or spiritual involvement

However religion or spirituality is experienced, whatever it means to the individual, it is an extremely important part of mental health for many people. The importance of religious and spiritual practices as a major means of coping with stress, illness, relationship issues, is one that we don’t seem to explore enough. And that’s because it’s difficult to talk about. Multiple levels of religious development are associated with very different kinds of faith, practice and behaviour and values.

The egocentric concerns and certainties of those who believe in the literal interpretation of scripture will look quite different from those who open themselves to multiple perspectives, are at home with paradox, and extend their care and concern for all peoples. When we fail to grasp the developmental nature of religion we end up lumping it all together and then the problems ensue. Religion is accused of causing more problems than it solves. This is tragic. And its where were at right now in the culture.

Today we’re asking our young people to try to make sense of their lives in our post-truth world, (or even anti-truth world) by rejecting all religious ideas, even ideas of truth itself. And yet we don’t seem to bat and eyelid when they go into existential crisis. Of course it’s true that ‘religious’ behaviour can sometimes be regressive or pathological, but it can also foster mature and even exceptionally mature development and psychological wholeness. Healthy religion, impacts positively on lifestyle, mental health and moral compass. It continues to be the way millions of people all over the world see through the hyper-reality of the virtual world and the associated illusions of advertising and general falseness we are subjected to on a daily basis.

Service to Others

Once thought of as sacrifice, it is now widely recognised that service to others can benefit both giver and receiver and fosters qualities such as altruism, happiness and mental health. This suggests that helping oneself and others can be intimately linked. Volunteers have been found to be psychologically happier, healthier and may even live longer. However there is a qualifier. When one feels overwhelmed by the constant care required by a long term sufferer with a progressive illness for example, burnout is common. If service is motivated by pleasure in helping that is one thing, but when the carer is driven by a sense of internal pressure or obligation, positive outcomes associated with helping may not be so evident. This is why community and political interventions are crucial.

There are of course other factors that affect mental well-being, but these eight are I think a very good start. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Perhaps depression is sometimes the result of not having examined our lives deep enough. Perhaps it is as a result of living our lives in-authentically. Political division can be disturbing, but one good thing is it gives us ample opportunity to take a deeper look at our values and how the way we are living our lives is either reflecting them or denying them. When we live with integrity life can be a lot more satisfying.





  1. Sean Danaher -

    thanks. Lots of very useful advice. I find it very difficult at present. It seems as if we have entered an alternative universe on the 23rd June last year and the tolerant out-looking country I thought I lived in has been replaced by a narrow minded bigoted one: A single party totalitarian state focussed on reducing immigration. In my worse moments I fear a descent into the 1930s in reverse with the UK and US becoming in some way fascist and I look to the EU to provide stability in an increasingly troubled world.
    Exercise and diet do work for me – a walk with my two dogs along the Blyth river is daily fare.

    Last night I went to a lecture by Brian Cox in the Newcastle Arena: 7,500 people including a former student who popped up to say hello (got a 1st and is doing very well) and more delightfully my former window cleaner who also came to say hello. Brian did not discuss politics directly but said “the more certain a politician was in their conviction, the less you should trust them.” It was a very good talk and great to see an Astrophysics talk can attract so many people. I felt happier than I had for a while.

    1. Grace Sutherland -

      I envy your location. It would be nice to nip out of an evening to a Brian Cox lecture.
      I agree Sean, it’s easy to think that we live in two Britain’s right now, with wildly different visions. Ideological gridlock is the new norm. Yes, if you are on the left it seems people are voting against their interest and it is very difficult to comprehend.
      But it all becomes much clearer when you take a developmental view of human consciousness which acknowledges that there are at least 5 different levels of consciousness operating in the world today.
      If you’re familiar with Spiral Dynamics
      or Dr. Robert Keegan’s work of the development of consciousness, it becomes clear why so many people think the way they do and hold the values they hold.

      As Ken Wilber says of America, and it holds true for so many nations including the UK:

      “Whether you are on the Right or the Left, whether you are a staunch individualist or a radical collectivist, whether you are seeking to transform society or to preserve it, all of these views have their rightful place in the political process. However, none of these views are comprehensive enough to set the full agenda for U.S. or global discourse—rather, they all complement each other in some irreducible way, requiring a simple but sophisticated framework to help make sense of these various schools of political thought, so that we have a better sense of their relevance and application to specific problems and policies.”

      I think the idea that all of us have a bit of the truth has to be new starting point. It has to be a politics for all. The need for an integral politics is upon us and in my opinion we are desperately in need of some integral politicians. Surely we can do better than the confrontational, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ sometimes infantile debate that the polarization engenders. Otherwise I really cannot see how we are to get through the unfolding madness and the growing complexities of our world intact.

      1. Geoff -

        Hi Grace, all very good advice.
        I worked In Mental Health Services for most of my adult life. The increased reliance on drugs, often as the first line in treatment, was a daily concern of mine. Although hospitals for the mentally Ill were not always the answer. Many of the people I worked with found so much comfort just being an in patient. Why should that be. I worked in an inner city, people had no space and few recourses, they could not escape noise, neighbours, police sirens, traffic 24 hours a day and so forth. Some of my fondest memories were walking in the grounds, of the now closed hospital, talking and sharing life experiences. The simple removal of noise clutter and daily stress was almost always a contributing factor in recovery. They were able to clear their minds and make room for an alternative way of seeing and ultimately living in the world

      2. Grace Sutherland -

        Hi Geoff,
        I’m sure you’re right about noise pollution affecting stress levels badly. When you have to live with it, your’e not even aware of the amount of background noise you can be subject to, until you move somewhere more peaceful. I am very lucky to live in a place when it is silent when I go to bed until I wake up in the morning. But you also hit on something else. Sharing life experiences is such a rewarding human activity, but it’s only rewarding when it’s a two way process and you do more listening than you do talking. We all know folk who talk at others and how it makes us feel! Being a good listener is so important for mental health and it’s really undervalued. But then there has to be a will to listen at the outset, followed by an opening of the mind about what you’re going to hear. If you’re already listening selectively, or focused on what you’ll say next you’re actually creating barriers to listening. Listening employs all the senses to the max. It’s about sensitively evaluating all the info presented to us, tone of voice, facial expressions, undertones, body language, unusual silences, anxieties, and most importantly probably creating the space and dropping the need to control the outcome. it’s a very powerful thing, as I’m sure you’d agree to have someone listen to you with an open mind and heart. It gives you a sense of validation. It somehow endorses your intrinsic value as a human being. Perhaps your fondest memories of sharing life experiences were related to your ability to really listen.

      3. Geoff -

        Without doubt Grace.
        Of coure as Health Care Professionals we all need a “tool box” of therapeutic skills and the knowledge, theory and experience of when and how to use them. Although these skills are valuable and can be taught, if you aren’t fully present, in the now as it were, if your mind is distracted and on other things, it is always noticed by the other person and deeper contact is lost. This is also very true in all our daily contacts with people, I think it was Gerard Egan who coined the phrase “advanced accurate empathy” a technical term but one I always try to remember and something often not practiced.

  2. Jeni Parsons aka havantaclu -

    Thanks, Grace!

    I remember, when I was a sixth-former, that the only way I could keep my sanity (my trust in others having been temporarily shattered) was by a) volunteering – I took part in the weekend surveillance of one of the few red kite nests in mid-Wales, usually on a Saturday night, and b) walking, again with a purpose (the establishment of the Offa’s Dyke long-distance footpath along the Welsh Border), and usually in the company of our neighbour’s dog. Each summer Sunday, and in the spring and autumn too, I’d take off on a ten-mile walk – first week from Kington to Knighton over Bradnor and Rushock to the actual dyke, and then along the hill footpaths to the Tref-y-clawdd (town on the dyke: Knighton); second week from Kington over Hergest Ridge and over the hill footpaths to Hay-on-Wye. At the end of the walk would be my good friend (the man who thought out the route of the path, Frank Noble) in his little car. We’d have a cup of tea, then he would drive me (and the dog!) home.

    As I said, it preserved my sanity when my plan for my future lay in ruins. And I gained a lot. I got to know the countryside and to understand how the underlying geology shaped the land, its use, and its history. I talked to farmers and farm-workers; I got sun-burned; I got soaked.

    When I went to university, I didn’t walk as much. I was in a grimy city (Leeds) and, although there was beautiful countryside within a short distance, I became involved in other activities that kept me mostly indoors.

    Then, at the beginning of my third year, Aberfan. You could see that as another betrayal of trust – one which left over one hundred children dead. I went down to the village on the day of the disaster, accompanying a friend who actually lost her own child, who was in the school. I worked for several days to help provide food and drinks for the miners who were undertaking the grim task of recovering the bodies; I saw most of those bodies. When they had all been retrieved, I left – for Oxford, where I examined the old maps, took notes of the map references, and finally returned to Aberfan with the evidence that the Coal Board must have known about the spring under the waste-tip – the evidence of the betrayal of trust. That knowledge – that trust in authority could be fearfully betrayed – eventually shattered my hold on sanity, although I didn’t finally break down until after I’d finished my finals.

    But I’m still here. Recently I’ve worked through the pain of betrayal, and have come to realise a sort of serenity. Before that I was almost continually employed, but the darkness would well up on occasion, overwhelming and destroying my equilibrium. I’ve taught (mostly overseas) – that was worthwhile, and I didn’t experience any attacks from below; I’ve been an (un)Civil Servant, which wasn’t, and the darkness used to strike. The last attack was eight years ago, and finished my last spell of employment.

    Now I’m retired. I am my husband’s designated carer, but will probably need some care myself because cataracts are beginning to cloud my vision, and my right knee will need to be replaced. Soon, I hope, we shall move to a smaller, more easily maintained property – I hope that will be in a country town. Perhaps I’ll be able to start on my long walks again!

    I apologise for this lengthy story of one woman’s struggle with mental health, but hope that others may find some resonances. Thank you again!

    1. Grace Sutherland -

      Hi Jeni,
      It was a wonderful story Jeni, no apologies necessary.
      There is no doubt that when trust is shattered in the things we place most trust in, it’s like the ground shifting under our feet. Roger Walsh, my favourite wisdom writers says, “How to wise people rise to life’s existential challenges? Crucially they respond benevolently.” It seems in volunteering that is exactly how you responded. I too, even as a young girl remember feeling a deep sadness about Aberfan. That you had the courage to go and walk your talk as a volunteer says a lot about your compassion.
      I love walking too. A few years I walked 500 mies in 35 days from St Jean Pied de Port in Southern France across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela. It’s a well known pilgrimage route and we met so many like minded nature loving people. The scenery was pretty, the birdsong delightful to the senses and we were lucky with sunshine the whole way. The overwhelming feeling I had at the end was one of gratitude. There is nothing like it for raising the spirits. I hope youre able to get back to it.

      1. Geoff -

        We live on the route. It is indeed some of the best walking country in France and perhaps the world

      2. Grace Sutherland -

        Lucky you. Where if I may ask?

      3. Geoff -

        Ariege, Near to Pamiers

  3. Peter May -

    Very interesting and several links I must investigate further!
    Only thing I find difficult to agree with is the role of religion – especially organised religion. That seems to me of more benefit to its heirarchy than its participants.
    And then those that believe in the afterlife where I feel you are encouraged to avoid current life. ( I suppose that is back to the opiate of the people argument).
    Let’s hope I can avoid religion by sticking to the nuts and oily fish!
    No mention of organic food by the way- do you have opinions?

  4. Grace Sutherland -

    Peter, I hear what you’re saying about organised religion. I’d say this. If the central message of your religion is not one of on-going personal transformation, and if it’s just about upholding the certitude of your personal worldview, no matter how biased or jaundiced or morally suspect, then it is not true religion, it’s just church attendance that keeps you from growth.
    I think I would call it early stage religion. Unfortunately an awful lot of people stay there, in denial. It’s an understandable way of coping and surviving but not helpful to evolution.
    Once again, we have to think of religious experience as an expression of the interior level of consciousness of the individual. Where I don’t agree is that we should lump all religious people together and say that they are all trying to avoid life, or that they all adhere to the same beliefs or attitudes- it just aint so. That’s where I think Fowler’s work is so interesting.
    The mystics for example, tended to engage with life on all levels. As Wilber points out, they were not feeble milquetoasts. St Theresa of Avila was a contemplative. She was also the only woman to have reformed an entire monastic tradition. Saintly of spiritual does not mean dead from the neck down. A true spiritual sage or saint engages with the whole of life. They are not ego-less, they are ego-more! But if you prefer the oliy fish 🙂
    On organic, I love it when its available and would pay the extra, but I have no hard and fast opinions.

  5. Mark Crown -

    Grace – your piece is fantastic – thank you for reminding us of the need to maintain and top up our inner strength.

    As an atheist I talk to Christians, Sikhs and Muslims all of the time about faith, the concept of God etc., and I find the best way is to step into their world to talk of God as if he exists. I do this willingly and I find that the people I speak to appreciate this and I actually get more out of them too – a sincerity is displayed for example that would be very admirable in any form of faith.

    I always come away from these brushes with religious faith feeling better about myself and the world.

    But what strikes me the most is how such reasonable discussions between believer and non-believer enoble all those involved as well the revelation that whether you believe in God or not we all still have a lot in common.

    It is a much better way to lead a life – knowing those who are different – than living in fear or ignorance of them. We should all reach out more.

    1. Grace Sutherland -

      Very kind Mark. Stepping into another’s shoes seems to be hardest thing to do at present without losing our cool, but it is also the essence of the mutuality principle. A rather synchronous email dropped into my mailbox yesterday. it reminded me that security was the worst idol of all.
      When we hang on to our beliefs too rigidly it can be our undoing. Like you I try to walk in the atheists shoes with an ‘I-thou’ mentality.

  6. Sean Danaher -

    Grace and Mark
    The people whom I struggle with most are American Tea Party types. supposedly Evangelical Christians who are amongst the most right wing people I know. Indeed there is an American family at my son’s school who voted Trump (my son is good friends with their son); we try not to discuss politics. Like Mark also I know many Muslims, Sikhs and Jews who are delightful people and have a deep spirituality.

    As Grace says “if it’s just about upholding the certitude of your personal world-view, no matter how biased or jaundiced or morally suspect, then it is not true religion, it’s just church attendance that keeps you from growth”. Sadly we have too many of those sorts of people in the North of Ireland; I’m not sure about Scotland.

  7. Grace Sutherland -

    Sean and Mark, without pointing any fingers, the fundamentalist stance is a universal stage. (That’s why being aware of integral states and stages is so crucial to understanding what’s going on.)
    As you can see from the link above, I think what we are seeing is a mixture of the Red and the Blue meme at work both in politics and religion.
    Being familiar with Spiral Dynamics is really helpful here. That way we don’t vilify any particular group, because there are actually positives and negatives in any stage even progressive liberal ones. There are no right and wrong levels of consciousness on the spiral, there is just the reality of where people are. Each stage stands in preparation for a next phase which may or may not come. And its good to remember (just in case we are apt to get above ourselves)- that we can all travel up and down the spiral depending on external circumstances on a given day. Hence tomorrow morning when I read my daily dose of fake news, I might regress to the red meme and show my anger and kick the cat etc. Grrr…..

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Hi Grace
      I’m a Scientist and well trained I think. I probably was most worried when I arrived at the Harvard Smithsonian in Arizona for the first time (in the late 1970’s) and met some of the world leading scientists in my field. I was worried that I might be ripped to shreds. In fact the exact opposite was the case. They were welcoming; thoughtful very interested in listening to my opinions and patient when explaining I was wrong. It was the mediocre people one had to worry about far more – insecurity breeds aggression.

      In some respects the more science I know the less I feel I understand. But also to me Science is an interwoven tapestry and not a set of isolated facts. My mother used to say education was what you had when you forgot every fact you had ever learned.

      I’m not sure I feel superior to anybody; its just when people feel superior to me it gets annoying. Possibly as a Scot there is a certain type of unthinking English superiority which is like flying a red rag to a bull?

      There is also a pervading Anglo Saxon myth that Protestantism is superior to Catholicism; sorry this is interesting territory;I have no desire to start the restart 30 years war!

  8. Grace Sutherland -

    Interestingly it’s the same in mature religious / spiritual circles too Sean. I belong to to an online community of Centering Prayer Practitioners.
    These people are as evolved in spiritual matters as your world scientists are in scientific matters. They are the best in their field globally. I have never felt anything other than encouraged, supported, and listened to with the deepest respect re: my views, my life-experiences and my aspirations. I’m sure I get far more respect than I deserve, but it makes me feel really validated and it gives me tremendous confidence to express my spirituality. We very slowly,study the spiritual classics, but not in an analytical, reductionist way. We let them sink in to the subconscious and let the indwelling Spirit take over. We might respond with something, we might not. ( a bit like a Quaker meeting?)
    I agree with you. In general, the more I know, the less I know. Your mother was right. I am now happy with that, though it took some getting to. If you think that science is an interwoven tapestry and not a set of isolated facts then I can say that I feel the same about religion. For me it is an unfolding of the mystery of ‘all that is’. This occurs day by day, minute by minute and feels more like a journey through the wilderness than a prescription for wealth or happiness (or anything else the world assures us is the purpose of life) Science or religion. Why does it have to be a choice? Why shouldn’t they compliment each other? Have you read Search for the Meaning of Life Willigis Jager?
    A very good evening Sean. I’ve enjoyed the chat.

  9. glam seamless review -

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally
    I’ve found something that helped me. Thank you!

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