Thrive With a Little Help From Friends

By YMCA Volunteer Writer – Rita Gore

Seems that to grab our collective attentions, it’s necessary for the Canadian Mental Health Association to declare May 6-10 Mental Health Awareness Week.

And no wonder – apparently many of us don’t even like to bring up the topic.

“Many people who struggle with mental illness will tell you that the hardest part is not the effects of the illness, but the stigma that goes along with it. That’s the reason that two-thirds of Canadians who do experience mental illness won’t get help. They won’t even talk about their situation.” and that’s exactly why we all need to keep talking” says Daniel Woolf.

Calgarians wanting to be involved in the discussion should consider this twitter chat series:

Why is it that many of us haven’t accepted that nurturing our mental health is just as important as caring for our physical health?  A CMHA’s pamphlet says the two go hand in hand. Many of you reading this blog already know something about that mind/body connection.

Three important ways to sustain or improve mental fitness:

  • Get physical,
  • Eat well
  • Get control of stress

Get Physical

  • Physical activity is becoming an accepted part of the prescription for the treatment of depression and anxiety. Exercise alone is not a cure, but it does have a positive impact.
  • Research has found that regular physical activity appears as effective as psychotherapy for treating mild to moderate depression. Therapists also report that patients who exercise regularly simply feel better and are less likely to overeat or abuse alcohol and drugs.
  • Exercise can reduce anxiety. Many studies have come to this conclusion. People who exercise report feeling less stressed or anxious. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise such as a step class, swimming, walking can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
  • Physical exercise helps to counteract the withdrawal, inactivity and feelings of hopelessness that characterize depression.
  • Exercising can improve the way you perceive your physical condition, athletic abilities and body image.
  • Exercise brings you into contact with other people in positive environment. For the length of your walk or workout or aqua-fit class, you engage with people who share your interest in that activity.

Eat Well

Making the right nutritional choices can affect more than the fit of our jeans; it can have an impact on our mental health. Some foods that may help optimize brain function include a balanced diet of:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, nuts, seeds and eggs
  • Protein
  • Whole grains

Get Control of Stress

Stress is a part of being alive. But apparently it’s how we respond to stress that can negatively affect our lives.

CMHA defines stress “as any change that we have to adapt to. This includes difficult life events (bereavement, illness) and positive ones. Getting a new job, graduating or going on vacation are certainly seen to be happy occurrences, but they too are changes, also known as stress, that require some adaptation”.

Persistent stress is not very good for any of us. It can result in a decrease in concentration and memory, loss of sense of humour, anxiety, anger and irritability.

Managing Stress

First, it’s important to recognize the source(s) of your stress. Events such as the death of a loved one, starting a new job or moving house are certainly stressful. Some of our stress though, seems to be linked to how we interpret things- a performance review, comment, or a look-it is our interpretation of the event can result in stress. If we continually engage in negative self-talk which is self-critical and pessimistic, an innocent remark can result in stress.

“Understanding where your stress originates can help you decide on a course of action. External stressors, like bereavement or career changes, can be managed over time and with the support of family and friends. Internal stressors, caused by our own negative interpretation,  may require changes in attitude and behaviour.”

Developing a tool-kit of methods to calm or reduce some of our physiological and psychological responses to stress helps. CMHA calls it “triggering the relaxation response”

  • Learn relaxation techniques – Practice meditation or breathing awareness.
  • Set realistic goals – Learn to say no. Assess your schedule to identify tasks or activities that you could let go.
  • Exercise – regular, moderate exercise helps ease tension, improves sleep and self-esteem.
  • Develop Hobbies/Interests – It’s a way of nurturing your creative self
  • Visualization – Since athletes sometimes achieve results by picturing themselves being successful, use the same technique to practice “seeing” you succeed.
  • Talk about it – Sharing your troubles with a friend may help you to put things in perspective.

Mental Health Awareness week can act as a reminder that it is up to us to make healthy choices, not only for our body but for our mind as well.

It is also a reminder too, that each of us  take time to reach out to family and friends and find out how life is going for them. Having a sense of community and belonging is so basic to good mental health and in all kinds of ways; YMCA Calgary offers just that.


Daniel Woolf. Mental health: Let’s turn talk into action. The Globe and Mail February 12, 2013