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Mental Health Awareness Week


It is Mental Health Awareness Week and we at HorseBack have been thinking about everything we know about better mental health. Enhancing mental health has been the core of our work for many years now, and we’ve got some excellent tools in our toolbox, and we never stop learning. What we do know is that this is a lifelong journey: understanding the intricacies of the mind, improving a sense of wellbeing, helping people to know who they are and believe in themselves is something we hope we’ll still be doing when we are old and grey.

In other words, it’s not a question of getting a concept or ticking a box; it’s a matter of continuing practice and exploration and discovery.

What we like about this week is the word ‘Awareness’. Awareness is the start of everything, when it comes to mental health. So many people walk about with a nagging sense of anxiety or tension, with shouting critical voices in their heads, with unhelpful narratives or self-sabotaging habits, and it feels so usual to them that they don’t even know they are doing it.

We have found that the moment you stop and identify what you are feeling, give your uncomfortable or painful emotions a name, you are in a position to do something about them.

And there are things that everyone can do – to protect the mind, to build resilience, to console and soothe the troubled self.
A lot of low-level depression and anxiety can be relieved by fairly straightforward practices. We use a lot of these at HorseBack and we write about them often. We are always trying to distill the most useful, and to give them to our readers as we give them to the men, women and children who come on our courses.

We thought today that we’d go right back to the basics of mental and emotional self-care. This ties in with the theme of awareness. These are simple things which can sound so obvious that, ironically, many people overlook them. But we love them because they work, and they don’t require special equipment, and you can make them into wonderful, effective habits. (Everything, in our book, comes back to building helpful habits – of body and of mind.)
Here are some of our favourites:

Make sure you get enough sleep. The brain cannot function well without sleep. If you are constantly tired, everything will feel like a struggle. Make this a lovely promise to yourself, and be dedicated about it.

Eat well. You don’t need special ingredients for this, or expensive foods, or fancy recipes. Cooking simple meals from scratch is one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. The cooking itself can be therapeutic: you have to slow down and focus to cook well, and that is soothing for an antic mind. You also get a sense of satisfaction at the end of it. Takeaways and processed foods have all kinds of hidden ingredients – too much salt and sugar and preservatives. Cooking from whole ingredients means you can help your body and your digestive system, making sure you get enough protein and fibre and vitamins. There is increasing research that links gut health to mental health, so you really will see a difference.

Schedule pleasure into your day. This can feel frivolous and superficial to many people, especially those who have been brought up with a hard work ethic. Work is important (a sense of meaning and satisfaction in your work is considered a cornerstone in psychological wellbeing) but if it takes over your life, you risk getting out of whack. Find the things which give you joy and make sure you put at least one of those on your daily calendar. This is not an add on, in our book; it is a necessity.

Be aware of your body. You don’t have to go to some high-end gym for this, or spend a fortune on a personal trainer. But human bodies are designed to move. (There are studies which suggest too much sitting – at a desk, in some soulless work cubicle – are as bad for the body as smoking.) Find a form of movement which makes you feel good. Don’t even think of it as exercise, if that word strikes doom into your soul. Think of it as doing your good body a favour. It can be anything from walking to dancing to Tai Chi. Find your thing and commit to it.

Make time for friendship. There are few things in life more comforting than someone who really gets you. Humans have a profound need to be seen and heard and understood. We Homo sapiens are also tribal creatures; it’s not that long ago, in evolutionary terms, that we lived in small, interdependent groups. Isolation and atomisation are profoundly unnatural. Make an effort to keep in touch with old friends, to make new ones, to spend time with people who love you and who are on your side. A common factor in many mental health problems is shame, and shame, as the great researcher Brené Brown once wrote, cannot survive empathy. Good friends give you empathy in boatloads, and that will get you through an awful lot of storms.

Encourage in yourself a sense of curiosity and exploration. One of the things that is most striking in young children is their curiosity. They are always asking ‘Why?’ As people get older, they often lose this, beaten down by the rat race and the dull necessities of life. Excavate that inner child. Learn something new, look things up, become an expert in some obscure subject. We are lifelong learners at HorseBack; we find this gives us a sense of purpose and delight like nothing else.

Allow yourself to play. That’s another thing that children do: play. Many psychologists think that play is crucial in learning how the world works and connecting with others and expressing our true selves. Again, adults often lose this glorious capacity. They have to get serious and get real and not be nonsensical. At HorseBack, we’ve found that a bit of nonsense is a beautiful thing. That’s why you will always hear the sound of laughter on our courses. (Often at the most childlike antics or terrible jokes.) Giving yourself permission to play will lower your cortisol levels and release tension and enhance your serotonin and dopamine levels. In other words, it makes you feel good.

Do things for others. One of the best things we ever did at HorseBack was invent a mentorship programme, so the veterans who had been to us could come back and help others in their turn. We talk about this a lot because it has had such profound effects. We’ve found that the veterans who come back to help often get more lasting therapeutic effects than they did on their initial courses. They find a sense of purpose, which is the foundation of wellbeing; they grow in confidence; they make connections. They are doing something which means something. This strikes at the heart of the old saying – by giving, you receive. It’s old for a reason; it’s lasted because it is true. You don’t have to go out and save the world; just one small act of kindness a day will make you feel better and add to the sum total of human happiness, and we don’t know a finer result than that.

We hope these are useful. They are tried and tested for us, and we love them. They are practical, and they work. Take them, adapt them, tweak them, make them your own. Let them give you hope and solace and strength.

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We do not rely on government funding so any donations will greatly assist with the running of our charity.

We do not rely on government funding so any donations will greatly assist with the running of our charity.