Student Blog: “We need to look after our mental health today to help it to be strong tomorrow.”

21 May 2019

Last week, I found myself having a range of headaches and migraines repeatedly during the day. Because of the pain, I was not able to focus in any of my subjects at school or go out with my friends. Instead, I kept falling asleep during class and skipping some of my lessons.  Concerned about my health, I deliberated why I could be feeling so horrible all of a sudden. After a while of considering possible causes, I recalled that I had spent a long amount of time on my computer the night before. I couldn't believe that my headaches were caused simply by using my computer. However, I did spend a long amount of time on my electronic devices and I wasn't as social as I usually am…

So I found myself wondering, could it be possible that my migraines were caused by staying up late with my computer? Was my body trying to warn me that I was causing myself harm? Were my physical actions actually damaging my mental health? That night, I decided to take a time-out from technology. Instead of staying up late staring at a screen, I read a little bit of my book and went to bed earlier than usual. The next morning, my migraine was gone and I felt awake and alert. The experiment made me realize that I do have the power to both harm and help my mental health.

But too much time with technology is not the only lifestyle choice that can negatively impact our mental health. There are other important factors that we need to be aware of in order to protect our brains, such as our diet, exercise, and coping mechanisms.

We should be conscious of the consequences of our daily choices. We need to protect the most precious thing we have: our mental health.

Some people might argue that you cannot get harm your mental health simply by using an electronic device. They claim that technology is harmless. Some of you might even be thinking that right now.

However, this is not the case.

Technology has forever changed the way we live – the way we communicate, work and entertain ourselves. Our generation has experienced the main technological advances in human history. Our brains have a completely different way of viewing the world and of processing information compared to those from generations before us. But is this really a good thing?                           

I believe that all of us regularly stay up late at night watching the newest Netflix release, or editing the perfect photo for Instagram, or watching the latest YouTube videos…basically, spending time online.  And even though this might not seem like a big deal, excessive screen-time can cause a great amount of harm to our bodies and to our brains. So why is this?

One of the things that all electronic devices have in common is their high level of blue light. You might be wondering: what exactly is blue light? Blue light is the strongest and brightest wavelength, which means it pierces the receptors in our eyes’ retinas. Whenever our brains sense the presence of blue light, they immediately perceive it like sunlight. As a result, it assumes that it is daytime. And since our brains think it is daytime, they do not release the hormone that not only allows you to sleep but also helps us to stay asleep, and to sleep deeply. The longer it takes for our bodies to release that hormone, the harder it becomes for us to sleep and to stay asleep. I think we all know how it feels to wake up tired and in a bad mood after not being able to sleep!

As I said earlier, however, how much time we spend with technology is not the only lifestyle choice that can affect our mental wellbeing. One of the major ways in which our daily actions can affect our mental health is our diet. What we eat and how much we eat can have a powerful impact - positive OR negative - on our mental wellbeing. Just think about your brain and how it controls our thoughts, memory and speech, movement of the arms and legs, and the function of many organs within our body. Think about how it never stops functioning. Our brain never stops working, because we keep charging and energizing it with all of the nutrients and minerals we consume. But, as women who are constantly feeling pressured into being a particular size, it is easy to forget that we need calories and fats in order to survive.

We as women are exposed to images and ideas of the “ideal” female from the moment we start playing Barbie dolls, watching TV shows and going on social media. This means that we have been under an immense amount of pressure from a very young age. This has got to stop.

More often than not women suffer long-term consequences from the drastic lifestyle they live with just to fit that unrealistic image that we have been trying to achieve. More than 70% of girls in between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one consume less than the recommended amount of calories per day without even realizing. This means that young women are unintentionally starving themselves.

For some people that have a genetically predisposed eating disorder, dieting caused by a negative body image could trigger the disorder. However, for the majority of the population, what happens is an unhealthy preoccupation with diet, low self-esteem, low self-confidence and a feeling of inadequacy. Growing up with poor body image can lead to depression, anxiety, problems in relationships, development of substance abuse problems, and various health problems. Poor self-esteem often contributes to problems in relationships, workplace, and any area in life that requires confidence and self-worth. But the saddest thing of all these negative feelings might be being brought about just so some company can sell more products. We need to forget about what social media considers ideal and instead we should start taking care of our bodies and of our brains.

If we stop looking after our brains how can we expect them to function properly? Our brains have needs, and if we don’t comply with them, we are seriously harming ourselves.

We need to maintain a balanced diet because if we don’t, our bodies will stop functioning the way they are supposed to. Our immune system will get weaker; our bones will get thinner and less resistant; our day to day lives will be damaged because we will not have the strength necessary to get out of bed or to even stay awake. I’m sure all of us have come close to falling asleep in class at times!

If we don’t eat right, our bodies and our minds will suffer the consequences. And we are fortunate that we are able to access the food that we need to our health is good.

So what does eating right mean? It is so important for all of us to realise that eating right doesn’t mean following a non-fat diet or eating as few calories as possible. What it truly means is that when you look down at your plate, half of the plate is full of colorful vegetables such as carrots, broccoli and sweetcorn; you should also have quarter of your plate full of carbohydrates, like a portion of pasta, or rice, or maybe even tortillas (my personal favourite!); the last quarter of your plate must contain at least one portion of whatever protein you choose – it could be chicken, egg, lentil… – there are so many to choose from. If you feel that your daily plate contains all of these elements, you are following a basic healthy diet and you will notice a difference in your mental wellbeing.

Nevertheless, even though our diet is a significant factor affecting our mental health, there are plenty more elements that we need to be aware of to stay happy and energised. With all of the pressures that we face growing up, such as doing well in school and getting on with our peers, it is easy to feel stressed at times. Unfortunately, stressful situations are unavoidable in life, so what we need to establish are strong coping mechanisms.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with problems. Some run away from the issue - they try to hide from it, hoping that by the time they come back the issue will be gone; others try to deal with the issue and keep trying to fix every problem that comes their way; and others simply ignore it - they act as if nothing is wrong and as if nothing is actually happening. Depending on who you are, will define how you choose to solve your issues. And depending on what the issue is will define if you’ll be able to solve it alone. An important part of becoming an adult is learning which coping mechanisms suit us best and work for each of us as individuals. That’s why we need to try different solutions now to learn which work and when. Simple solutions are so often the most effective. Go for a walk. Get some fresh air. Having said how important it is to eat healthily, it’s also important to know when to treat yourself to an emergency tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream! Play some sport. Watch a TV show that you know will make you laugh – for me, it’s “Friends”! Talk to a friend. Or, spend some time alone. Sometimes, we forget how important “me time” is.

Of course, not only is it important to look after our own mental wellbeing, we must take account of the fact that everyone around us is dealing with their own problems and worries too. And we need to remember that being kind and helpful to other people makes us feel better too! Remember: not everyone is as they seem. Even if someone might appear full of confidence, this does not mean that they have no insecurities or no problems. People are not always how they appear to be. We never really know what someone is truly going through so we shouldn’t assume everything is okay. We should treat people with respect, kindness and tolerance. Judgement is really negative. Positivity is contagious. We should be trying to pull each other up, not push each other down.

In the survey that I gave out before writing this speech, thirty percent of the girls that took part said that they were insecure about themselves and about what others think of them. We need to realize our self-worth and how amazing each of us truly are. I believe that the second we stop caring about what others think of us and start figuring out what we think of ourselves our lives will become much better. I know that this is easier said than done, but the outcome is completely worth it.

Although, sometimes finding contentment is not about discovering our self-worth but making sure that our friendships, social activities and hobbies are actually making us happy. Don’t go shopping just because all your friends are going shopping if you would feel happier reading a book. And make sure that the people you are spending time with leave you feeling happy and good about yourself.

Ultimately, so much of our mental health and happiness comes down to our own decisions.

Every day we get to make different choices. Seemingly little things like what we eat for breakfast or how much time we spend on our phone before bed actually have a big impact – firstly, in our day to day lives now, and also in shaping our futures.  We need to look after our mental health today to help it to be strong tomorrow.