Mental wellbeing at every age

Carmen BryceBlog posts

Yoga teacher and MyMind resident blogger Maggie May O’Callaghan talks about the importance of looking after your mental wellbeing as you get older.

When I was initially asked to write this article I was struck by two things. The first, that I have had a formidable woman in my life in my nana who has shown me an undying passion for living life every day. The second, that the things that are important for mental wellness in later life are just as important for all ages.

Age milestones determine when we are young, growing up; entering the career market, getting married and when we retire and begin to “grow old”. The stressors we encounter at different life stages might change however when it comes to creating mental wellness we have more in common than in difference. In that sense, while this article may fall under the heading of “wellbeing after 60” it speaks very much of small habits that we can all benefit from.

Research suggests that a significant number of people develop depression and dementia in older age, however it is important to recognise that not everyone does.

The assumption that a pronounced decline in mental wellness is an inevitable part of getting older is not only incorrect but can also be harmful. Feeling in control of our lives and our health is vital to mental wellness. Yes, there are neurobiological changes, physical changes and social changes; but it is how we meet these changes that is key.

“Make sure you push them!”

This was the advice given to me by my nana before I taught a yoga class to a social club where the age ranged from late 50s to 90. While I laughed at the time I have since learned the wisdom of this statement. During the yoga class I was put in my place by a woman of no less than 90 years old who lifted her legs higher than me during one of the exercises!

In life, it is easy to live by our perceived limitations, not challenging ourselves and allowing these limitations to determine how we live. Particularly as we age one could argue that society has a tendency to expect less and less of people. As humans, often the less that is expected of us the less we do. These perceived limitations can determine our habits, regardless of how they make us feel.

As creatures of routine these habits become our way of life and making a change can feel impossible. But the less we do, the less we become and as humans if we stop becoming, stop challenging ourselves we stop growing. As our lives get smaller so too does the range of emotion we experience, the range of skills we use and the accompanying range of cognitive processes that are utilised. This is significant because when it comes to our brains what we do not use, we lose.

Like brushing your teeth, happiness and mental wellness is a habit, the more you practice it the more automatic it becomes. It is never too late to develop new habits or to try new things and even the smallest changes can have a meaningful impact on how we feel.

  1. Why not try this little exercise, take out a sheet of paper and write down 5 things/ people/places that make you smile. Take a moment to appreciate these experiences and how they feel in your body, in your heart. Practicing gratitude is one of the most powerful habits for improving mental wellness. The more we do it the more we feel it.
  2. Turn up the radio, or play your favourite song and have a dance in your kitchen – move your body! Sing! Increases in movement that increase our breath encourage more oxygen into your bloodstream and the release of endorphins – the feel-good hormones.
  3. Join a group. There are many different groups to join, being a part of a group can give us a sense of belonging as well as helping us to meet new people with common interests.
  4. Pick up the phone! Schedule a time once a week or in the evening to call a friend, a sibling, a child or a grandchild. Having a chat with someone we love helps us to feel connected to the world around us and reminds us that we are loved and that we matter.
  5. Find something that makes you laugh. Whether it is a person, a book, a television programme or even a memory, laughter is one of the most available resources we have that can change our mood immediately.

If all of this sounds like too much effort right now simply SMILE. Smiling activates neurological and physical responses which reduce stress and make us feel happier, it is that easy! So put a big smile on your face and see how long you can hold it for!

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh