Like many of us, before lockdown began in March last year - I worked away from home 5 days a week. One consequence of this is, that I walked at least a couple of miles every day as part of the journey to and from the office. While I did not always enjoy this, as we are known to get a spot of rain or two in Manchester, it did at least keep my body at a very basic level of fitness. I was no athlete, but my joints and muscles got regular sustained use.
Then came the order to stay at home, and my commute became a very short stroll down the landing, which it remains to this day. This has been great for my home life balance and the saving on travel time and bus tickets but devastating for the amount of exercise I do. While the weather was good last summer, I managed to do some walking when the rules allowed, but then winter came and I seem to have remained in winter mode up to now!
So I suddenly find that just walking around the corner to the local shops is a lot harder work than it really should be. My muscles and joints have weakened and stiffened through lack of use. I would like to blame it entirely on getting old, but I am deluding myself (I am very good at that!) My body is badly out of condition through lack of use, and the solution is to get it up and running again through regular use, however painful that may be.
The thing is, our brains are much the same as our bodies in this respect. Without regular use and stretching, they will weaken and stiffen. But instead of aches and pains when we do try to use our brains again, we may find that we are helping mental health problems to take hold or worsen if we stop using our brains properly for a long period.
Our brains need regular stimulation to keep them healthy. That means feeding our brains things that require proper thought and consideration, problems to be solved and puzzles to be completed. How we get this stimulation is a personal choice, much like how we choose to exercise our bodies.
If you have an area of interest, actively pursue it when you can. This can be through reading, writing or even watching TV, but it is a good idea to try and include something that requires active thought as well as just taking in information. Something as simple as a jigsaw, word search or quiz can be great for your mind as well as a bit of fun.
Just like physical exercise, you can work mental exercise into your everyday routine to fit with the other things you do. If you have a bus ride every day, you could read or do a crossword. If you spend a lot of time with your headphones on, swap the music for an audiobook that will make you think for a few minutes. Properly talk to others about real issues (not what they are up to at number 34!) to hear and try to understand different viewpoints, preferably without coming to blows!
Just like my post-lockdown walks, you may find this hurts your head at first if you are not used to it. So take it easy. Do things you enjoy and do not expect to be able to read and memorise an entire encyclopaedia on day one!
But do try and do a little, often. Like your physical health, you notice your mental health when it starts to give you problems. Prevention is the best cure.
Mark Palmer is a freelance writer specialising in mental health, autism and neurodiversity. He can be contacted through his website www.markpalmerwriter.co.uk, by email at email@example.com, on LinkedIn and on twitter @MarkPWriter.