How to keep mentally well with diet and exercise

Welcome to The Lounge!  This week the theme is Food and I have a guest post from Kylie Ofiu about how she uses diet and exercise to manage her mental health. 

Before I start, I want to be clear that I don’t think diet and exercise should replace medication or professional help completely. They do have a significant effect on your mental health, but since conditions vary greatly, it is always best to use medication if needed and continue to get professional help.

I have overcome Borderline Personality Disorder. I have had issues with anxiety, depression and ADHD all my life. My psychologist said he prefers to refer to me now as having an ADHD brain. I think very fast, a million ideas in a split second, I’m fidgety and, as friends and family like to say, I have ‘quirks’, but this is all in a positive manner. My quirks work well for me and are a positive thing. It has not always been this way and it’s been a long road to get here.

I have been on and off anti depressants since I was 16. I have had to use sleep medication at one point, started seeing a psychiatrist when I was 16 and first attempted suicide at 16. I am ecstatic to say that through psychological help, learning more about myself and how different things effect me, I generally don’t have issues. Life isn’t perfect though and I know things may change in the future. As I learnt more about myself, I found it very interest to see the impact what I was eating and how I exercised had on my mood and my ability to cope.

Here is what I have learnt:

  • Certain foods trigger chemical reactions in our body

I found caffeine is shocking for me. I was raised not drinking tea or coffee and have discovered if I have anything that is heavily caffeinated I will be on edge, emotional, angry and frustrated for up to 4 days after.

Some food dyes and preservatives impact on our mood and food intolerances are more common than you might think. The food we eat now is not the same as it was years ago.

One thing I did was an elimination diet, (from my doctor) then slowly introduced foods and monitored my reactions, my feelings and my skin. It was easy from this to determine which foods I should avoid, which I can have in moderation and which I can eat plenty of. When I eat foods I shouldn’t, both my mind and body suffer. When I stick to a cleaner lifestyle my mind is clearer.

Ensuring I had plenty of natural fats such as nuts, avocado and coconut oils has been just as important as fruits, vegetables and lean meats.  We often worry about fatty foods, but learning about good fats and eating them goes a long way in maintaining mental health.

  • Moderation is key

I have been known to binge eat, where I will gorge on foods such as chocolate which leave me feeling physically and mentally unwell. I try not to eliminate too many foods or ban my self other than foods I have an intolerance to (such as wheat for me). Instead, I focus on eating healthy most of the time and allowing myself an occasional treat. I am selective on what treats I have though, because I now know which foods set me off. If I eat that food as a tasty treat, it is not worth it if the long term effects are negative mental health.

  • Mindset

I don’t view how I eat as a diet or that I am depriving myself. I am making lifestyle choices, which improve my mental health, my physical health and my life.

Making good food choices means my mind is clearer, I can make better choices and I notice quickly if I feel off and can take measures to protect my mental health such as taking time out for myself if needed, reassessing what I am eating, doing some exercise, spending time with friends or whatever it is I need to recharge and stay mentally healthy.

With everything you do, do it with the mindset of being healthy. By cutting out caffeine, wheat and other foods that trigger me, I am not missing out, I am living a fuller life.

  • Find the right exercise

Exercise doesn’t have to be a gym class or running for a hour a day. Find the exercise that works for you. I happen to love rock climbing, but the exercise that helped me the most, when I was really struggling was actually pole dancing. I did it a few times a week with a friend. My strength and muscle tone improved faster than any other exercise I had ever done plus every 8 weeks I knew a whole new routine. It gave me confidence and was something I looked forward to. There are classes with lots of mums too, which I liked and did not feel out of place in.

I love to run as well. Running outside is great because you get the fresh air too but I preferred on a treadmill at home because I could fit it in any time.

Yoga, pilates, water aerobics, Zumba, gym classes, boxing, swimming, bikeriding, dance, rock climbing or teams sports such as netball, soccer, basketball or football are all great forms of exercise but are very different. Find what works for you, do free trial classes and ask others what exercises they enjoy to find your groove.

I’ll be honest – if I don’t exercise enough, I am a grumpy lady! I love to use running as a way to clear my head, boxing to smash things out if I am frustrating and dance for my confidence.

  • Supplements and vitamins

I started taking a few supplements and vitamins at times too including probiotics, vitamin E, evening primrose oil and a multi B vitamin. Since I was a teenager I have found these help. I have had blood tests at various times to see if I am deficient in anything and changed my eating habits if necessary, but I still found an extra boost of those mentioned helped too.

  • Have a back up plan

I can forget to eat if I get too involved in something or too depressed. I keep protein shakes on hand for this reason. If I can’t stomach the thought of eating something, I can usually still drink. It takes less than a minute to make a shake and depending on my mood, I may blend in fruit, chia and other things to get maximum benefits from the drink to help me.

Having a menu plan for what I would eat and drink helps maintain a healthy lifestyle. Making food ahead of time to keep in the fridge or freezer helps you stick to it when you don’t have much time or feel low as well.

Always have a back up plan so you don’t end up reaching for food and drink that adversely affect you.

By eating the right foods and exercising, after having professional help, I have not needed medication for some time and in 2013, my psychologist said I don’t need to see him anymore. I learnt how to change my thinking and learnt about my mind and body’s reaction to foods, exercise and certain environments. It takes time to learn about food, healthy choices, discover the exercise you like and to implement a support network but it is worth it.

How have you found diet and exercise impacts your mental health?


Kylie Ofiu blogs about ways to make and save money on her site, as well as sharing pieces of her life, including aspects of mental health, homelessness, domestic violence and ways to overcome obstacles.

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Please don’t fix me

The need or desire to fix something that is broken, even another person is a pretty strong instinct.  However should that desire override the feelings of the person that they are trying to fix?  If a person is ‘just trying to help’ then does that mean that we need to grin and bear it?

I’m in two minds about this one.  On one hand I think that when you put it out into social media specifically, that you have to expect that there are going to be people who are going to offer their help and suggestions.  However on the other hand I think it’s not fair to expect someone who is feeling mentally unwell to have to take all advice in case someone feels offended.  I think in the second case, that it’s presumptuous to expect them to ‘see the light’ with a suggestion you have made.

It is my belief that one of the most important things you can do for a person who opens up to you about their struggles with their mental health is to listen.  However that doesn’t translate well on social media.  People have different understandings of what ‘listening’ is and sometimes not knowing what to say leaves a deafening silence.  In person of course there is the non verbal cues can help, especially when you don’t know what to say.

Listening doesn’t fix anything though and I think that is what makes it so good.  I know for me personally, when I talk to Paul about something that has been going on with me lately, the moment he starts trying to ‘fix’ it, that is when I shut down.  I feel like screaming at him (and I have on one or two occasions) that I don’t want him to fix it, I just want him to listen.  It seems like a foreign concept to him.

While I think that offering suggestions definitely has its place, and I don’t think that people should be shouted down for offering their help, I think it’s also important to remember that sometimes an ear or a supportive ‘sending love’ can be enough.  Sometimes it really is enough to know that you are being heard, that what you are feeling is pretty crappy but people are their to support you.

Next time you see a tweet or a facebook status from someone who is struggling, try to pay attention to what they are asking for.  Sometimes a sympathetic reply is enough, and the beauty (and sometimes the downfall) of social media is that you don’t have to engage if you don’t feel comfortable.

What do you say when someone is struggling?  Do you feel the need to fix a loved one’s problems?

How to access mental health treatment

One of the things that I have noticed about the gap between awareness and treatment is that a lot of people don’t know how to access that treatment.  I’ve been dealing with the system for 12 years and I am still figuring things out!  These tips are for Australia, however if you speak to your GP you may be able to find out what is available in your area.

How do I access treatment for my mental illnessUsually, the public system is the first port of call.  It’s not the easiest place to get specialised treatment, but sometimes it is the only place that people are able to access.  However, unlike other specialist areas, you can self refer to a mental health service, at least as an adult.  This can be done by presenting to an emergency department, or calling the crisis number which is connected to your local hospital.  Not all hospitals have this the crisis number though, so sometimes presenting to your Emergency Department can be the only way.

Once you are at the ED, they will usually put you in touch with the crisis team attached to the hospital district.  This will either be at the hospital, or in a neighbouring town.  In my experience, this is either done in person or by phone.  A follow up appointment with them can be made, as well as seeing a doctor who is attached to the crisis team.  It is during this appointment that it will be determined what you need and if the service is able to offer it to you.

There are also subsidies available for you to be able to see a psychologist either for no cost or a reduced rate.  For these services a referral from a GP is needed.  You will need to make an appointment yourself, but the referral from your GP will need to be either sent to the provider or taken along to your first appointment.  This will vary from practice to practice so it’s best to ask them when you are making the appointment.

Through Medicare, a Mental Health Plan can be obtained, this will need to be written by your GP.  A Mental Health Plan gives you 10 subsidised (which is nowhere near enough but that’s a post for another day) sessions per calendar year to a registered mental health professional.  It can be used for one on one treatment or group therapy.  Some practices will bulk bill you for the duration of your mental health plan or some with charge you the full amount, and you will have to claim the subsidy back through medicare.  Most practices have the ability to put that claim in through their office.

Also available is a program called ATAPS.  This funding is available for people who are unable to access treatment due to financial difficulty.  It is through Medicare Local and enables you to access up to 18 sessions with a registered mental health professional.  Unlike the Mental Health Plan, professionals only have a set number of spaces available to fill with ATAPS clients.  The practice must also be registered with Medicare Local to provide this service.

Medicare also offers subsidised sessions for appointments with a Psychiatrist.  Like with a psychologist, a referral from your GP is needed.  The subsidy can be claimed either at the office of the psychiatrist or at a medicare office.  Through Medicare a patient is able to claim up to 50 sessions in a calendar year.  From July 2011 these subsidies were also extended to video sessions for patients in rural and remote areas.

Of course all of these services can be covered if you have private health insurance.  I don’t have private health insurance, so I’m not sure how many sessions will be covered or how the payment works.  However if you call your private health fund, or speak to the receptionist at your mental health professional’s office, I am sure they will be able to break it down for you.

Treatment is available, not enough of it is accessible and we have a long way to go.  However I hope that this post has been helpful if you find yourself or a loved one in mental distress and unsure where to go next.

Resilience: Does it have a place?

Resilience, it seems to be the word of the moment for mental health awareness.  The message seems to be that we need to build resilience, in us, in our kids and in those around us.  Is resilience the right word for helping people be mentally well though?resilience What exactly is resilience? defines it as:  ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy.  Sounds pretty positive to me, however I wonder if the unwritten feeling (and maybe this is just me) behind those words, that to be resilient you need to bounce back every time from illness.  

On Q&A, Josh Thomas spoke a little about resilience and I think his thoughts about it resonated the most with me.  He said that maybe we need to stop telling people that they need have resilience when it comes to life’s struggles.  That it is this line of thought that keeps believing that they must have a ‘stiff upper lip’ rather than admitted that they need help.  

One of the most popular myths around mental illness, especially depression and anxiety, is that the person is weak, and if they just got on with life then everything would be OK.  Now this probably isn’t the message of resilience but the overwhelming feeling is that to have resilience means that you are strong, so by default the opposite is to be weak.  

I worry then that by teaching our children resilience, we are without meaning to, teaching them that being weak, is something that is wrong.  I don’t think that falling in a heap and expecting them to pick up the pieces is helpful either, but we do need to find that middle ground.  We need to show them that resilience isn’t the be all of life.  That showing your emotions and talking about your problems are OK.  

I don’t think that resilience is the right word for encouraging people to live a mentally healthy life.  I believe that we need a word that encourages people to be OK with themselves when they are struggling.  I’m not sure what that word is, but I don’t think resilience quite fits the bill anymore.

Do you think resilience is something that should be promoted alongside being mentally healthy?  What word do you think should replace it?

On the brink of greatness

Last Monday night I was in the audience for Q&A when they came to Rockhampton.  The focus was on rural mental health and the struggles that we face.  There was a lot of great things talked about but one of the that stood out for me was a comment made by Patrick McGorry.

In a response to one of the questions posed, he said that at the moment Australia is poised to provide the best mental health treatment in the developed world.  Now that’s a pretty adventurous statement but I do agree with him.  poisedAustralia is still on the launch pad when it comes to mental health treatment and it’s accessibility.  The accessibility is the problem though, there just isn’t enough of it.  We have all of these great practitioners and many of them are out of reach for the general population.

I have been accessing treatment for over 12 years now.  I have received that treatment from the public system and the private.  In the last 2 years I have been seeing a private psychologist and have recently started seeing a private psychiatrist.  The difference in treatment is amazing.

The people who treated me in the public system weren’t necessarily bad (although there were some really horrid experiences) as a rule but the treatment just isn’t the same because their case loads are so much heavier.  It’s hard to provide long term, personalised treatment when the system you are working in is more focused on a band aid approach.

However the private system, while it has the time and resources to administer adequate treatment, it’s not accessible.  Currently the government, through Medicare, provides 10 subsidised sessions per calendar year for you to see an allied mental health practitioner (note that this does not include psychiatrists, they have a different Medicare allowance).

This is disgraceful, the government doesn’t even provide enough sessions for a person to attend one session per month for the entire year, you get cut off at October.  Some practitioners will only charge the subsidised amount (it’s around the $80 mark) but there are some who will charge you their full rate, meaning that you will have to fund the gap between their scheduled fee and the subsidy.  This means that a lot of people are unable to afford treatment.  I’m really one of the lucky ones.

Since I have been able to access private mental health treatment, it’s been a completely different experience.  Sessions are geared towards ‘How can we stop this from happening again’, rather than ‘Lets just do this and hope that it helps.  I’m no longer stuck in the revolving door of treatment.

As the awareness for mental health issues increase, more and more people are seeking treatment.  At the current rate of funding, people are falling through the cracks.  They are left in the cold when it comes to treatment, often either unable to access adequate public care, private care being financially nonviable or they simply don’t know how to access that treatment.

Australia might be poised to be one of the best providers of mental health treatment but unless the government takes a leap off the launch pad then I am afraid that the suicide rate will continue to soar.

Linking up with Kirsty for I must confess.