BBC The Truth About: Improving Your Mental Health - A Review

After the last BBC documentary focusing on home workouts, I was slightly skeptical about how they might portray mental health. Arguably a much more complex topic than how to exercise, I was ready for more generalisations and pseudoscience, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Let’s go through it.

Heart rate and anxiety:

I wonder how many people are feeling anxious right now? Gabor Mate, the well regarded psychologist, said recently “The usual distraction of our lives stopping has caused us to sit with our thoughts, and this creates anxiety”.

I see a lot of truth in this. Everything in our world is made to distract us from thinking. Work, social interaction and everyday escapes like the gym or the pub are all things most of us engage with on some level. As most of these luxuries have been taken away, many of us have been left with nothing but our thoughts, and this could be creating more anxiety.

If that is to be true, then is the pandemic making us more anxious, or is it our own inability to sit with our thoughts and feelings?

In the first part of the show, the presenter wore a heart rate monitor and proceeded to act out an activity that is known to cause her anxiety. Through a breathing exercise, she was able to count her heart beats and this was able to calm her down substantially.

This was a great result...for her.

My take home from this was that breathing exercises can work for people on a great level. For other people yoga works, and for other people, other things work. For example, I like to wash the dishes with some lo-fi on in the background.

My point is, there will be certain activities that help you relax and, if you haven’t found out what they might be yet, I’d encourage you to try a variety of different calming exercises. The profound nature of my own lay in my daily routine.

Probiotics & gut health:

I’m extremely pleased that this came up during the show.

The brain-gut link is well documented. There are 10x more signals going from the gut to the brain than the other way round. This field of research is something that is extremely important to nutritional therapists and functional medicine practitioners, as we understand the importance gut health has on every other part of the human body.

I’m relieved that mainstream media is catching up to what functional medicine has been saying for a long time and more people have a basic understanding of what good gut health might entail.

In the program they were given a multi strain probiotic which helped concentration and lowered cortisol levels.

Personally, I do not recommend particular strains of beneficial bacteria to clients unless they have had the relevant gut testing to ascertain what their levels of different bacterias may be.

As stated in the show, a safe option would be to incorporate probiotic rich foods as these also contain multiple strains of beneficial bacteria, these include:

  • Sauerkraut

  • Kimchi

  • Keffir

  • Natto

Ensure that when incorporating these foods, that they are cold pressed and NOT heat treated. Heat treating kills the beneficial bacteria in these products.

Effect of exercise on brain health:

In the next section, they discussed how blood flow to the brain is increased during exercise, and this also brings nourishment to the brain through blood flow. Correct. This again highlights the importance of exercise, and it was good to have some stats showing how much blood flow to the brain did increase for viewers at home.

This can lead to positive effects on memory, concentration and mood. This is well documented across many studies and also something they displayed in this show.

I was particularly interested in the link between exercise and completing a mental task. I often enjoy and take more from a podcast during a workout and it turns out there’s science behind this. Does this apply to you as well?

Social media impact on the brain:

I am thankfully just old enough to have avoided the 15 second social media sinkhole that is Tik Tok, but I still find myself scrolling endlessly on Facebook and Instagram. Why?

I am sure I’m not alone in this, and social media definitely takes a toll on our mental health.

It was interesting to observe during the experiment how the participants felt more confident and positive after they had actively engaged in social media, as opposed to mindlessly scrolling (like me).

Could this be the answer? I think within this you have to ask yourself how does social media serve you?

Does it fuel your narcissistic tendencies, feelings of inadequacy or loneliness? Do you waste time just scrolling, but not ever really talking to anyone?

If this is you then maybe it is time to ‘come off’ social media for a while.

If we do want to carry on using it, by being active like the experiment suggested, what can we do?

Use it to check up on friends, help others with tips, use it to trade items, join groups that pique your interest.

Be an active participant in something you care about.

Social prescribing:

My prevailing thought on this issue was that it was a sad reflection on how disconnected and isolated we have become as a society. But it is clearly very much needed and I entirely support the idea of GPs prescribing isolated people to join activity groups to gain connection with others.

There used to be a saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and this mentality is certainly true for many poorer parts of the world, where there is a lack of material wealth, but a richness of a true social fabric that inhibits such issues as isolation and loneliness.

This is particularly well documented in ‘blue zones’. These are pockets of the world that include the inuits, okinawans and seventh day adventists to name but a few, and unsurprisingly they all have a strong community fabric that is built around co-operation and connection. Addiction rates are extremely low, and there is little social isolation.

I don’t know exactly how to incorporate the idea of ‘community’ on a large scale to those who need it most, so for now social prescribing seems like a great idea.

Electrical brain stimulation:

In all honesty, I can’t comment too much on this as I have a very limited understanding on this field of research. But, for those of you that haven’t watched the documentary, the presenter in the show uses gentle electric impulses to stimulate more alpha brain waves and decrease beta brain waves. This aids relaxation and therefore sleep.

This is an extremely interesting field of study, and preliminary research on this looks promising.

COMB motivational model:

This is something that I had come across before a while ago, and it makes a lot of sense to use this when trying to incorporate people to stick at exercising long term, or in general trying to change a certain type of behaviour.

For those of you unfamiliar with the model, COMB stands for:

Capability: What is your ability to perform a certain task? i.e. do you have injuries/are you fit?

Opportunity: How many times per week can you set aside for exercise?

Motivation: What is your reason for exercising? i.e. weight loss/build strength

Barriers: What is going to stop you from achieving this? i.e. childcare/lack of time

These are questions I encourage everyone to ask frequently, as circumstances can change. In particular it is important to assess your barriers to activity, and then to create ways to get over them.

During this segment of the show, one woman participating on the program says “You get there without even realising”.

This is extremely profound, as the easiest journey to complete is one you don’t even know you’re on.

So, to conclude, I was actually really impressed by this documentary from the BBC. There was a good mixture of personal experience and large scale studies to back up the points made by the small scale experiments on the show. I think the presenter showed a good amount of vulnerability and her experiences hopefully resonated with others sitting at home.

As for me there were some good take homes, now I’m off to look at electric brainwave therapy!

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