Boosted by well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions, a lot of us will be thinking of joining a gym, or at least going out for a run if and when the weather ever picks up. But should we be equally determined to improve our mental as well as our physical health?
“Most of us will spend at least 10 minutes a day showering or washing, making food, reading a book or newspaper, on social media, a call to a friend or shopping, but few of us spend any time on our mental health, strength and happiness,” says Owen O’Kane.
Anxiety and trauma were common in Northern Ireland with constant threat and uncertainty always present
O’Kane has developed a system combining various techniques called Ten to Zen that he believes can change our outlook in just a few minutes every day. It was developed from his work as clinical lead for a mental health service in London, and a lifetime of personal experience.
“I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. Shootings, bombing and riots were commonplace,” he explains. “My uncle was shot dead during this period, leaving a wife and four young kids behind. Anxiety and trauma were common in Northern Ireland with constant threat and uncertainty always present.”
Besides the all-too-evident external unrest, O’Kane also felt internal conflict.
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“Self-acceptance is strongly linked to good mental wellbeing,” he continues. “Many people struggle with identity, sexuality, weight, class – and learning to accept yourself is a key step to a healthier mind. I know this personally growing up gay in Northern Ireland.
“I once went to Lourdes to be ‘cured’ when I was younger. That didn’t quite work out. I realised this when I was being dipped into the holy water but could only focus on the strong muscled men who assisted in the process. This was a cure in itself, oddly, and eventually led to my self-acceptance. Coming out for me was a major step towards a happier life.”
Before becoming a psychotherapist, O’Kane worked in palliative care for over nine years. Spending time with terminally ill patients taught him a lot.
“It was a humbling and eye-opening experience,” he says. “I was able to hear their stories, and they were often stories of regret. Stories of how stress and difficulties had detrimentally impacted upon their lives. The dying teach us that life is not a dress rehearsal and every moment is for living.”
O’Kane has outlined his techniques in his new book Ten to Zen. Unlike other self-help books, it doesn’t preach about meditation or breathing techniques but is based on his NHS training, what he describes as a “fluff-free approach to mental health” that offers ways to calm anxious minds, develop the ability to think more clearly and rationally as well as promoting principles such as acceptance, compassion and authenticity to help us live better lives and have a very happy new year.
My 4 top tips
- Look after your mind as you would any other part of your body. Take responsibility for your life. We all have valid reasons for the hardships we face. It empowers us to blame the world, getting angry at people for letting us down. Bad news? It is your problem. Good news? You are the solution.
- Take 10 minutes out every day to take care of your mental wellbeing. We all have days that get a bit tough. It’s what makes us human. But, we need to react to it in the right way. Ten minutes is how long it takes to do our hair, brush our teeth, do the dishes. We need to invest the same amount of time looking after what’s most important – our minds.
- Remember, you are not your thoughts. Notice unhelpful thoughts and let go of anger, resentment, grievances, revenge. In the end they will only cause you more pain. Freedom from these emotions is often found in letting them go.
- Treat yourself with compassion. It changes your world and those around you. There’s an epidemic of dissatisfaction. ‘I don’t like my body’, ‘I wish I was more intelligent’, ‘If only I was rich’. This has a detrimental impact on us as we listen to our self-rejection. Ask yourself if this is how you would describe someone that you care about.
If the answer is no, don’t say it about yourself.
Ten To Zen by Owen O’Kane is out now (Bluebird, £10.99)