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Why we need to take time out for our mental health

A new study has revealed that taking more 'me-time' not only reduces stress and the risk of depression but stimulates creativity. Writer Una Brankin and Belfast artist and mum-of-two Dawn Crothers explain why downtime is essential to their wellbeing

By Stephanie Bell

A ground-breaking new report has shown that short periods of solitude is good for our mental health, leading to more creative behaviour which in turns reduces stress and its associated health issues.

The University of Buffalo research found that those who chose to spend time alone were more creative than others. And the creative process is a stress-buster which has been proven to translate into better heart health and a reduced risk of dementia.

The latest findings indicate that me-time has real benefits for our mental health.

Belfast artist Dawn Crothers (35) is married to fellow artist, Stephen Whalley (40), who is selling the couple's artwork at the Christmas Market at the City Hall. They have two young sons, Ethan (5) and Jake (2). Dawn is known for her trademark paintings of snails and has just held her annual exhibition. She says:

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Art inspiration: Dawn Crothers with her snail paintings

I think everyone needs to take time out for themselves although we don't always do it. Especially as working parents, I find that usually if you do get downtime you spend it playing with your children to make up for the time you are working.

I am not in the least surprised by the results of this survey and I really do believe we all need to relax for our health's sake.

This has been a really busy period for me. For the past few months I've been getting ready for my exhibition which was last Saturday and went really well.

Also from the start of November, I've been working on commissions for Christmas and this year my personalised snail paintings are really popular.

They take a few weeks to paint and dry, and then Stephen and I also have a stall at the Christmas Market which is seven days a week for five weeks. Luckily family and friends are chipping in to help with the children.

It is a bit easier now that Jake is older and going to nursery a couple of days a week and Ethan is in primary one. I'm always painting - even through my pregnancy I painted. I didn't have much maternity leave because I'm self-employed.

While I don't suffer from depression I think everybody gets a bit down at some time and for me it was the weeks after I had my children. I was looking after them and also trying to juggle commissions and continue to work.

I found that a struggle as I wasn't doing anything for myself. I was with the children all the time and not getting out and I can see how for many new mums that can lead to depression.

Many new mums find it hard to cope and I certainly did.

Now, though, I'm conscious that I need time to myself and try to meet up with friends as often as I can and also go to a Pilates class.

Because this time of the year is so busy we usually try and take a holiday abroad after Christmas to relax.

Taking time out to unwind can inspire you and make you more creative.

I think it's when you are relaxing that you get new ideas.

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Dawn and husband Stephen Whalley

Even having a day out and being in a different environment can give you a new outlook and a another way of approaching things.

I'm lucky that I love painting and it relaxes me. Painting doesn't feel like work to me.

Now I paint everyday for two to three hours and then do any administration work as well as children's art classes which I teach on Saturday mornings and after school one day a week.

Sometimes the boys join in and Ethan is at an age now that he enjoys coming to the studio.

It's great that Stephen and I share a studio and the kids can come here and it's like a second home for all of us.

As a family we try and look after ourselves and eat well.

Stephen in particular is very healthy and fit.

When you work hard you have to make sure you eat a good breakfast and lunch. You are what you eat but when you're busy it's so easy just to work through and skip meals."

Writer Una Brankin lives in Carlingford with her musician husband, Declan. She says:

If I didn’t have my daily quota of me-time, I think I’d go around the bend. Anyone who claims they can go without it must be a selfless saint or a hyperactive robot — or a liar.

Now, I don’t like the term. It implies self-centredness and pampered princessy women, with a flotilla of nannies and cleaners and weekly Indian head massages. I prefer to think of it as simply switching off.

When my mother was growing up, the women of the house did not sit down to relax until after 7pm, no matter how busy their day had been. That stricture was handed down and became my ingrained switch-off point, unless dinner runs later.

During the week, it starts with walking the dog around the village on my doorstep. Unless he decides to bolt after a cat, or gets into a fight with the neighbour’s Jack Russell, that 20-minute stroll is an ideal way to unwind mentally and physically after the desk-bound hours and the endless calls, texts and emails.

Sometimes good ideas emerge as I walk along and I tend not to take the phone with me, unless I fancy calling a friend or one of my sisters. I count that as me-time, as it usually ends up in a laugh. Any moaning cannot be tolerated after the appointed hour, however, and money talk is out of the question after dark in our house.

After the walk, I get into the shower, a vital part of the switching off routine. It’s so cold where we are (by the sea) that a hot shower feels heavenly, especially when you’re not rushing. And it’s another good spot for creative or practical ideas to rise to the surface.

A soak in a lavender bath might be more soothing but I tend to reserve those for the rare hotel stay, when you can indulge in the ultimate me-time. So, after the shower, it’s on with the nightie and the face-mask. (As I’ve given my husband a fright in the past with it, I’m required to announce: ‘Face pack alert!’ before going into the living room or wherever he is).

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Una with her husband Declan

I use a mask with lavender to further induce a state of relaxation. Then I go and spoil it all by doing a cryptic crossword in the newspaper. In truth, I enjoy them but if the setter is in a particularly obtuse mood, the results can be frazzling. Not good for switching off.

And so, to bed. Early nights are an essential part of weekday me-time, not that I’m asleep before midnight or 1am most nights. Netflix or Amazon Video provide wonderful escapism and an extension to the switching-off zone, even if my husband and the dog join me for a binge on Mad Men (second time around) or Curb Your Enthusiasm (new series and endless re-watching of old episodes).

Of course, for real me-time, company isn’t allowed. Due to my other half’s job (music), he’s often working nights or away on tour, so I have lots of solitude. Too much of that isn’t good for your mental wellbeing, however. I end up talking about everything to the dog, who’s a good listener but not the best when it comes to advice.

But those regular stretches alone, with only a tiny pet to look after, tend to be fruitful and restorative. No mindfulness or meditation is required. I’ve tried both and found mindfulness a real cod. Meditation (transcendental) was nice but I’d fall fast asleep instead of transcending.

A good, slow read is far better for my head and enlightenment.

Once the TV is switched off at night, me-time ends with a book — a real paper one. The glitches and screen-freezing with Kindle are head-wreckers, especially after working on an annoyingly temperamental laptop all day.

The book must be literary. Frothy popular and pulp fiction might provide an escape for millions of readers but they ‘sicken my happiness’, as my aunt used to say. In other — alliterative — words, mar my me-time.

And speaking of the auntie, one of her regular mantras was: ‘I’d love a bit of peace’. (She’d never have dreamt of using the irritating modern phrase this article is based upon.) A little time on her own, to do nothing, kept her sane.

Ironically, for those not brimming with mental health, time alone in one’s head can work the opposite way. Having been pestered by bouts of depression in my past, I can verify me-time only makes for a good time when you have peace of mind to begin with.

And you can have too much of a good thing. Too much time spent on little-old-me can turn you into ‘an oul oddity’, as auntie would say. But a little goes a long way, so make time for yourself, ladies especially, in the rushed weeks ahead.”

Study findings:

  • intentional alone time can improve wellbeing and creativity
  • solitude can actively improve mental health by fostering creativity
  • creativity reduces stress allowing the brain to work at optimal efficiency, releasing dopamine to reward us for both creating and solving problems in the process
  • stress reduction has benefits for our heart and reduces the risk of dementia

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