Wellbeing and Photography
Here I'll be exploring what wellbeing is, how it can be affected, and how photography and being outdoors can help improve our physical and mental health, but first, what is wellbeing:
Simply put wellbeing is feeling well - whatever well means to any one individual. There are five main components of wellbeing: physical health, psychological health, social, spiritual, and intellectual. Experiencing good physical and mental health, having a sense of purpose, being satisfied with your life and feeling fulfilled are all key indicators of high levels of wellbeing. Chronic illness, socioeconomic problems, trauma, emotional and physical abuse can have a significant impact on your levels of wellbeing leading to a downward spiral into a long-term negative state of not only mind but body. There is a comprehensive body of research showing poor mental health affects physical health and can shorten your life through increased risks to cancer, heart disease, stress, poor lifestyle choices and relationship difficulties. Our wellbeing is therefore critical to the quality of our lives and how we deal with the things that life will inevitably throw at us all. People with positive wellbeing often have greater resilience to illness, negative life events, and the plethora of problems modern life brings with it.
Improving our wellbeing
I've briefly outlined the various components of wellbeing, how it can be impacted, and the importance of positive wellbeing for all of us. So how can we improve our wellbeing? I'm glad you asked as I've got a few ideas. Let's look at the five dimensions of wellbeing and some of the most accepted ways to keep well:
Right from the get-go I'll acknowledge my addiction to hard physical training which, even to this day and despite countless injuries and operations, shows no sign of waning. Endorphins and adrenaline are my drugs of choice, and I credit staying as fit as is humanly possible with helping save my life when I was acutely unwell and suicidal with my PTSD. I have no intention of advocating extreme physical training to anyone on this page. More importantly, any decisions to undertake a regime of exercise should always be run past your GP. Physical wellbeing for me, like it is for many people, is completely interlinked with my mental wellbeing - and vice-versa. You can't look after one dimension of your wellbeing and ignore the others. What we're aiming for here is what's called a holistic approach to becoming and staying well. Holism looks at the whole system that is us rather than one particular isolated aspect; it aims to make us healthier by looking at the five dimensions I've previously mentioned instead of focusing on the symptoms of say one specific disease or disability.
We all have different parameters for what good physical health means to us as individuals, and this will vary as we progress through life and become older. That said most would agree positive physical health would include being well enough to get through our daily activities of life (eating, bathing, looking after our homes, getting something positive done in our day) in a way that was pain free and didn't leave us exhausted.
How we achieve good physical health is unique to each person, but it's generally accepted we all need to maintain our weight within acceptable parameters, avoid or quit smoking, limit the amount of alcohol we drink (I don't drink alcohol or caffeine as both exacerbated the symptoms of my panic attacks), get enough sleep, reduce the stressors in our lives, and exercise on a regular basis.
Getting out with a camera is a great way to add in some low impact yet highly effective physical exercise into your day. You'll walk further than you think as you look for interesting things to photograph, and your blood pressure will thank you for the both the exercise and the calm being outdoors can bring you. Better still, plan to go out with a friend and encourage each other to meet up regularly and make this a social event as well as a way to get fitter.
Psychological wellbeing includes our mental health and emotions. Our emotional health affects how we behave, the way we perceive our lives, how we handle stress and influences the choices we all make. Positive emotional health is important throughout our lives but particularly when we are faced with the many significant life events we all experiences; births, death, job changes, relationships and the overarching stressors in this fast paced decade we now live in. Physical and psychological health work symbiotically together, and the old wisdom of the two somehow being separate from each other has long since been disavowed. Poor physical health can have as much impact on our mental wellbeing as mental health problems have on our physical self . Mental illness has the potential to shorten our lives by making us more susceptible to physical illnesses like cardiovascular disease and cancer along with the obvious impact on motivation, maintaining our relationships with people and work, and often paving the way for negative life choices like using alcohol or drugs to mask symptoms.
One person commits suicide every 40 seconds across the globe - that's around 850,000 people a year. There is no other modern day equivalent epidemic that gets close to the amount of people killing themselves and those figures, mostly, are on the rise. So how do we improve our psychological health?
In broad terms we incorporate all of the things we should be doing to maintain good physical health and add in another layer designed to improve how we feel about ourselves. Building good relationships with people and the world around us, creating a peaceful environment where we can hear ourselves think, look at the issues affecting our self-esteem and developing resilience to cope with the inevitable stressors that arrive in all of our lives are just some of the ways we can begin to improve our psychological wellbeing. My photography has gone a long way towards keeping my symptoms manageable, and my life worth living once more. Find something that enthuses you and helps your psychological health by giving your mind something else to focus on. I found creating images that gave both myself and other people pleasure went a long way towards ameliorating many of the more acute symptoms I experienced at the start of my PTSD.
The social dimension of wellbeing is how we find our place within our societies. Do we self-isolate and take no part in what's going on around you locally, or do we engage in those activities that might bring us some pleasure and a sense of being at one with a community? Our relationships with people - our significant others, neighbours, colleagues and even strangers - have the potential to enrich our lives and make real connections with people sharing values similar to our own. Alternatively, and I'm speaking from a personal perspective here, they are equally capable of creating a sense of dread that I have to interact with people I don't relate to and who's values - in my head at least - are quantum light years away from what I believe and have experienced. Therein lies the dichotomy of this dimension. Do we take a brief but possibly painful hit and rejoin the human race, or do we find ourselves mostly on our own and isolated from much that is going on around us? For me I have no problem being on my own or not going to the village hall for an event, but for many people loneliness is a silent, insidious killer that robs them of friendships, intimacy and the opportunity to care for others, and be cared for by others.
So how can we reboot our social dimension to improve our social wellbeing?
Well, for a start you have to recognise it needs improving! Many of us with mental health problems don't enjoy mass gatherings, noisy social events or being in places we feel uncomfortable in so what we do and who we do it with has to have a sense of fit with where we're at psychologically. That's often not so easy to do but, as you've probably gathered by now, I'm going to be discussing how being outdoors - preferably with a camera, can load the dice in our favour. More on that later.
Spiritual health is much more than 'being religious'. Broadly speaking it's about how you connect your inner self with the things that move you; music, literature, art, nature, or your belief in a power higher than yourself are just a few examples. I try to be fully immersed in the moment I'm in - particularly so when I'm outdoors and closer to nature. I get a great sense of peace being around wildlife and empty landscapes. My symptoms improve, and my sense of self is put into perspective as I create opportunities to contemplate the purpose of my life. Given that I've tried to kill myself three times I place as much emphasis on my spiritual health as I do with the other four dimensions of wellbeing. I meditate, practice mindfulness, spend time reflecting on my day and of course connect with nature at every opportunity. But we're all different, and your spiritual health will more than likely differ from mine in many ways - although it's worth remembering positive spiritual health, irrespective of what that means to you, can help with the symptoms of physical and mental illness.
How can we improve our spiritual health?
Spending time identifying those things that give you a sense of inner peace is a good place to start. What gives you a feeling of belonging, reduces your symptoms, makes you feel loved and more able to face up to the day you're in? Once you've found this out spend time each day doing at least one or two of those things. If gardening does it for you then spend half an hour out there, but listen to the birdsong, notice the bugs moving about and the noise the wind makes through the trees. Connect your senses to how the soil smells and feels, and embrace the positive feelings doing something you love brings to you.
Meditate, pray, practice yoga, take up Tai Chi, learn to draw or volunteer to help somebody less fortunate than yourself out. All of these things and more will enhance and strengthen your spiritual health giving you more resilience in times of stress along with ring-fencing time away from some of the stressors you may have in your day.
The final component of wellbeing is about our intellectual health. Again, don't be put off by the title which in reality refers to your ability to improve your intellectual curiosity, creativity and mental stimulation. Mental illness in particular tends to blunt this to a degree with the paradox being our minds, when troubled, respond well to external stimuli like crosswords, Sudoku, board games and reading for pleasure. Starting a new hobby, or returning to one you've not visited for a while is another good way to improve your intellectual wellbeing. Mental health problems love a vacuum. When I was acutely unwell my days were full of nothing but the thoughts in my head so it was little wonder I deteriorated to the point I did. Thankfully I picked up my camera once more and the vacuum was replaced with something that stimulated me and kept my mind busy with more positive things. This in turn gave me a sense of accomplishment rather than another empty day with nothing achieved. The bonus of this was the gradual return of my sense of self-purpose, and an improved willingness to learn more and strive harder to become a better photographer.
Improving our intellectual wellness is as important as our efforts to improve the other four components that together form our overall wellbeing. How you do that is down to what your interests are, the hobbies you might have had or want to explore, and the level you feel able to work at. Positive intellectual wellbeing brings about a greater understanding of who we are, the world we live in and how we can once again lead interesting, stimulated lives that contribute to reclaiming a sense of hope that our futures can be better than our present circumstances.
I've spoken about the five components that go to form wellbeing, and I've touched on some examples of how to improve our wellbeing. For me personally it was (and still is) photography and nature, and I credit both with helping save my life. I'm totally convinced the way forward for people experiencing poor mental and physical health is this journey of wellbeing and incorporating many of the ideas I've explored on this page. That's not to say you need to become a photographer to achieve positive wellbeing, far from it, but without doubt reconnecting to the outdoors brings many benefits; improved mobility, our minds stimulated, reduced social isolation, more exercise and a greater sense of our spiritual interconnections to the world around us. The research, for once, is unequivocal, we need to be out and about more than we currently are for all the reasons I've outlined above so give it a go - but maybe take a camera or your phone with you as you never know what you might see or want to record.
Enjoy yourself. Have hope, it's still a beautiful world out there.