Dr Alex George: How to adjust your lifestyle to support your mental health

In 2015, in the midst of a hospital placement in Truro, Alex George was lost.

He was a student in the fourth year of his Exeter University medical degree, was out of his depth and, mentally, he was spinning out.

‘I lost interest in exercise, I wasn’t going outside, my sleep was all over the place, I was eating terribly, wasn’t speaking to friends or doing anything I actually enjoyed,’ says the A&E doctor — and former Love Islander — from Carmarthen, Wales.

‘When I spoke to my mum about it, she said: “We need to get you doing the things that make you feel good”.

‘That’s when I started the rule of walking every day outside. I created a routine around sleep, I started cooking my meals, I had an exercise programme, I made plans to see friends every weekend and to call a friend or different person every night. So I’d have really meaningful interactions and conversations with people. And it was amazing for me. It made a huge difference. Looking back I probably had a mild depressive episode.’

Fast forward, and things since have been a whirlwind of triumph and tragedy for the 30-year-old.

First there was that Love Island stint in 2018, which saw him leave single but a household name. Passionate about his day job, he returned to A&E (‘going back was the best thing I ever did’).

But two years later, in July 2020, his brother Llŷr took his own life. It was a month before he too was due to start medical school — he was just 19.

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Alex had already been to No.10 to talk to Theresa May about mental health in schools following his earlier experiences but his brother’s death was the push to step up campaigning.

Now he’s the government’s Young Mental Health Ambassador and is passionate about encouraging Gen Z-ers and millennials to talk, particularly as the years leading up to the age of 25 — which can be a pressure-cooker mix of studying, exams, leaving home, first loves and newly found independence — are so transitional.

‘It’s hugely important,’ says Alex. ‘I think with my brother, for example, he didn’t reach out, he didn’t say anything at all. That is very hard to accept and it still is a problem. Young men particularly seem to really struggle to speak out about mental health. So the more that we normalise that conversation, improve emotional literacy and the kind of environment of openness as they go through school, the hope is we can combat some of those layers of stigma.

‘In the last year we’ve spoken more about mental health and wellbeing than we have in the last decade, which is undoubtedly a positive thing in terms of making progress. But we’ve got to keep that momentum up now.’

His plan with the government is to set up early support hubs for those with emerging mental health needs before they meet the threshold for CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). He wants more early, easy-access services where a referral is not needed.

‘We know early intervention is key when it comes to wellbeing and mental health,’ he says. ‘People can actually access support at the point where things start becoming an issue, rather than when they become a much bigger problem.’

He admits the mental health sector is a complicated space, particularly when it comes to funding.

‘But if I can walk away making a few small changes that are tangible, I’m happy with that,’ he adds.

Alex’s Rule of Three if you’re struggling with your mental healh

‘It can, of course, be difficult to talk about the way you’re feeling.

‘Try to speak to someone in your friends and family group, someone in your work or school life — all universities, for example, should have support services — or a professional, such as a GP, about how you’re feeling. That way, in all your different circles there’s someone who can support you. With friends and family, create the right environment so maybe don’t talk about it when you’re in Tesco or in a queue — do it when you’re sitting down together and say, “This is how I’m feeling, I have been struggling”.

‘You might need to have further interventions, talking therapies or counselling. You might need support that a lot of the charities can provide — but the first step is actually talking about it.’

In the meantime, he’s doing all he can to keep the discussion going: he podcasts on the subject, and has written a book, Live Well Every Day, that provides a tool kit.

‘I realised most people aren’t taught about mental health at school, and a lot of people don’t practise self-care in a way that they could,’ he says. ‘I knew I was passionate about mental health, it’s something I’ve seen a lot of in A&E. There’s a huge misconception that A&E doctors treat just physical problems. At least a third of our workload relates to mental health.’

So what to do when things are not too shipshape?

‘I think it’s sticking to the suggested routines, knowing what helps you,’ he says.

‘Find things that help and support your wellbeing. It’s very easy to always be working towards your commitments and your job and the things you have to do. But are you doing something every day you actually enjoy? If you’re burning the candle, not sleeping well, busy all week then at the weekends you’re going out but not actually doing exercise or having meaningful interactions with people you’re friends with, that’s going to wear you down.

‘So it’s having an honest look at your own lifestyle and thinking — is your lifestyle conducive to feeling good?’

Below, Alex shares his tips for living well every day.

Take your time

‘Just because things are open doesn’t mean you have to sit inside a pub or restaurant,’ says Alex. ‘Do things when you feel comfortable to do so. It takes time to move forward so spend time with people who respect your boundaries.’

Focus on sleep

Some benefited in lockdown from better sleep, others had worse, with raised levels of anxiety because their routine went out the window. People aren’t having that consistent bedtime or wake-up time. Remove blue lights an hour before bed.

Practice self care

Everyone should do at least one thing every day that is just for you. Just for a feeling of peace, not to tick off boxes, but doing something for yourself. I love bath bombs so I’ll relax with some music on. It could be reading a book, playing guitar, anything you want.

Exercise

Find an exercise you enjoy and feel you can stick to. We’ve been pushing people to go to the gym but it can be any exercise you enjoy. For a quick workout, I roll out a yoga mat and put on Joe Wicks. A lot of modern life is sitting at desks — you’ve got to move.

Create a routine

Factor in things that help you feel happier and healthier. One of the things we’ve learned from the pandemic is the importance of nature — being outside in green spaces. A morning walk sets a circadian rhythm and is great for your sense of calm.

Live Well Every Day is out now. Find Alex George @dralexgeorge

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