How to sing yourself happier: Don’t let isolation get you down. Try these surprising ways to keep positive and stay fit in mind and body…
How you are feeling — your mood — is influenced more by your relationships with other people than by changes in the brain. That’s why in these challenging times, when most of us aren’t seeing other people on a regular basis, maintaining a positive outlook is more important than ever.
We know that depression is a common emotional challenge that faces people aged 70 and upwards. In fact, people often say that ‘old age is depressing’.
But while I recognise that depression can be serious and am absolutely not of the school of thought that thinks those with mental health problems should just ‘pull themselves together’, I do want us to get away from the assumption that after a certain point life will inevitably be miserable, because I think that becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead, what I’d like to do is focus on the ways in which, despite what is going on in your life and the challenges you are facing, you can take positive steps to minimise negative thought patterns.
SING YOUR WORRIES AWAY
Music can lift our mood — even against our will. It has always had great power to soothe, calm and comfort us.
There is something special about making your own music. It doesn’t matter if you never learned how to play an instrument, you have your own: your voice.
Give it all you’ve got. Sing in the shower, when cooking a meal or doing chores around the house.
Give it all you’ve got. Sing in the shower, when cooking a meal or doing chores around the house
There’s a huge body of evidence that singing has a wide range of benefits. For a start, when you sing, you breathe in a different way, which uses more of your total lung volume. This, in turn, improves oxygenation of the blood, making you more alert.
Some osteopaths have been known to suggest patients join a choir, as singing helps to open up the diaphragm and forces the body to relax.
But if singing on its own can bring about these sorts of changes, what happens when you sing as part of a choir is miraculous.
There is amazing anecdotal evidence about the impact of choral singing on all sorts of conditions, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to stress and depression. A few years ago, researchers from the Royal College of Music were able to show that listening to and performing music has a positive biological effect on mood and stress levels.
Stretching boosts the brain
To help your body and your brain, try Pilates, t’ai chi, yoga or the Alexander Technique, which all help improve suppleness. Look for classes online, either in real time or videos.
In fact, all types of exercise are good for the mind and actually increase the size of the brain. But the above forms are particularly good because many people find their spiritual dimension helpful.
To help your body and your brain, try Pilates, t’ai chi, yoga or the Alexander Technique, which all help improve suppleness. Look for classes online, either in real time or videos
In some ways, they are close to mindfulness and combine the benefits of that with those of the stretching exercises we have recommended as part of your daily fitness plan.
Another good habit is to help positive thoughts stay in your memory — they’re better than negative ones! Before you go to sleep, avoid your phone and grab a notebook or diary instead. Think back over the day and pick out one or two things you have enjoyed, however small. Write them down.
Then look ahead to tomorrow. Choose one small thing that you would like to do. The key is to choose something achievable, such as pruning a particular rose or phoning a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while. Write this down. In the morning, before you look at any personal ‘to do’ list you have, take a look at your chosen small enjoyment for the day — and do it.
This might sound all well and good in the normal world, where you can join your church choir or a local singing group, but what about when you’re stuck at home alone?
Not a problem! Gareth Malone, whose choir-based exploits have been televised, is heading up a virtual choir that you can join.
The Great British Home Chorus aims to give everyone the opportunity to contribute their voices and instruments to an ambitious digital music project, conceived in the light of many closures of communal rehearsal spaces nationwide. Find out more at decca.com/greatbritishhomechorus
There’s also The Sofa Singers (thesofasingers.com), which every week brings together hundreds of people in real time for 45 minutes of simultaneous singing, learning a classic song with some optional harmonies/backing parts.
Lifefulness Live (lifefulness.io) was inspired by those videos of Italians singing together to make self-isolation less lonely. Every weekday at 6pm there’s a collective singalong.
So what are you waiting for? Warm up those pipes and get ready to belt out a tune.
If you spend time regretting the past or worrying about the future, that’s unlikely to improve your happiness and mental health.
While becoming more physically active is one of the routes you can take — as this will leave you less time to dwell on things — the health service is increasingly offering a technique specifically designed to help you focus on the present. It is called mindfulness.
A doctor will sometimes now refer a person who is depressed to a mindfulness group instead of prescribing a drug.
One of the strengths of mindfulness is that you can do it by yourself at home with the help of one of the CDs which are available — for example, The Mindful Way Workbook by John Teasdale, Mark Williams and Zindel Segal.
Or there are many apps out there that you can download to your phone, such as Headspace.
For some people it might be better to start in a supervised group. Have a look online for classes that are being offered via video-conferencing technologies such as Zoom or Skype.
Meanwhile, here are some mindfulness exercises you can try now.
- Sit somewhere comfortable, but on an upright chair, not a sofa.
- Concentrate on the weight of your feet on the floor.
- Listen to your breathing
- Look at, and concentrate on, something still — the view from the window or a picture on the wall.
- Concentrate on your breathing. Say to yourself ‘breathe in’ and ‘breathe out’ ten times.
- Sit like this for 5 minutes, aware of your body and surroundings.
- If depressing thoughts come into your head, picture them as though they were outside you, like a big advertisement.
- Repeat breathing exercise.
The above steps sound simple, but there is strong evidence from research and the experience of others that it works. For more information, look at nhs.uk and search for ‘mindfulness’.
Another exercise is as simple as spending two whole minutes listening for the sound of silence.
- Find the quietest place you can.
- Check there is no obvious background noise and turn off your mobile.
- Stand, sit on a chair, sit crossed-legged on the floor or squat (if your knees can take it) for two minutes. You need to concentrate and be alert to the slightest sound, so don’t lie down unless you have to — you might drift off to sleep.
Learning the sax at seventy has been exhilerating
Janet Cleaves, 72, is a medical secretary. She lives with her husband Malcolm, 73, a retired black cab driver, in Essex. She says:
I have always wanted to play the saxophone. I used to know Jack Sharp, a baritone sax player who used to play at Ronnie Scott’s with all the famous names. I loved the sound and always wanted to have a go.
I’d played piano as a child but never got round to doing anything musical as an adult.
Janet Cleaves, 72, is a medical secretary
Then a couple of years ago when I turned 70 I decided to try it. A friend sold me her mother’s old sax and I took lessons for a year.
I’m not very good. But I absolutely love it and I’ve always felt it really important to keep my brain active, especially as I’m getting older. I couldn’t bear to be one of those old people who retires and then slumps in front of the television all day and lets their brain become dormant.
Although I didn’t go through all the brain fog of menopause (I had a hysterectomy in my late 20s) I’m very aware that I have to keep my brain, as well as my body, active as I age. It’s why I’m constantly reading, writing or doing tapestry.
I wouldn’t say my memory was bad in the first place but anything that makes you think differently or learn something new has to be a good thing.
I learned how to read music as a child but hadn’t looked at sheet music for a long time. I was amazed when it all came flooding back.
Learning to play an instrument, you have to focus on two things at once — you can’t look down at your fingers when you’re reading music, so your brain is having to remember which keys to use. It’s so exhilarating when you get it right, and no doubt it will make me better at things such as multi-tasking.
My sax playing has also inspired my husband Malcolm to start playing the guitar again.
He was a black cab driver for many years and it’s well known that they have a good hippocampus [the part of the brain vital for learning and memory] because of having to remember and navigate routes, but even he says it’s improved.
He feels playing the guitar has sparked up his brain again and he feels sharper.
- Listen for two minutes (a whole 120 seconds, please).
- Attend to the silence outside you. Leave your thoughts alone. Strain your ears. Could you hear a pin drop? How quiet is silence? Give it your whole attention for two minutes to find out.
GET ENOUGH SLEEP…
It is very important to get enough sleep in order to reduce stress and keep the mind working well.
The amount of sleep that people need varies, but many of us require more as we age. This need is often increased by the side-effects of some of the medications commonly prescribed for blood pressure and heart disease, for example.
Here are some simple rules to help you get a good night’s sleep:
- Set a target — for example, seven hours a night — and make sure you have a regular ‘getting up’ time whatever the night was like. Don’t lie in at the weekends if you can help it; it disrupts your body rhythm and makes it harder to get to sleep that night.
- Don’t nap in the daytime if sleeping at night is a problem.
- Increase exercise during the day, walking round the garden, doing an exercise video . . . whatever it takes. If you’re active enough during the day, you’ll feel ready for bed at the end of it.
- Make sure you have a dark, quiet bedroom (wear an eye mask or use ear plugs if you need to) and a cool, but not cold, bedroom: about 18c/65f helps sleep.
- Learn the mindfulness technique to stop ideas racing round your mind as you try to nod off or if you wake during the night.
- Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol late at night, and drink less fluid generally after 6pm to avoid nightly trips to the loo.
- Have some wind-down time beforehand and a regular ritual for going to bed at the same time, with no exciting films or distressing news images beforehand. If you want to read, choose a peaceful book.
If you’re still awake after about 30 minutes of trying to nod off, get up quietly. Jot down racing thoughts in a notebook or diary (not an electronic device) and put them away until the next day.
Think of the time as a temporary wind-down phase and don’t watch TV or DVDs. Instead, read a book or listen to quiet music through headphones so you don’t disturb anyone else.
Don’t try to sort the problems you didn’t sort out yesterday; don’t check your emails. If worrying about problems is stopping you sleeping, plan to sort these out as soon as possible — not now.
After 30 to 45 minutes, go through your regular bedtime routine again. Brushing your teeth, for example, is behavioural and often works well as a prelude to sleep after a few tries.
…AND HELP OTHERS
For people who have had rewarding jobs and earned respect from the people they were serving, retirement can be a blow. But see it as a new occupation. Could the expertise you’ve built up over decades be useful to others if you set yourself up as a consultant?
It’s also worth thinking about how you could use technology such as FaceTime and Skype to interact with and help others.
With so many children at home, parents are desperate for ways to entertain and home-school them. Are there school subjects where you could help grandchildren or other school-aged children you know? Could you read stories to younger children?
If you can entertain a child for the ten minutes that Mum or Dad is on a work call, you’ve done something really valuable.
Sir Muir Gray is a consultant in public health for the NHS and professor of primary healthcare at Oxford University.
- Taken from his guides to living well: Sod Sixty, Sod Seventy, Sod Sitting: Get Moving and Sod It! Eat Well — all published by Bloomsbury (bloomsbury.com) at £12.99. © Muir Gray.
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