World Mental Health Day on 10 October serves as a reminder that we all deserve to live our lives with dignity. This day each year is dedicated to raising global awareness of the advocacy against the social stigma sometimes associated with mental health issues. We all have a responsibility to ensure that those around us - family, friends and work colleagues - get the support they need to live the best lives they can. And sometimes all that we need to revitalise and rebalance ourselves is a little space; time away from the daily treadmill to stop, stare and breathe. Holidays have proven to help us on our way to rejuvenation and recovery.
The World Federation for Mental Health established this annual commemoration of being mindful of the impact mental health issues can have on the lives of so many across the globe. It was the initiative of Richard Hunter, the then Deputy Secretary General of the Federation and is held on 10 October every year, when it was intended that we all take the day off work to simply chill!
Mental wellbeing is important to a healthy functioning society. From taking care of ourselves, our families, and performing efficiently in the workplace, to forming strong social interactions and relationships, happy healthy individuals are the threads of the fabric of our communities. But what is the recipe for happiness and wellbeing?
Abraham Lincoln knew it was all about internal wellbeing, as opposed to external factors, such as money and assets. His pronouncement on it was: "Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be." Wise words.
For me, what helps to make me happy is having some downtime. Having the needs of a home, husband and extended family to squeeze in between the demands of a busy job and seeing my friends leaves little, if no time at all, for me to simply stop, empty my head and let all those tensions go. And relax. A holiday gives me that time and space that we all need from time to time, to focus on the reset button in our lives.
While the first things to spring to mind in the recipe for relaxation would be sun loungers around the pool and cool drinks in hand under beach parasols, it has been scientifically proven that exercise and participation in activities does a lot more for you than simply build muscle. Exercise of many sorts is said to help dispel anxiety, stress and depression, lifting the spirits and leaving us with a greater sense of achievement and wellbeing. It also stimulates the circulation of blood around your body - and so to your brain - which is another crucial factor as to why getting off our backsides and moving about generally makes us feel much better. Being tied to a desk for most of my waking hours in my work as an editor means being able to hike, cycle and get out and about is currently the biggest luxury in my life - and all of that happens on my holidays.
So get your calendars out and start looking at some rejuvenating holiday options to dispel the post-Christmas blues and give yourself a real pick-me-up to look forward to come the New Year.
Walk your way to happiness
It costs nothing; it has no nasty side effects that you might get with medications; it doesn't leave you with a hangover; and it certainly clears my head and makes me feel as happy as I have ever been. I'm talking about walking.
In a recent Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health study it was found that walking for an hour a day reduces the risk of depression and anxiety attacks by as much as 26%. That is because what goes on in your legs as you walk produces changes in your brain, leading to the release of those all-powerful endorphins which make you feel good, putting a whole different spin on the way you see your world.
How many of you knew that Tenerife, largest of the Canary Islands, is a walkers' mecca? There are actually 600 miles of walking trails on this island, varying greatly in the physical challenge that they present. Being completely honest, my walking in Tenerife started from my resort in Adeje, and took me along a beachside path, past a shopping mall, beaches, bars and restaurants, until I reached the pretty harbour town of Los Cristianos. Alive with ferries, fishermen, and wonderful little eateries scattered along its busy promenade, I rewarded myself on arrival by lunching on some delicious traditional Canarian dishes. It was well worth the six-mile walk, which took me about three hours, stopping for refreshments and to admire the views along the way.
You can also start out at the beautiful fishing village of La Caleta walking along a six-mile trail to Mount Guaza. Known locally as the Geranium Walk, it is strangely short on colourful blooms but rich in seafront resorts and showcases some of the island's most splendid beaches, such as the upmarket Playa del Duque and Puerto Colón, with its glistening marina and quirky lighthouse which illuminates some pretty cool bars by night.
Returning to Tenerife many times since - with the help of a hire car, as it is a very easy place to drive in or get around on public transport - I took to walking the island more seriously by taking on the world's third highest volcano. Having driven up Mount Teide until the clouds became our floor and the clear, bright sky blazed above us, we parked up, pulled on our walking boots and rambled over the higher levels of this majestic volcanic peak. It was actually quite out of this world! The orange, rocky terrain burns against the bluest of skies and the wind whips about your face. I read somewhere that a pair of ESA Rover moon-landing vehicles were tested on Teide's surreal landscape, and I can see why. It goes without saying that the panoramic views are breathtaking and like no others you are likely to see.
We took our hike a stage further, going to the summit in the cable car, having obtained a permit in advance to ramble around on the very peak - an experience I shall remember forever. If you do want to walk the summit, remember it is a national park and in the interests of its preservation, visitor numbers to the very top are limited and allowed access by permit only. So get your permit in advance, online from the Reservas de Parques Nacionales' website, as it's a hell of a way to go to be disappointed! It is free, and you only have to complete a form with the dates you would like to ascend the summit.
Thermal waters working wonders
Taking the waters is an altogether gentler pursuit than trekking around Mount Teide - more about reaching a state of calm than exhilaration. It is nonetheless therapeutic for that. My chosen place to dip my toes in the healing waters would be Hungary, a much underestimated holiday destination in my book. You might even do a two-centre break and take a week's walking around fascinating Budapest, followed by a week of relaxation and rejuvenation in the beautiful spa town of Hajdúszoboszló, one of the country's most famous.
The restorative waters are everywhere in this town, from its open-air swimming pool complex and Aquapark, where you can fill your lungs with fresh air and find a release in some splashing fun, to its large indoor pool.
The Apollo Thermal Apartments resort (5867), which is signed up to the RCI Holiday Exchange programme, can be found here, just a few minutes' walk from the spa's curative thermal waters. The resort itself also boasts a very special swimming pool, filled with waters from the local thermal springs, so you don't have to venture out to float around until you feel all your muscle tensions melt away and a state of blissful calm descend upon your mind, body and spirit.
You can't spend all your time in the waters, however, and when you find yourself perfectly chilled, calm and ready to explore, take a tour and head for the legendary Hortobágy National Park, or the Puszta as it is known, on the Great Hungarian Plain. It is a perfectly preserved pastoral landscape, where animal husbandry thrived as far back as 2,000BC. Between April and October, a variety of livestock are put out on these plains to graze, while the many surviving ancient stone buildings and structures will complete your travel back to distant times during your tour. Getting back to water - this time on it - Lake Tisza, a manmade reservoir on the Plain, is a great place to canoe and kayak. Its peaceful shores and grassy wetlands will be as soothing on your psyche as the thermal waters themselves.
On the doorstep of this agricultural haven is Hungary's second-largest city, Debrecen, known as the Capital of the Hungarian Plain. Its majestic 19th century golden Calvinist Great Church is possibly its most iconic landmark, and it comes complete with a central square, as well as more than its share of festivals during the summer months. Thermal baths, of course, come as standard in this region of Hungary and you can always take a quick dip while in the city to restore your equilibrium.
An appetite for happiness
We are all familiar with the expression 'comfort eating'. I have certainly eaten to achieve that feeling of satisfaction, and even control, during stressful periods in my life. I quickly learned, however, that while the whole dining experience is akin to spas, relaxation therapies and wellness treatments in terms of relaxing your tensions and triggering that feel good factor, it is also important to be sure to eat the right foods. Knowing you are eating healthily will be a positive for your overall mindfulness and wellbeing.
Like the activities suggested in this blog, the benefits of eating are largely around it being something you can enjoy with family and friends. It is a pleasurable social event, and participating in social activities puts a big tick in our mental wellbeing box. Dining is also something that tops most of our lists of favourite things to do while off on a getaway and sampling the local cuisine is something of a treat for us all on our journey of discovery about our chosen holiday destination.
How fortunate then, that the renowned Mediterranean Diet, proven to promote healthy hearts, minds and longevity, is the food of several of our favourite European holiday destinations which border the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece, Spain and Italy. Translucent amber and pale green olive oils, freshly caught fish and colourful fruit and vegetables grown on the land around your resort are all irresistible features of the holiday menus of my dreams.
In any Greek taverna, looking out over the sunset which is mirrored in the glassy waves gently lapping the shores, you will most likely find baked sardines on the menu. The papalina sardine, caught off the island of Lesvos is one of the country's most famed fish. It is often baked with olive oil, lemon and seasonings; very simple honest-to-goodness cooking that doesn't mask the delicate flavour of the fish. While you savour each mouthful, you can dine happily in the knowledge that you are eating a food that is assured to boost your brain power and energy. Rich in EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids which research has shown eating between 250 to 500mgs each day can lower the risk of contracting heart disease by at least 25%, while DHA is crucial for brain health and promotes healthy brain aging.
Spanish food is much loved. Strolling along the ribbons of pale warm sands of the Costas, or visiting the white villages that cling to the cliffs along Spain's southern coast, you can't help but work up an appetite. While fish is also a staple in this country, the Spanish chefs do some remarkable things with vegetables. Try espinacas con garbanzos, or spinach and chickpeas to you and I. It doesn't sound as if it would win any MasterChef awards, but it is a savoury and delicious way to end a day of coastal exploration with your family and friends. Cumin, garlic and paprika bring the stewed spinach and chickpeas to life to make a tasty tapas. It can be teamed up with a carrot tapas - which cooked the Spanish way, with garlic, apple cider vinegar and assorted spices, totally transforms the boring old carrot.
There is a saying that if you want good food in Italy, then follow the good wine, and you will find it around the vineyards. That's why the city of Brescia, sitting in the heart of the famed wine-producing region of Franciacorta, was put on the food map in 2017 when it was awarded the title of European Region Of Gastronomy.
There are 2,800 vineyards in the region which produce some four million bottles of wine each year. While my favourite Italian dishes are covered with lashings of creamy sauces and cheese over mountains of fresh pasta, the great thing about Italian chefs is that they also do so much with healthy little tomatoes. Many dishes feature tomato-based sauces which are much less calorific than the cheese sauces. Don't overlook the salads and, in particular, the Caprese salad. The simple things are often the best and this is as simple as it comes, being basically layered slices of tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella cheese, all topped with another of Italy's culinary gems - a balsamic dressing drizzle. You can use halved cherry tomatoes and balls of mozzarella if you prefer, it tastes just as good either way and you have saved your calories for a large glass of Berlucchi wine - one of the region's finest tipples. Saluti!
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