Last updated: 18.05.22

How learning can boost your mental health

What comes to mind when you think of learning? School? University? The stress of exams, tests and learning subjects you don’t have any interest in? You wouldn’t be alone if that rings true. Learning at school is often a stressful and anxiety-inducing experience, and in fact, for these very reasons, school often impacts children’s mental health. It’s no wonder we shy away from it later in life. Yet, in adults learning can have a different effect if we allow it. Putting the time and effort into learning a new subject or skill can often help improve our mental health, especially if we are suffering from low moods, low self-esteem, a lack of focus or mild anxiety and depression.

In fact, learning can help you in many different ways:

  • Provides a goal and a purpose – having something to work towards – and the accomplishments it results in – can give you a great sense of achievement.
  • Boosts self-confidence and self-esteem – whether it’s a skill at work or in your personal life, knowing you can do something new is a great boost to your self-confidence.
  • Helps you connect with others – learning can open you up to new people, friendships and, for that reason, can help combat loneliness. It may even help you find your ‘tribe’, those people who you really connect with and who you feel understand you and share your interest.
  • Sets you up for new possibilities, or a different future – developing new skills can broaden your horizons, or help discover an interest that you could see yourself building a career out of. It can help you if you’re in a rut by providing the inspiration you need to try a new direction.
  • Provides a distraction – if you’ve been through, or are going through, a tough time and you need something to distract your mind, learning may bring the peace and break your mind needs.
  • Gain new perspectives – learning a new topic can provide new insights into the world and life that you may not otherwise have had.
  • It’s something that is just yours – this is especially relevant for parents whose lives very much revolve around their families, and who are looking for something that can be just theirs. By providing an outlet that is just yours, learning can help you develop or re-develop a sense of self.
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Out of all this struggle, a good this is going to grow. That makes it worthwhile.
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John Steinbeck

How to motivate yourself to learn

Yet, despite all these benefits, learning is rarely prioritised in adulthood. Maybe it is if we’re aiming for a qualification – masters, PhD or a diploma – but rarely if it’s anything smaller. There are always other higher priorities in our lives. Now we know that it can have a positive effect on our mental health, how can we find that motivation?

  • Learn with someone else – Having someone to learn with is a great motivation. You can share challenges, concerns, as well as the gains and enjoyment. It’s always nice to have some to encourage you as well if you’re struggling.
  • Make a plan – Have an idea of how you’re going to learn your new skill. How are you going to make the time? When are you going to focus on it? Is it going to be a certain day a week, or maybe a certain number of hours each week? Do you have a deadline in mind for when you want to achieve it by? Having this kind of personal development plan in mind is often half the battle to actually getting stuck into learning new skills.
  • Don’t try and bite off more than you can chew – Embarking on too many new skills or topics at once can be overwhelming and off-putting, so make sure you pace yourself and don’t attempt too much at once.
  • Keep a journal of what you’ve learnt or gained – writing down the benefits is a nice way to remind yourself what you’re gaining from the learning, and helps document your development.

Learning isn’t always a formal activity

We often think of learning as formal activities – qualifications, workshops, classroom-based training – and though they obviously have their place, there are other ways we can learn too, but we often don’t see them as learning.

We can watch videos (YouTube and its wonderful library of how-to videos), read books, listen to podcasts, watch webinars. We can even go to seminars and talks, or museums and galleries.

There are many ways we can expand our knowledge. So, if you want to learn something new but don’t feel you can face a workshop or classroom, then choose a subject and see what other resources you can find. They’re a great place to start.

How to decide where to start

If you’re thinking of learning for work, have you considered what skills you need to improve? Or carried out a skills matrix to assess your skills? Do you need to work on time management, or do you want to improve your presentation skills? Carrying out these tasks and asking yourself these sorts of questions are great steps to realising what skills you may want to focus on.

But it isn’t just about learning at work, there is so much to learn outside of work too. Find things you enjoy that could enhance your personal life. You could learn some DIY skills, or new cooking techniques. Take a writing course, a photography course, or a dance class. It doesn’t have to be a dull subject at all!

Learning isn’t always easy, but don’t let that put you off

As we highlighted at the beginning, learning new things can often be hard and cause stress, just as it was at school, so keep that in mind and put things in place so you aren’t knocked off your perch.

Depending on what you’re learning, you may want support or someone who can help you. If you’re studying through an institution, a tutor should be on hand, so be sure to be open with them about any worries, nerves or anxiety you may be feeling. Even if you’re studying at work, turn to your manager or a colleague and let them know if you’re struggling, so they can lend support and encouragement.

If you’re learning off your own back, don’t put too much pressure on yourself and allow yourself to make mistakes. It’s all about a growth mindset – learning is a process after all. And, remember, anything worthwhile is going to be a struggle at times. So, what are you waiting for?

Looking for inspiration for which skills you can develop for work? Check out our library of Personal and Professional Development courses.