Five Ways to Improve Your Mental Health
Let’s be honest, the past few years have been hard… on everyone. According to a recent study from the World Health Organization (WHO), we are seeing a 25% global increase in anxiety and depression disorders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. When you add on the recent current events, it sometimes feels like it is impossible to escape the constant negativity.
Luckily, there are things you can do to put yourself in the best headspace possible. But first things first – If you are ever feeling anxious, depressed, or anything in-between, consult with your primary care provider. That is always a great place to start. To escape the constant negativity throughout your day-to-day, there are a few tips in particular I use and recommend to my patients:
Make Sure You Get Enough Sleep!
It may sound cliché, but “getting your 8 hours” is extremely important and may have a direct cause and effect on your mental health. Sleep-related disorders are a common symptom of mood, anxiety, and depression disorders. Getting a good night’s sleep will allow you to recharge, maintain energy, and help improve concentration and memory.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, to consistently get the sleep your body desperately needs, having strong sleep hygiene is essential. Sleep hygiene, or otherwise known as a sleep routine, will train your mind and body to know that it is time to start preparing to go to sleep. Try these tips to establish healthy sleep hygiene:
- Routine is key – try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends
- Set a bedtime that will allow you to get AT LEAST 7 hours of sleep per night
- Make sure your nighttime routine is relaxing – eliminate bright lights, sounds, etc. that will prevent you from falling asleep
- Don’t lie in bed awake if you cannot sleep – try doing something relaxing until you feel tired (like reading your favorite book with a dim light)
- If possible, try to exercise regularly. Of course, that can be difficult given everyone’s busy schedules, but having an exercise routine can have a positive impact on your sleep hygiene
- Avoid caffeine or nicotine late in the day and before you go to bed
Even the smallest of movements can positively impact your mental health. When you’re physically active, your body releases endorphins, or chemicals from the brain that relieve pain and create an overall sense of well-being. Furthermore, physical activity improves mental fatigue, muscle tension, memory, and focus… all while giving you a major sense of accomplishment!
Once cleared by your health care provider, try to aim for around 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. Remember, you don’t have to lift heavy weights or go for a three-mile run to have a “good workout.” Walks around the neighborhood, doing yardwork, parking farther away at the store, and even taking the stairs are all great ways in corporate physical activity into your daily routine.
Remember – if you are not active, be sure to start slow, and get clearance from your medical provider. Also, it is always more fun to be active with a buddy; try to find someone to exercise with you. This is great for not only making exercise more enjoyable but will also hold you more accountable.
Eat Well — The Gut and Mind Connection
According to an article published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry last year, “A growing body of literature shows that the gut microbiome plays a shaping role in a variety of psychiatric disorders, including major depressive disorder.” This gut microbiome, known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), are two tiny layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from your esophagus all the way to your rectum. The ENS acts, for all intents-and-purposes, as a highway of communication between your brain and your gut.
Unsurprisingly, our diet is directly linked to our mental health. Diets such as the Mediterranean Diet that are high in fruits, vegetables, fish/seafood, and whole grains, have shown to reduce the risk of depression by 25-35%. In fact, in 2019, U.S News & World Report ranked the Mediterranean diet the number one overall best diet, citing a “host of health benefits such as weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and even diabetes prevention.” Eating fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel not only taste great, but because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids, they can reduce inflammation, strengthen skin, and provide a heightened sense of well-being.
Connect with others
It’s no secret that people who feel close and connected with others have lower levels of depression and/or anxiety. According to the Stanford Medicine Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, studies show that those who feel connected have higher self-esteem, show more empathy, are more willing to work with other people, and are more trusting.
On the other hand, the opposite can be true for those who do not engage socially. One study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. People who lack social connection are associated with declines in both physical and psychological health and showed more signs of antisocial behavior. Long story short – being connected socially increases your social, emotional, and physical well-being.
Sometimes, we just need to get away and take a mental break. A great place to start is by meditating – a helpful way to help relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. During meditation, the goal is to focus your attention on the task/thought at hand while ridding your mind of negative thoughts. Not only will this help you emotionally, but physically as well; including benefits such as lower resting heart rate, resting blood pressure, and improving sleep quality.
My colleague, Dr. Ken Zweig, published a blog about “micro-meditation,” which he described as “incorporating small bits of meditation and mindfulness into your typical routine, resting your mind throughout your day.” Let’s say, for example, while you’re preparing breakfast in the morning and you’re thinking about your long to-do list, try focusing your energy solely on cooking your food. This example only takes a minute or two and will allow your mind to move to a more neutral mindset, removing negative thoughts and stressors.
Give any (or all) of these tips a try and see what one fits you and your lifestyle. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to our mental health. Also, and this cannot be stressed enough, you are not alone. We are all doing the absolute best we can to get through these unusual times. Be patient and kind to one another, and do not be afraid to ask for help.