If you’re asking yourself how you can improve your mental health, then you’re likely suffering from some mental or emotional health concerns such as depression, anxiety, irritability, or high levels of stress. We’re here to tell you that you’re not alone, and there are vital things you can do to improve your mental health!
Some studies show that at any point in time, around 20% of adults are dealing with a mental illness of some form. If you’re like many, then the very mention of mental illness puts you on guard. The term may conjure images of people like the Joker from Batman or John Forbes Nash, Jr. in A Beautiful Mind. While these characters certainly represent mental illness, these are more severe forms of mental illness. There are many gradations of mental illness ranging from a mild anxiety disorder to delusional schizophrenia. Although there you may feel there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, almost every person can relate to feeling anxious, stressed, or down – you are not alone.
Try to move past the negative stigma associated with the term mental illness and realize that about half of all adults in the U.S. will experience a mental illness at some point in their life! When we talk about these disorders in that way, it starts to feel a lot less alienating.
Ok, we should probably take a second before diving into ways to improve mental health to mention that those experiencing suicidal ideations or who feel like they need immediate help with what they are mentally experiencing should reach out to a licensed healthcare provider immediately. If you’re this person and if you’re giving this last paragraph a second thought you may be, reach out as soon as possible.
Ok, phew! Now that’s over, we can start talking about things that can improve mental health for those that are experiencing less distressing mental health issues or just want to optimize their mental wellbeing.
Keep reading to learn the basics of good mental health!
Foundational Pillars of Health
Mental health is built on some of the same foundations as physical health. These are the core aspects of health that, when even slightly off, can wreak havoc on the rest of our body systems. Ever heard of the butterfly effect? That the concept that a butterfly can flap its wings in California and cause a hurricane halfway across the world. It’s a small aberration that can multiply into substantial changes and destruction.
Have we driven home the point yet that the foundational pillars of health can not be taken seriously enough? By this point, you’re likely saying to yourself, Dr. Kasey, we get it, so what are the foundational pillars of health?
The first pillar that supports our solid mental health house is sleep. A little anticlimactic, we know, but sleep is one of those parts of our life that we take for granted, at least until we start losing it! Those that have insomnia or other sleep disorders are sagely nodding their head.
Many of us fortunate enough to be free of a sleeping disorder frequently miss sleep because we are wrapped up in social media, television, or work. The fact is that for many, sleep is not on the top of our priority lists. Why? It’s a good question we each have to ask ourselves individually.
The typical answer to this question is that we get caught up in what we are doing at the moment, or we think that we can just “catch-up” on sleep during the weekend. The debate of whether or not a person can catch up on sleep continues today, with some research indicating you can catch up to an extent, while other research refutes these findings.
The circadian rhythm is the natural sleep-wake cycle. It is a complex interplay between hormones such as melatonin and cortisol (our stress hormone). Plus, there are specific genes called “clock genes” that are important for regulating many aspects of our health (including cancer risk, cardiovascular health, and weight/diabetes). These genes are only active at certain times during the day or night (hence the name clock genes), so sleep interruption, shift work, and irregular sleep patterns can interfere with these genes and therefore have many adverse consequences!
Sleep is a time for our body to rest and rebuild from 16 hours of being awake and burning through energy. Inadequate sleep may take the most significant toll on the brain, because during our hours of slumber, we cycle through stages of sleep which help consolidate memory, make new neural connections, and remove metabolic waste from neural tissue. If all of that sounds important, well, it is! Inadequate sleep has been linked to a host of physical and mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
Some techniques can improve your sleep, such as sleeping in complete darkness, removing electronics from the room, or putting them on airplane mode, as well as using natural sleep aid supplements to help you sleep.
Most importantly, addressing the reason why you can’t sleep should come first.
If you continually struggle with sleep, then schedule an appointment with one of our doctors so we can help you identify what is the underlying cause of your sleep disturbances are.
What kind of doctor would we be if we didn’t talk about the importance of exercise? It’s always strange to hear people say that they don’t frequently exercise, especially for those with sedentary jobs. That’s most of us, by the way, in the 21st century! If humans were meant to stay in one place each day, all of us would likely be born without legs. Use them to get at least 30 minutes of exercise three to four times per week.
We all have probably heard the amazing benefits of regular exercise for improving physical health and reducing the likelihood of developing certain medical conditions in the future. Regular exercise is linked to lower incidences of many cardiovascular diseases, respiratory conditions, and musculoskeletal conditions, among others.
The truth is, movement is the best antidepressant available – with no side effects (except maybe some muscle soreness if you are lifting weights). Research shows that people with major depressive disorder who began exercising significantly reduced their depressive symptoms. Also, regular exercise has been shown to prevent depression relapses as well.
Although working out for 30-60 minutes at the gym can be helpful, it is important to also focus on moving more throughout the day. When you think about it, if you spend 23 hours per day sitting or lying down, and one 60 minutes moving, you are spending less than 5% of your day engaging in movement! I am sure it is easy to recognize that this is a very low percentage.
There are ways to fit in additional movement throughout the day. Even small changes like parking far away from the store, or getting up every hour to walk around for 5 minutes can make a positive impact on how you feel. Research has shown that being sedentary is associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, as well as depression.
It is safe to say, we feel better when we move more.
Beginning to exercise or move more can feel overwhelming. However, baby steps can make all the difference. If you are currently very sedentary, jumping into a 2-hour workout routine daily as well as 10,000 steps per day is not a great idea. Beginning slow and consistently is essential.
Begin by making a goal for exercise that you would like to achieve in 6 months.
Now, work backward.
If your goal is to walk 10,000 steps per day and lift weight for 3 hours total per week, what would your 5-month goal be? – 8,500 steps and 2.5 hours of weight lifting per week?
How about 4 months and 2 weeks? – 7,500 steps and 2.5 hours per week?
Keep working your way back.
Is your 6-month goal realistic?
Is the plan you made something you can *easily achieve?
If not, be honest with yourself and rework your goals.
Have a week-by-week plan to keep yourself on track.
Now, get your body moving!
The third pillar of health that cannot be missed when supporting our house of mental and physical health is diet. For the longest time, “experts” said that a person’s diet didn’t have much impact on their mental wellbeing, now everybody is starting to realize just how much the diet contributes to our mental health. While there is quite a bit of research that has been conducted on how inflammation from the diet affects the mental state, I will stick to what we can test out for ourselves. To read our other blogs about mental health and diet, click here!
Before we get too far into this diet section, we should talk briefly about the confusing nature of diets. Fad diets seem to pop into existence all the time; they may work for a short period only for you to end up falling off the diet heavier than before you started. This is because fad diets are precisely what the name suggests, fads. These diets that significantly restrict carbohydrates, fats, etc. are not long term solutions to how you should be eating every day for the rest of your life.
At Onyx, we don’t believe in placing you on a fad diet but teaching sustainable ways to select healthy meals and giving you rules of thumb for picking food. It seems to go without saying that simple sugars, sweets, and fast foods are not the healthiest options. Most people know that they need to increase the amount of green leafy vegetables and decrease the number of fried foods eaten. But we teach you how to implement practical dietary knowledge that is useful in your everyday life. This approach makes more sense to us than extreme dieting.
Ok, back to our diet and mental health! If you have ever cleaned up your diet by decreasing simple and refined sugars, eliminating fast food, and increasing your vegetable intake, then you likely know that food can have a significant impact on how you feel. What happens when you tighten up your diet, and you go binge greasy fast food? If you like most, you feel utterly AWFUL for up to two days after this meal. That’s first-hand proof that your diet can impact how you feel. We also should keep in mind that how we feel physically influences our mental states.
If you haven’t been extremely conscious of cleaning up your diet in the past, then you still can probably relate to what I’m talking about. Ever ordered in a pizza, eaten half the pizza, then felt so bad you had to lay down and binge Netflix the rest of the night? Ok, you may have binged Netflix anyway, but the pizza didn’t help.
The main point here is cleaning up your diet can have a significant impact on your mental health. Avoid fad diets, fast food, and sweets, and eat lots of leafy green vegetables, colored vegetables, and lean meats. Most importantly, if you need more guidance, reach out!
Ah, stress? Ever heard of it? I’m guessing you have not only heard of it, but have likely experienced some level of stress yourself (to say the least). Stress is implicated in almost every chronic disease there is – including mental health! Although we can’t change all the stressors in our lives, we can work on improving our reaction to them as well as introduce daily stress-relieving activities.
Stress reduction is vital for wellbeing. It should be something that is part of every single day. It doesn’t have to take long or be complex – but it should be an activity that is specifically geared toward stress alleviation.
One of our favorite techniques at Onyx is journaling. Completing 20 minute “dumps” each day is a great way to allow your body to expel negative emotions as well as process thoughts or experience you have had during the day.
Set a timer for 20 minutes and write until the timer stops – don’t worry about what you are saying as things may be coming from your subconscious – this is a good thing!
If you would like guidance on how to improve your mental health, schedule an appointment with our Naturopathic Doctors to get started on your health journey.