When a person is diagnosed with a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety, first-line treatments usually include psychological therapy and medication. What we don’t always talk about are the changing lifestyle factors that affect our mental health.
Even those who don’t have a mental health problem can still look for ways to improve their mood further, reduce stress, and manage their mental health daily.
It can help make positive life changes. While time constraints and financial constraints can affect some people’s ability to make such changes, we all can make small, significant changes.
Here are five lifestyle changes to get you started:
1. Improve Your Diet
Whole foods such as green leafy vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean red meat, and seafood provide essential nutrients for optimal brain function. These foods contain magnesium, folic acid, zinc and essential fatty acids for lean mass.
Foods rich in polyphenols, such as tea, berries, dark chocolate, wine, and some herbs, also play an essential role in brain function.
In terms of exercise, there are many types of fitness activities that are potentially useful – from swimming, jogging, weight lifting, or sports. Just getting your body moving by doing a brisk walk or doing active household chores is a positive step.
Activities that also involve social interactions, and exposure to nature can potentially further increase mental well-being.
General exercise guidelines recommend doing at least 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week (about 150 minutes total during the week). But even short periods of activity can provide an immediate uplift in mood.
2. Reduce your vices
Dealing with problem drinking or substance abuse is an obvious health recommendation. People with alcohol and drug problems are more likely than average to have a mental illness and have much worse health outcomes.
Some studies have shown that low alcohol consumption (especially wine) can have beneficial effects in preventing depression. However, other recent data has been demonstrated that light alcohol consumption has no beneficial effects on brain function.
Quitting smoking is also an important step, as people addicted to nicotine are frequently at the mercy of drug addiction treatment, which profoundly affects mood. It may take time to address the first symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, but brain chemistry will adjust over time.
Quitting smoking has been linked to a better mood and an anxiety reduction.
3. Prioritize rest and adequate sleep
Sleep hygiene techniques aim to improve the quality of sleep and help treat insomnia. They include regulating caffeine consumption, limiting bed exposure (by adjusting sleep time and having a limited time to sleep), and making sure you get up at the same time in the morning.
It’s also important not to force sleep – if you can’t fall asleep within about 20 minutes, it may be best to get up and focus your mind on an activity (with as little light and stimulation as possible) until you feel tired.
The other pillar of better sleep is reducing exposure to light, incredibly blue light from laptops and smartphones – before going to sleep. This increases the secretion of melatonin, which will help you fall asleep.
Getting enough time for relaxation and leisure activities is essential to manage stress. Leisure can also improve mental health, especially if it involves physical activity.
4. Get a dose of nature
When the sun shines, many of us seem to feel happier. Adequate sun exposure helps levels of the chemical serotonin, which maintains the mood. It also increases levels of vitamin D, which also affects mental health, and helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle at the right time.
The benefits of sun exposure need to be balanced against your skin cancer risk, so consider sun exposure recommendations based on the time of day/year and your colour of skin.
You may also want to consider limiting your exposure to environmental toxins, chemicals, and pollutants, including “noise pollution,” and reducing the use of your cell phone, computer, and TV if they are excessive.
An antidote to this may be to spend time in nature. Studies show that spending time in nature can improve self-esteem and mood. In some parts of Asia, spending time in a forest (known as forest baths) is considered a recipe for mental health.
A natural extension of the time spent in the flora is also the positive effect that animals or pets have on us. Research suggests that having a pet has many positive results, and animal-assisted therapy (with horses, cats, birds, dogs and even dolphins) can also increase the feeling of well-being.
5. Get in touch if you need help
Positive lifestyle changes are not a substitute for medication or psychological therapy, but rather something that people can undertake on their own in addition to their treatment.
While many lifestyle changes can be positive, some changes (like avoiding junk food, alcohol, or quitting smoking) can be difficult if used as a psychological crutch. They may need to be handled with care and professional support.
Strict abstinence advice, or a demanding diet or exercise, can cause additional distress and possibly provoke feelings of guilt if you can’t meet these expectations. So take it easy.
That said, take a moment to think about how you feel mentally after a nutritious meal, a good night’s sleep (without alcohol), or nature walk with a friend.