Looking at popular media today, we all read a lot about “self-care.” Sometimes self-care sounds like permission to do whatever brings one the greatest joy, whether it’s eating ice cream or getting massages. But self-care should be focused on mind and body. In today’s age, we are sleeping less, working more, and spending fewer and fewer hours with our loved ones or participating in activities we enjoy. Articles detailing burnout – among people of all ages and walks of life – are going viral. We need a “self-care” call to action because people are suffering from record levels of burnout and mental distress.
Scientists suggest that many mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety could be “lifestyle diseases” – conditions that can be improved or worsened by factors in our daily environment. Whether your mental health is currently suffering, or you feel like you are sliding towards depression and/or anxiety, there are things you can do now to take care of yourself starting today. You can always start with one habit at a time and increase it from there.
Here are the top evidence-based lifestyle strategies that can boost your mental health:
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The benefits of exercise cannot be underestimated. Studies have confirmed that lack of physical activity and increased sedentary behavior such as watching television are risk factors for depression. Furthermore, in a large-scale meta-analysis, exercise was significantly better than no intervention at combatting depression symptoms, and it can be used as a valuable adjunct to other types of treatment. Exercise reduces inflammation, moderates hormone levels, and improves nerve cell generation—all of which impact good cognitive and mental health. While aerobic exercise versus strength training have different yet overlapping benefits, do not worry about which activity is superior. The best exercise for you is the type you will continue over the long-term.
Food intake has a strong correlation to mental health. Not only does processed food cause inflammation, oxidation and create a body environment conducive to depression, not eating enough whole foods puts the body at risk for nutrient deficiencies that further exacerbate low mood. Eating a diet high in whole vegetables and fruits, adequate-protein, and poly-unsaturated fats can help support good mental health. Make good choices by focusing on healthy options you can enjoy rather than what to avoid.
Circadian rhythm is your body’s daily sleep-wake rhythm. Disruptions in this cycle cause your body to become stressed and can lead to depression. Of course, depression is also associated with too much or too little sleep. While you may need treatment for chronic or even temporary insomnia, getting to bed a little bit earlier on a regular basis and ensuring a restful bedtime routine can make a profound difference in your health.
Meditation changes our brain’s chemistry. It can increase the size of certain areas of the brain, bringing more blood flow, and elevating our natural “feel good” hormones. In a study measuring the effect of mindfulness meditation in subjects with anxiety and depression, mindfulness-based training improved mood symptoms. There are a variety of classes and meditation apps online that can help you get started – no need to become a master yogi right away to reap the benefits.
Seeking help does not make you weak. There are many ways to improve mental health, and you can start them before any full-blown or serious issues arise. If you’re going through a particularly stressful time in your work or personal life, taking some time for yourself to make key lifestyle changes – even small ones – can help you stay more resilient. But, if you can’t cope on your own, there are a multitude of services and treatments supported by scientific research that will help you. Medication may be a helpful option, but sometimes it’s not enough. A good mental health plan is well-rounded and addresses multiple pillars of health. Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or dTMS, has been shown to be an effective tool in helping to relieve symptoms of depression and can increase the efficacy of antidepressant medications.
It can seem daunting to protect your mental health when you’re feeling run down. It’s helpful to lean on family, friends, and professionals for support. As public consciousness for the importance of mental wellness is recognized, treatments and self-care will be validated instead of stigmatized. Until then, please take stock of some of the above tips to care for your own mental health and seek treatment if and when needed.