Everyone's mental health goes through periods of highs and lows. Whether you're dealing with a diagnosed condition, or experiencing a phase of low mood or anxiety, it's important to look after yourself. Depending on the severity of what you're feeling, you might want to access therapy, or consult your doctor about medication options. In addition to such treatments, it's useful (not to mention empowering) to know about a few things you can do for yourself that can help to improve your mindset.
We're not talking about big lifestyle changes here. In fact, this kind of approach is often hard to maintain and may cause further feelings of disappointment or guilt. Instead, focus on simple lifestyle modifications that you can incorporate into your existing routines.
ManageMinds is going to walk you through 3 habits to improve your mental health and the science behind why they work. We'll also offer tips on how to incorporate these habits into your day. Let's go!
1. Move your body
We all know that exercise is good for us. The problem is, for many people, the idea of exercise conjures up images of people with bulging biceps grunting away on a packed gym floor, or having to run to the point of total exhaustion, leaving your body feeling like it's been through 12 rounds with Anthony Joshua. A lot of this is down to the myth that in order to be effective, exercise must be done to the point of pain. And that's exactly what this is—a myth.
To reap the mental health benefits of movement, you need only partake in light to moderate exercise. This could be a leisurely stroll around your local park, or a quick 20-minute yoga video you find on YouTube. Not only is this doable, you may eventually find yourself actually enjoying the process of moving your body.
What the science says
Exercise has a number of long-term and short-term health benefits, including:
- Increased blood circulation in the brain
- The production of so-called "feel good" chemicals like endorphins and dopamine
- The release of tension in the body
- Reduced inflammation in the brain
Moving your body also has a number of psychological benefits, like:
- Increased focus
- A distraction from negative thoughts
- Improved body image
- Increased self-worth
Reviews of multiple studies on the correlation between exercise and improved mental health confirm that physical activity can reduce both anxiety and depression. The best news? You don't have to work up much of a sweat to feel these benefits! Even a bit of light cardio is enough to give your brain a boost.
How to get started
Forgot any preconceived notions you may have about exercise, and come at it with an open mind and the permission to make it your own. Not a fan of running or weight lifting? Not a problem—there are so many different ways to move your body that you never need to force yourself to do something that doesn't appeal. Try a trip to the local swimming baths, or gather some mates for a friendly game of football.
You don't even have to adopt a particular sport or activity. Start small by taking the stairs a couple of times a week instead of the lift, or get off one stop earlier on the bus or train to fit a short walk into your day. The most important thing is to take it slow and give yourself permission to rest when you're not feeling it. Instead of viewing exercise as a chore you have to tick off your list, think of it as an opportunity to show your body some love.
2. Stay hydrated
Drinking more water is one of the most straightforward and beneficial habits you can start, and yet so many of us struggle to stick to it! Some of the most common reasons for this are:
- Water tastes boring
- It's annoying having to pee so frequently
- We simply forget to do it
The first and last of these issues are easily solved. Unfortunately, the increased need to visit the bathroom is harder to overcome. However, when you realise how important hydration is for both your physical and mental health, you'll understand that it's a small price to pay...
What the science says
All of our cells rely on a certain level of water to function. This means that hydration provides advantages for every part of the body. As a result, the benefits of drinking more water range from glowing skin and improved digestion, to higher energy levels and better mental agility. When we don't consume enough water, it has the opposite effect. Our body is forced to prioritise its most vital functions, and other areas suffer as a result.
Indeed, dehydration is a stressor on the body, and this has implications for our mental health. A 2018 study of 3327 participants found that higher water consumption was associated with a decreased risk of both depression and anxiety. If your brain is not functioning at its optimum level, you may be more likely to misinterpret situations or get stuck in negative thought traps, especially if you are predisposed to such behaviours. Furthermore, the fact that dehydration undermines our cognitive functions means it will be a lot harder to successfully implement self-help methods like grounding techniques and breathing exercises.
How to get started
As explained above, adults in the UK are recommended to drink around 6-8 glasses of water a day. Keep in mind that things like tea and juice can be included in this tally. Here are a few tips to help you up your hydration levels:
- Keep a glass of water by your bed and drink it all as soon as you wake up
- Add fruits or herbs to your water to make it taste more interesting—things like lemon and mint are a nice addition
- Get a water bottle with time stamps to encourage you to drink at regular intervals
- Set alarms on your phone to remind yourself to hydrate
- Download a water consumption tracking app like My Water
3. Manage your caffeine intake
When you start your hydration journey, be sure to steer clear of (or at least keep to a minimum) things like coffee or energy drinks. These beverages tend to be high in caffeine, which is the subject of our third and final habit.
Before we launch into why you need to be careful with caffeine, let's give credit where credit's due and explain its uses. Mild to moderate consumption of caffeine can help you wake up, increase your level of focus and give you more energy. So, in small doses, it's not something you need to be worried about. If you're someone whose body is used to a morning coffee, for example, you don't necessarily have to go cold turkey.
What the science says
One of the major ways caffeine can interfere with your mental health is down to its impact on sleep. Caffeine delays and even reduces the release of melatonin, which is an important sleep hormone. This means you may find it harder to get to sleep and stay asleep. When we fail to get enough hours of nightly slumber, our brains don't get a chance to perform all of the vital repairs and replenishments they need. Once again, then, we're undermining its overall function and thus putting ourselves in a worse position to deal with any mental issues that may be bothering us.
And that's not all. Moderate to high caffeine consumption has been shown to exacerbate mental health conditions like anxiety and OCD. For example, a 2014 review of 8 studies confirmed that caffeine worsens the symptoms of anxiety conditions like panic disorder. This may not surprise you if you're someone who already feels a bit jittery after drinking too much coffee. The overall message is that caffeine should only be enjoyed in moderation.
How to get started
If you already consume quite a lot of caffeine, avoid cutting it out completely. This is hard to maintain and may even lead to withdrawal symptoms like headaches. Instead, it's best to gradually reduce the number of caffeinated beverages you drink. Start by targeting those you have in the afternoon and evening, as these have the most negative impact on your sleep.
In terms of generally reducing your caffeine intake, you should try:
- Replacing your usual coffee with a decaf alternative
- Switch your regular tea for a herbal tea
- Add water to your caffeinated drinks to dilute them and reduce brewing times
- Use exercise to increase your energy levels
- Start the day by getting some fresh air to wake you up
And there you have it—3 habits you can start today to improve your mental health. You should also check out 7 Lifestyle Factors That Reduce the Risk of Depression.
If you've been struggling with low moods for a while now, these tips might not be sufficient to meet your current needs. Consider a therapy treatment like our Defeat Depression Programme.
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