People often ask, “What are some simple steps to take to improve my mental health/wellbeing.” Although there are no magic bullets and there is no one thing that can completely change your life if you do it just once, I have found that there are three things that if clients focus on improving than their mental state and overall wellbeing tend to improve. They are sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
I cannot stress the importance of sleep enough. Although the reason humans sleep and why we need around 8 hours of sleep are still being studied and explored what we do know is that if someone is not getting enough sleep or not getting quality sleep it effect nearly every aspect of their life. When we do not get enough sleep, not only do we feel physically tired but we have a difficult time thinking straight and quickly, our response time decreases, we have a difficult time controlling and regulating our emotions, and our immune system suffers.
Now sometimes it can be really difficult to get a good nights rest. People struggling with PTSD may have chronic nightmares that keep them up; those suffering from anxiety may have such racing thoughts it is hard to quiet their mind enough to fall asleep. Even with these problems however there are a few things that can help with sleep.
-First, go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time, every day, yes even on the weekend. This consistency help your brain recognize what to do when.
-Second, unplug one hour before bed. That means no phones or tablets on the bedside table and no T.V. in the room. The light from the screen sends signals to the brain to stay up longer and longer. There are apps that can change the color of the screen to an orange hue and this is supposed to help, but it is probably better to just unplug completely. Give your brain and eyes a break.
-Third, make sure your room is set up to sleep. Keep it dark and quiet. Keep it cool and clean. It is hard to sleep well in a bright, hot, loud, dirty room. Turn it into your own hibernation sanctuary, a place dedicated to sleep.
If your care to learn more about sleep and its benefits read Arianna Huffington’s book, The Sleep Revolution.
Exercise is vital to who and what we are. We are creatures designed to move. We are meant to get up and run down prey, forage for berries, climbs cliffs, swim lakes, and build shelters. We are not designed for Netflix marathons, all night WoW raids, or the cubicle.
Exercise has been shown to have similar benefits as certain antidepressants. It improves learning and memory. It promotes neurogenesis (the brain forming new connections). It decreases stress and anxiety. It pumps endorphins and other feel good neurochemicals into our brain and body. It boosts self esteem, self worth, and self confidence. Not to mention all the physical benefits too (faster, stronger, more endurance). Exercise has been show to greatly improve the mental health and well being of those with trauma and PTSD, addiction, anxiety, depression. Exercise improves nearly every aspect of our well being, but it’s hard.
While some people will notice a sudden shift in mood and perception after one bout of exercise for many people it takes time to see the many benefits of exercise. Here are a few ways to help.
-First, consistency is key. Do something active regularly and frequently. For you this might be going to the gym every day of the week for others it may be walking around the block every other day. Find what you can consistently keep up with and stick to it.
-Second, start small. Start with a walk around the block when you get home, take a walking lunch, play with the dog in the backyard. Start with where you are at physically. The last thing you want to do is start an exercise routine, get hurt, and not be able to continue, so please start at the appropriate pace and check with a doctor before you start any new exercise routine.
-Three, recruit support. It is easier to exercise and stay consistent when we have support. This may be a spouse walking the dog with you, a friend going to the gym with you, joining a sports team, even hiring a personal trainer. Find support wherever you can.
If you are interested in knowing more about how exercise effects the mind and body check out the book Spark by John Ratey, MD.
We all know we should eat more fruits and veggies, but healthy nutrition goes so much deeper than getting your daily vitamin C. Healthy nutrition means eating regularly; I’m sure I am not the only one who has experience the emotion “Hangry” the unique combination of getting angry when hungry? Healthy nutrition means drinking plenty of water. Being even slightly dehydrated has been shown to increase cortisol (the stress hormone). There is even a connection between the probiotics in our digestive track and certain mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Bottom line: when we eat a bunch of fast food junk we tend not to feel so good physically, mentally, or emotionally when we eat a healthy well balanced diet and make sure we are getting the nutrition we need on a regular basis we feel better.
Again this is not as easy as it sounds. When we are depressed or anxious it is natural to crave sugar and fat. These things help release the happy neurochemicals and make us feel better, for a little while. The issues arise when this continues for a long period of time there can be pretty drastic consequences. So, try this.
-First, once again, start small, you don’t have to go gluten free or become vegan, but maybe if you have a bowl of ice cream every night replace it with a bowl of strawberries. These little changes can make big waves when they add up.
-Second, if you tend to get hangry make sure you have a snack readily accessible. We never know when we might get hangry and we don’t always have the luxury of stopping what we are doing to make a sandwich. So, in these cases carrying a small snack like trail mix or a protein bar can go a long way.
-Third, carry a water bottle. It is simple really. If we have water readily at hand we are more likely to drink it. Yes, diet coke has water in it and so does coffee, but it is not the same. We are designed to run off of water not aspartame and caffeine. Imagine putting olive oil in your car. It’s got “oil” in it, right? No. Put engine oil in you car and put water in your body.
If you would like to know more about how nutrition effects mental health check out this awesome article on Harvard Medical School’s website.
So here is the challenge: for the next week improve your sleep, get out and move some more, eat clean, and notice how doing even the smallest of changes can effect your thoughts, feelings, and overall wellbeing.
Disclaimer: This blog is designed for educational, informational, and entertainment purposes. It not meant to be a substitute for any mental health or medical treatment. If you need a doctor or therapist please find one near you. Please do not attempt to do anything without your doctor, therapist, or other professional’s go ahead, and remember to use common sense.