When we work with a professional for a mental health condition or for drug addiction therapy, we can expect to be presented with various options in medications and treatment. However, we urge you to consider what may be missing from those options - that is, what lifestyle changes can you make to improve your own mental health. In a study presented by the University of Illinois, approximately half of participants who presented symptoms of mental illness stated that they received no mental wellness advice from the health care provider they were seeing.
That is an unfortunate statistic since making key lifestyle changes, something as simple as improved nutrition and exercise, have the ability to create a significant positive impact on a person’s quality of life. This is true for anyone - but it is especially true for people who are in recovery or who are dealing with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental conditions. With these changes, one can also minimize risk for more serious health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and/or hypertension. These conditions are all seen at higher rates among those dealing with mental illness.
If you are a person who is dealing with a mental health condition, we urge you to speak to your health care provider. You can ask for specific information on recommended changes in your daily life and routine that will improve your mental health. While there is no single answer for every person, research does show that particular lifestyle changes in certain areas can be very rewarding for most. Among the most effective are:
1. Enhance Your Diet
Research has proven that what we eat can influence our mental health, whether in a positive or a negative way. Natural foods such as vegetables and fruits are (not surprisingly) connected with better mental health, according to information provided from a study from the University of Warwick. That is significant since good mental health, or having positive feelings of happiness, optimism, happiness, and self-esteem, can help protect you from both physical and mental health problems.
What we find with fatty foods, however, is that they may increase the risk for psychiatric symptoms. This is because these foods can alter the bacteria that live in our gut and according to research done with mice, they also can increase anxiety, impair a person’s memory, and cause brain inflammation. This does not happen with the “good” fats, though. Omega-3 fatty acids are an important part of a healthy diet, including salmon or avocados, for example. Having the right amount of good fats in our diet can even help combat depression.
Foods that include sugar should be a minimal part of our diets. Sugar can cause rapid weight gain and also has the ability to form an addictive response in some people. Sugar intake has been linked to higher occurrences of depression and according to the National Alliance on Mental Health, can even worsen mental health symptoms.
2. Prioritize Your Exercise
It is essential to check with your healthcare provider prior to starting any exercise routine, but overall, regular physical activity has been proven to have positive benefits for people facing mental health issues. A Southern Methodist University study went so far as to say that exercise is like a magic drug for people dealing with anxiety and depression. The study implored doctors to widely prescribe exercise as part of their treatment plans. Their research found that even low activity levels, such as walking for 30 minutes a day, has the ability to help stave off depression now and later in life. Exercise can improve both the mental and physical states of people with schizophrenia as well. (As a side note, if you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it is important to know that exercise has the ability to trigger mania in some people. Always ask for your doctor’s advice and get his/her “OK” before jumping into a new exercise regime.)
As a reward, exercise not only helps improve mental health and fitness but it also helps to maintain a healthy weight. This is significant since weight gain is often a side effect of medications prescribed for mental illness. Having the extra weight on can worsen your health, and cause you to be more prone to other illnesses.
3. Practice Techniques to Reduce Stress
Stress exacerbates mental illness, and mental illness exacerbates stress. Learning to reduce the stress in your day to day life can slow down this distressing cycle. You may consider using mindfulness meditation as a way of destressing, a Carnegie Mellon University study discovered that just 25 minutes a day, three days in a row, can lower stress and improve resilience.
Yoga has also been shown to be a powerful way to lower stress, and it is great exercise! A Queen’s University study shows us that yoga can also help people to view the world in a more positive way - a huge benefit to people dealing with mental health disorders.
4. Get Enough Sleep - No Excuses!
We all want a night of refreshing sleep when that time of night comes, but we definitely do not always get it. We can improve our chances at getting a good night’s sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene. This refers to going to bed and waking up at a consistent time, getting enough exercise or physical activity (as early in the day as possible), avoiding eating heavy meals in the evening, not having caffeine in the evening, engaging in relaxation techniques, and skipping any activities that disrupt our sleep cycle, such as those late night Netflix marathons. If you are continuing to have trouble falling or staying asleep, try not to immediately use sleep aids. Instead visit your doctor or a sleep specialist to find how how they can help.
Making positive changes to your lifestyle as a means of improving your sleep will be well worth the effort. Not getting good sleep or enough sleep will impact your health in many negative ways. Lack of sleep can makes it more difficult to make healthy food choices, it’s been connected with obesity and it can worsen mental health symptoms. Getting good sleep on a consistent basis, on the other hand, will reduce stress levels, improve your overall mood and provide the extra energy needed to deal with anything that life brings.