It’s really hard to take care of ourselves. Our lives are so busy, it’s hard to fit in things that would make us feel healthy and well. And don’t get me started on the current state of health care in our country... no wonder most of us are not feeling physically or mentally at our best!
What we do know from the research is that there are a lot of non-therapy, non-medication resources that can help set us up for success with our mental health. It’s also likely that if we are not utilizing these strategies, therapy or medication may not be as effective. Now, while some of these suggestions may seem “easy” and most of them are free or low-cost, I understand that these are not simple fixes, and there are so many barriers to prevent using these strategies. I do, however, want to explain the research behind many things we know can have direct effects on our mental health. I hope this guide will be helpful in exploring areas to potentially address to improve mental health, regardless of access to therapy and medication.
Eating a Balanced Diet
We are learning more and more over time about what is called the “gut-brain connection.” Essentially, the stomach can be thought of as a ‘second brain,’ and it’s believed that treating it well, with needed nutrients, can help our brain and mental health.
Did you know that the stomach actually produces more serotonin than the brain? Serotonin is the brain chemical associated with regulating mood. What does this mean for us? Likely, that eating a balanced diet can help regulate our moods.
I am not a dietitian or physician, so I will provide a basic overview of foods/nutrients (to consume or avoid) that are associated with mental health. Links to related research articles are provided below. Please consult with a medical professional to address whether these dietary recommendations would be beneficial for you specifically.
I can’t discuss diet without addressing the unhealthy relationships we can have with food. Some people feel guilty when they eat unhealthy foods, which can lead to self-shaming and increase their risk of binge eating, while other people restrict so much trying to maintain a “healthy” diet, that they actually make themselves unhealthy by being underweight or losing weight too quickly. At the end of the day, it’s more important to have a healthy relationship with food than to try to follow dietary recommendations religiously.
Generally, there are thought to be two types of exercise: aerobic (cardio) and muscle-building. Both can have positive effects for mental health. Consult with your medical provider to determine the best exercise routine for you.
Within the realm of exercise, yoga and similar practices can be really beneficial for mental health.
Again, sometimes exercise can be used in an unhealthy way. Overdoing it with exercise can be harmful, and it’s better to take a balanced approach to working out.
Sleep is so important for mental health, and poor quality sleep is a symptom of several disorders. Often, in mental health conditions, people either experience insomnia (not sleeping enough) or hypersomnia (sleeping too much). Lack of sleep is even associated with increased suicidal thinking.
Sleep hygiene is a really important tool. Sticking to these strategies can really improve sleep. If needed, there are sleep specialists (e.g., CBT-i providers) who can individualize a program for you.
Going Outside and in Nature
On a busy day, this can be as simple as sitting on a porch/balcony for a few minutes or going on a short walk. When possible, going for nature hikes or engaging in outdoor sports could have benefits.
Meditation and mindfulness practice can have positive impacts on mental health. These days, there are a million mindfulness apps. While helpful, they’re really not necessary. Taking a mindful moment can be as simple as noticing your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations without judging or trying to change them.
Strange but true: showing kindness to others can positively impact our own mental health. The next time you do a random act of kindness for someone, you might be doing yourself a favor as well.
Sexuality and Physical Touch
Yes, this did just escalate quickly. Although awkward and sometimes taboo to discuss, orgasms can have an impact on anxiety and mood. Of course, we’re talking orgasms through masturbation or consensual sex. (And, acknowledging that this is not easy to achieve for everyone.)
Physical touch is also important for maintaining mental health. If not possible through friends, family, or a partner, touch could be achieved through other means, such as receiving a professional massage.
Taking Care of Physical Health
Of course, if we are not physically well, it is difficult to maintain optimal mental health. So many barriers prevent us from receiving necessary medical care. What we know is that MANY health conditions (e.g., diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, cystic fibrosis) are associated with poor mental health outcomes. Additionally, many long-COVID sufferers are noticing mental health effects. Treating physical symptoms can likely improve mental health.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that you could have a perfect regimen, full of plant-based meals, regular exercise, and volunteering, and you could still be suffering from mental illness. These are tools to help regulate our bodies and minds, but they are not a guarantee for mental health. Sometimes, we have to engage in psychotherapy or take psychiatric medications in order to treat a mental health condition. There is no shame in needing additional support, as this is true for many people. If you’re wanting to start therapy as the next chapter of your mental health journey, please read these tips for finding a therapist.
Bonus Content: Here’s my favorite TED talk on this topic.