Top 5 ways to impact your mental health
The pandemic and subsequent quarantine has left people looking to take better care of their health.
If you’re not sure where to start, this is definitely for you.
I thought it would be best to tackle the top 5 things that impact mental health especially because more people are aware of their mental health since they’ve been stuck in their homes, away from the people and things that may have helped maintain their mental health in the past
The first step in impacting your mental health is acknowledging that there are many factors that influence it. Your living condition, socioeconomic status, past traumas and many more variables all play a part. While many of these are out of our control, what I wanted to highlight were the things that we do have in our control. Often times it feels overwhelming when trying to make a change in our health because so many factors are structural and out of our control. The 5 things in this list are within your control so you can choose how you integrate them into your life.
The second step to impacting your mental health involves ensuring that you’re getting the proper nutrients from your diet. A balanced diet, filled with lots of fruits and vegetables, a variety of protein sources, whole grains and healthy fats is correlated with lower incidences of depression (1). This is because fruits and vegetables are chock full of antioxidants and fiber. They also contain lots of fiber (both soluble and insoluble) which has been associated with lower rates of depression (2). There are a few theories why a diet high in fiber helps decrease depressive symptoms some of which include inflammatory processes, immune reactions, and nutritional deficiencies (3). I will go over these details another time. The bottom line from the research collected, is that fiber and antioxidants from fruits and vegetables (not as much from cereals) are helpful in decreasing depressive symptoms.
he next impactful change you can make in your lifestyle at home, is moving! Any movement where you get your heart rate up, lose your breath a bit, can still hold a conversation and possibly sweat after 10 minutes, is considered ‘moderate intensity’. According to “The Department of Health and Human Services, [healthy adults should] get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity — such as brisk walking, swimming or mowing the lawn — or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity — such as running or aerobic dancing” (4). With vigorous activity, it is difficult to hold a conversation, your breathing is deeper and faster, and you start sweating within a few minutes of being active (4).
I will go into the benefits of different types of exercises another time.
The best physical activity to do is one that you enjoy! That can include funky dancing, going outside for a run in your neighborhood, some gentle yoga in your room with calming music or even some brisk walking around your office in between meetings, as you work from home. The goal is to get your blood pumping and maybe even sweat a little.
Another way to impact your mental health is to dedicate time to calming your mind. We spend our days bombarded with information, opinions and emotions from the time we wake up and reach for our phones. Rarely do we take the opportunity to check in with our own ideas, opinions and feelings. Especially since more people are working from home, the lines between work and home/relaxing spaces have been blurred. Now that both work and rest are often happening in the same place (bedroom, kitchen table, living room), it might be difficult to detach and relax.
Some ways that you can relax include mindfulness mediation. There are lots of types of meditation available on streaming platforms (podcasts, Youtube, etc…) that guide listeners through varying types of relaxation methods. Try finding one you like and following along with that for a few minutes every day. This can help your body switch from fight-or-flight response (the sympathetic nervous system) to the rest-and-digest (the parasympathetic nervous system) response. When the body is using the sympathetic nervous system, stress hormones such as adrenaline and nor adrenaline are released (5), and with chronic stress, cortisol is released (6). When these hormones are going through the body, heart rate increases, you begin to sweat, your pupils dilate, and your breathing becomes shallower (5). You stop digesting food, and your muscles get tense. Basically, your body waits for something to attack so that it can either fight or run. Realistically, the looming deadline from work is not as dangerous as a lion, but the nervous system responds the same way. I will go over the effects of chronic stress on the body at a later time.
When the body switches from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system, it enters the rest-and-digest mode. In this state, the body releases cortisol to increase appetite, and other hormones to help constrict pupils, slow down breathing and heart rate and relax the muscles.
Deep belly breathing, praying, meditating, chanting/singing, spending time in a nature and mindfulness meditations all help the body recognize the absence of a threat, and switch to the rest-and-digest mode. The goal is to find whatever works for you and to spend at least 10 minutes each day, just letting the world fade away, and relaxing.
The fourth method that I’ve highlighted as being helpful in impacting your mental health is finding time for creative activities. This can be different for every person. Some people enjoy making things with their hands (drawing, painting, baking, cooking, etc..) and others enjoy using other methods such as playing instruments, singing, playing with children/pets or even creative writing.
The first benefit of having daily creative time, is that it helps our brains switch from the fight/fright/flight mode, to the rest and digest mode. You’ll find that your breathing and heart rate slow down, and your muscles slowly relax. Studies have shown, that by spending a few minutes every day doing creative activities, people have improved concentration, decreased rumination, and improved sense of self-esteem and self-agency (7). Whether we are going through a pandemic or not, almost everyone would enjoy these benefits. So try and find time for yourself or your family as whole, to express your emotions through a creative outlet!
The final method that I’ve highlighted as being beneficial for impacting your mental health is processing your stressful thoughts. This is not normally highlighted in most blogs, but I thought it needed to be said. Especially since we all do this in different ways. Some people enjoy journaling alone, while others enjoy talking through their thoughts and emotions with someone they trust. This can be a therapist, a friend, a family member or a member of one’s religious community. Whatever the method and whoever it is for you, taking a few minutes to vent to someone can be helpful in managing what can be sometimes overwhelming feelings. Journaling can help you walk through difficult thought processes and possibly find peace with the situation or find a solution. Either way, whether you talk to your diary or to your friends, make sure you dedicate time for yourself to do so.
While these are great places to start while you're at home, always reach out to a primary healthcare provider for help with overwhelming mental health concerns and mental illnesses.
(1) Canada, H. (2018, October 4). Welcome to Canada’s food guide. https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/
(2) Miki, T., Eguchi, M., Kurotani, K., Kochi, T., Kuwahara, K., Ito, R., Kimura, Y., Tsuruoka, H., Akter, S., Kashino, I., Kabe, I., Kawakami, N., & Mizoue, T. (2016). Dietary fiber intake and depressive symptoms in Japanese employees: The Furukawa Nutrition and Health Study. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 32(5), 584–589. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2015.11.014
(3) Swann, O. G., Kilpatrick, M., Breslin, M., & Oddy, W. H. (2020). Dietary fiber and its associations with depression and inflammation. Nutrition Reviews, 78(5), 394–411. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuz072
(4) Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Exercise intensity: How to measure it. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 7, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise-intensity/art-20046887
(5) The Fight-or-Flight Response Prepares Your Body to Take Action. (n.d.). Verywell Mind. Retrieved July 7, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-fight-or-flight-response-2795194
(6) Kendra Cherry. (2019, August 18). How the Fight or Flight Response Works. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
(7) Fancourt, D., Garnett, C., Spiro, N., West, R., & Müllensiefen, D. (2019). How do artistic creative activities regulate our emotions? Validation of the Emotion Regulation Strategies for Artistic Creative Activities Scale (ERS-ACA). PloS One, 14(2), e0211362. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0211362
(1) Canada, H. (2018, October 4). Welcome to Canada’s food guide. https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/ (2) PMID: 31491962 (3) PMID: 30721269