Although the last several decades have seen significant progress in the treatment of and societal view toward mental health conditions, we still have a long way to go. Mental health stigma is a real challenge for people struggling with mental illnesses, and this stigma can dissuade some people from taking medication. Make no mistake: mental health conditions are real diseases. They're so real, in fact, that researchers are increasingly able to point to specific body chemistry and brain differences possessed by people with certain mental health conditions. But just as symptoms of cancer can improve when a cancer patient stops smoking, so too can the symptoms of mental health conditions with the right lifestyle changes. For people who have adverse reactions to medication or who refuse to take drugs, lifestyle changes are a valuable ingredient in the recipe for health and well-being.
Exercise may be the single most important tool in the arsenal against mental illness. Dozens of studies have shown that exercise can reduce symptoms of disorders ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some research even suggests that exercise can be as effective at treating depression as an antidepressant.
Exercise's effectiveness may be partially due to its effects on health. It's easier to be unhappy when you feel sick, and exercise helps to prevent and treat chronic illnesses, in addition to reducing muscle, bone, and joint pain. Intense exercise releases endorphins, powerful feel-good chemicals that can yield a temporary mood boost. Over time, fitness buffs may also see a boost in self-esteem as their bodies change, but doctors aren't yet fully certain of why or how exercise helps to treat mental illness.
A study from the University of California, Irvine found that simply spending more time outside can help reduce symptoms of some mental health conditions. Spending time outside affords people with access to UV light, an important source of vitamin D. It may be that this improves health, thus reducing the risk of mental illness. Moreover, we already know that people with seasonal affective disorder – a form of depression common in the winter – benefit from light therapy, and time spent outdoors offers a more natural alternative to sitting under a sunlamp.
Community and Close Relationships
People with close social relationships are less likely to get depressed, and a strong sense of community and belonging can make recovery from mental illness possible. People who have close friends or family members have more support for recovery, which can affect everything from medication compliance to the ability to follow through with lifestyle remedies.
Conversely, isolation and abusive relationships can lead to mental health conditions. Abuse victims, for example, are prone to post-traumatic stress disorder. People with mental illness who are currently living in an abusive, dangerous, or chaotic environment may not be able to get well until they move to a safer and healthier environment.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that eating a healthy diet keeps your body healthy, and may improve symptoms of a host of mental health disorders. Eating regular meals, avoiding crash diets, and steering clear of overeating can all have positive mental health effects. Foods such as fish, which is high in omega-3s, and dark leafy vegetables can be particularly helpful at protecting mental health.
Spirituality and Mindfulness
The relationship between spirituality and mental health is still a hotly contested one. Among people of faith, though, remaining active in the faith community can be a way to remain connected and social, thus preventing the isolation and loneliness that can lead to depression. Some research also suggests that mindfulness techniques can improve mental health concerns. Meditation can change the brain over time, and therapists are increasingly acknowledging the benefits of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
Consistency and Scheduling
Mental illness can disrupt even the most regimented of lives. All people thrive on consistency, and a regular schedule can help people struggling with mental illnesses know what to expect, making it easier to face daily challenges. Some mental health conditions are particularly amenable to a consistent schedule. Children with ADHD, for example, find that it's easier to manage homework, studying, and friendships if they have a consistent schedule and help from adults to maintain that schedule.
Many of us have heard that helping others can help remedy a bad mood. It turns out this is true for mental health conditions as well. Recent research suggests that people struggling with mental health conditions, particularly mood disorders such as depression, do better when they're active in volunteer or community projects. There are likely several layers to this remedy. First, altruistic pursuits provide much-needed socialization that can make people feel more valued and included. Altruism can also temporarily take a person's mind off of her own problems, and altruism that builds upon healthy hobbies – such as reading to a senior or walking shelter dogs – can serve as a much-needed distraction from mental health symptoms. It may even help people struggling with mental illness uncover new talents and hobbies, and this can build self-esteem and self-reliance.
Disturbed sleep patterns have been linked to everything from Alzheimer's to depression. Regular sleep is vitally important for people suffering from mental health conditions. Sleep is a key component of good health, but the benefits of sleep run much deeper. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which gives rise to dreams, may play a key role in helping people sort through and process the events of the day. This can make it possible to manage stress, helping to reduce the risk of mental illness. In people who already have mental health difficulties, exhaustion and fatigue tend to exacerbate symptoms.
Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, and consider talking to your doctor if you have trouble sleeping. A regular sleep schedule – that includes going to bed and waking at the same time every day – will not only help you get to sleep faster; it's also a key component of healthy sleep.
No matter what you or a loved one are facing, lifestyle changes can and do help. Of course, the most effective treatment for mental health challenges is a holistic one that encompasses therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. If you want to get the most out of your treatment, don't exclude any of these important lifestyle remedies.
Cabassa, L. J., Ezell, J. M., & Lewis-Fernandez, R. (2010). Lifestyle Interventions for Adults With Serious Mental Illness: A Systematic Literature Review. Psychiatric Services, 61(8), 774-782. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.61.8.774
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