This week, many people will be making New Year Resolutions, often after careful reflection on personal progress in the last year. Indeed, January offers a chance to look back and take stock of achievements, challenges and lessons learnt. It is also a chance to create a ‘to do’ (or ‘to be’) list for 2018. This is imperative for all who care about personal growth and self-improvement.
Enhancing mental health is sometimes considered the business of psychiatrists, psychologists and a myriad of other clinical experts. But much research indicates that individuals themselves can play a critical role in fostering their own mental health. The new year is a perfect time for people to consider and initiate activities that can improve mental health.
Evidence suggests that certain self-initiated activities can be very beneficial for mental health- five of which are listed below. Making (and enacting) a New Year Resolution based on these activities is thus highly recommended. Clearly, there is no ‘one-size fits all’ resolution, but readers can tailor one or more of the below to their own individual circumstances.
Much research indicates that exercise is fundamental to good mental health. It releases natural endorphins which can significantly improve mood. In fact, physicians in numerous jurisdictions can now officially prescribe exercise as a treatment for depression. Recent research shows that exercise can be equally effective (if not more effective) as psychotropic medication in reducing symptoms of depression. This is explored in the brief video below about Audley, a fitness instructor who uses exercise positively to help in his recovery from bi-polar disorder.
Socializing and Contributing
Research has frequently shown that social activity and social support promote individual mental health, while also buffering individuals from the negative effect of acute and chronic stress. Seminal research conducted by British researchers Brown and Harris illustrates how social support protects people from depression, even in the presence of severe life events such as divorce and unemployment. Some research suggests that socializing can be especially beneficial where it involves making a meaningful altruistic contribution, for example volunteering.
Religion and Spirituality
Evidence suggests that individuals with higher levels of religious belief and practice have better mental health; with lower rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide. This is partly because religious people often have access to a caring community at a place of worship. Belief systems also offer a sense of coherence, which can give solace and support, especially in adverse times. Spirituality comes in many shapes, but can involve yoga, mindfulness meditation and contact with nature (see below). Research indicates that all of these can foster good mental health.
Contact with Nature
A growing body of research indicates that rates of mental illness are lower in rural locations, when compared to rates in cities. This has been attributed to a variety of factors, one of which is the beneficial effect of contact with nature. Nature can provide a space for reflection, meditation and renewal. It also can facilitate health-promoting exercise (e.g. swimming or hiking), as well as exposure to health-enhancing sunlight. As such, mental health care providers (such as the Douglas Hospital in Montreal) are now offering horticultural or pet therapy to benefit patients.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Some research suggests that high-levels of perfectionism are linked to mental illnesses such as depression and eating disorders. Such perfectionism can lead to a constant sense of worry and failure, as well as unhealthy levels of self-scrutiny and critical self-evaluation. All of this can worsen mental health. As such, the basis for much cognitive-behavioral therapy is to help patients examine their lives through a more realistic and self-accepting lens. In short, adopting an attitude of ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ may help foster good mental health.
The turning of the year allows us to reflect on times past as well as the future ahead. New Year Resolutions are a time-honored tradition that facilitate fresh starts and new beginnings. Hopefully, the activities described above can provide a foundation for those in search of a resolution that can improve their own mental health in 2018.
Happy New Year.