If you are struggling with mental illness, or trying to help someone you love get his or her mental health back on track, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly endless array of treatment options.
Even more stressful can be figuring out how to cover the costs of trying multiple medications while attending therapy or perhaps even contemplating hospitalization. Mental illnesses are real health issues, which means you can't treat them with lifestyle changes alone. In conjunction with a healthy lifestyle, though, your treatment options will work more effectively and you'll see more rapid change.
Exercise and Activity Level
You've probably heard a thousand times that you need to exercise, but here's one more reason: Exercise doesn't just control your weight and protect your physical health. It also offers protective benefits to your mental health. Exercise can be so effective at treating mental health problems that some studies show it to be as effective as popular antidepressants. Exercise can also help reduce muscle pain, making it an ideal choice for people who feel limited by pain or mobility challenges.
There's no “magic” amount of exercise that will cure mental health challenges. Instead, the key is to stay moving as much as possible. When an option, walk to destinations instead of driving. Take your dog for a walk. Go for a leisurely bike ride. Take stairs instead of elevators. Exercise frequently offers a chance to spend some time outside which can, in its own right, improve your mood.
Almost half of people with mental illness are smokers. For years, therapists thought that smoking might help to take the edge off of mental health symptoms, so they frequently didn't pressure their clients to quit. We know better now, though.
While quitting can be challenging—and may even yield a temporary downturn in mental health—research has repeatedly shown that quitting smoking yields benefits to mental health, often in just a few weeks.
When you smoke, you take in a variety of toxins, and it may be that many of those toxins contribute to mood problems. Moreover, the physical health problems caused by smoking—heart disease, coughing, emphysema, frequent colds, difficulty exercising—can lead to mood problems and mental health challenges. Quitting may be one of the best things you do for your mental health.
Your diet directly affects your physical health, and your physical health can undermine your mental health. Unhealthy choices such as excess processed foods, sweets, and foods with a low nutrient value, then, can all undermine mental health.
Want to feel better? Research is increasingly showing that healthy fats such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, as well as the fat found in fruits such as avocados, can boost brain power and improve mood. And for those with a sweet tooth, dark chocolate is a much healthier way to indulge.
Your mind and body aren't easily separated. If you struggle with physical health conditions, you're at an increased risk of mental health problems. Even something as minor as a toothache or bladder infection can temporarily undermine your ability to manage stress, so prompt medical care for physical issues is always a wise choice.
In some cases, mental health problems may be directly caused by physical health issues. Endocrine system disorders, for example, can lead to depression, anxiety, and problems with regulating your sleep cycle. If psychiatric drugs aren't working, consider getting blood work so you can learn if a medical condition is undermining your mental health.
An unhealthy family environment that includes any kind of abuse, whether physical, sexual, or psychological, can make it nearly impossible to achieve sound mental health. The aftereffects of abuse can linger for years, and some abuse victims experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you're being abused, the first step is finding a way out. And if you have a history of abuse, don't deal with it alone. Seek treatment so you can move on with your life.
Social and Community Activities
Anyone who's ever had a good cry with a friend knows that friendship can make a huge difference in mental health. Research is increasingly recognizing the value of friendship. Isolated people are more likely to struggle with mental health issues, and even a single weekly outing with a friend can improve your mood for days. Getting involved in the larger community through volunteer work can help you feel more connected, and some people find that altruistic behavior makes it easier to deal with the challenges of everyday life. Some research also suggests that religious people are happier. This may be because religious people have regular socialization opportunities at church functions.
The key is to find the level of socialization that makes you comfortable, and to spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself and your life. Don't force a connection that's not there, but if you're struggling to get out of bed, consider committing to a social outing, even if it feels a bit overwhelming. The odds are good that you'll feel better after spending time with someone you care about.
We've all heard that it's important to work on your own mental health before getting into a relationship. While it's true that a relationship won't cure everything, research is increasingly showing that a healthy romantic relationship can make a big difference in mental health.
One recent study found that a healthy relationship could help people avoid anxiety and neurotic personality traits, for example. By working on your relationship, you enable an important avenue for healing and sound mental health. And if you're in a bad relationship, get out so you can focus on yourself — and potentially find someone who makes life better.
Meditation and Other Relaxation Techniques
Meditation, deep breathing, and similar techniques aren't just holdovers from the New Age movement. They really work, and over time, medication can actually change the way your brain processes emotions. You don't have to commit to a specific technique. Instead, by meditating, breathing deeply, or simply focusing on cultivating mindfulness for 20 to 30 minutes each day, you can steadily improve your ability to tolerate frustration, control your temper, and manage anxiety. If you're not sure how to get started, pick up a book on meditation. It doesn't matter what approach you use, as long as it's comfortable for you, so spend some time researching various meditative techniques.
If you've ever found yourself on the verge of tears as you struggle to get out of bed after a long night, then you know that your sleep habits affect the way you feel. Most sleep experts recommend between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, but the real key to success isn't just the right amount of sleep; it's a regular sleep schedule.
By going to bed at the same time each night and getting up around the same time each day, you make it easier for your body to regulate its sleep/wake cycle. This can lead to big mental health improvements, make it easier to get better after an illness, and even make tackling a challenging day feel just a bit less daunting.
There's no substitute for good mental health care when you're struggling with behavioral health issues. But your lifestyle really does affect how you feel, and you can become your own best mental health ally by taking the first step toward a healthy lifestyle. If you're not sure where to begin, don't be afraid to ask your therapist or psychiatrist, who may have additional suggestions based on your specific needs, condition, and lifestyle.
Nauert, R., PhD. (2011, February 18). Lifestyle changes as treatment for mental health concerns, depression, anxiety.
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Quitting smoking linked to better mental health in study. (2014, February 12).
Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), 579-592. doi: 10.1037/a0021769.