Top 10 Tips for Mental Health

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to mental health. I subscribe to a biopsychosocial model of mental health, which says that a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors contributes to mental health and mental illness. Each of us has a unique combination and, as such, I approach each person as unique. There is no singular answer. That said, there are certain actions we can take that are almost guaranteed to promote mental health. Here are my top 10:

  1. Move. Exercise helps to correct imbalances in our bodies’ biochemistry and increases functioning of portions of our brains responsible for mental health, which is both therapeutic in the present and protective against future mental illness. Exercise has been proven to be as effective as medication for conditions such as depression, anxiety and dementia. Individuals experiencing bipolar symptoms should speak with a professional prior to altering exercise habits, as increasing exercise can trigger a manic episode. You need not spend hours at the gym to experience the benefits of exercise: 45-60 minutes of exercise 3-4 times per week has been shown to be sufficient and, beyond the immediate boost you feel from exercise, you should see an overall improvement in symptoms after about 4 weeks, with the greatest improvement seen after 10-12 weeks. Also, remember that over-exercising can break down the body and contribute to poor mental health, so don’t go to extremes.
  2. Eat a balanced, whole foods diet.Proper brain function is dependent on sufficient intake of nutrients such as protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. The best diet for mental health focuses on multicolored vegetables and fruits, contains some fish, and reduces excessive calories. For those wondering about supplementation, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have the largest positive impact on mental health. Speak to a qualified nutrition professional for more specific recommendations.
  3. Get outside, and preferably do some exercise while you’re out there. We are spending increasingly larger proportions of our lives inside with artificial light, stagnant air, and screens, at the cost of disruptions in our mood, sleep, attention, and cognitive functioning. Our bodies are designed to take cues from nature. Sunlight is important for vitamin D production and for regulating hormonal function. Immersion in nature has been found to improve symptoms of stress, depression, ADHD, and chronic pain.
  4. Socialize and connect.We are wired for connection and without it, our bodies literally break down. And while virtual connection is the norm these days, it doesn’t replace our need for in-person contact. The health risks of social isolation have been found to be comparable to smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. Have coffee with a friend, find a workout buddy, or simply call a family member. Loneliness isn’t a defect. It’s a survival instinct.
  5. Prioritize sleep. Our bodies are dependent on adequate sleep to function properly, both physically and mentally. It is important to maintain a consistent sleep schedule as much as possible, to practice good sleep hygiene, and to aim for 7-8 hours per night. I will be writing another article that delves into sleep soon. Stay tuned!
  6. Incorporate structure into your days. Having consistent routines and items in your calendar provides a sense of control and effectiveness in our lives and helps us manage our time and plan for better choices. Our bodies and minds rely on routine and rhythm to function. While it might not be the most exciting item on this list, it’s crucially important. Structure means, at minimum, having consistency in sleep and wake times and meals and, ideally, regular engagement in the other items in this list. Mental illness thrives in a lack of structure so combat it by committing to daily structure.
  7. Meditate. Meditation may seem to be the trend du jour, but it’s strongly backed by research. It has been proven to decrease stress, improve symptoms of a plethora of mental health conditions, and even improve cognitive capabilities. The majority of the research has focused on mindfulness meditation, so that is what I recommend to clients. Contrary to popular belief, the goal of mindfulness meditation is not the absence of thoughts or emotions. The goal is present moment awareness and acceptance. There are many free apps available that provide guided mindfulness meditations.
  8. Be of service to someone else. Service to others benefits both giver and receiver. Researchers have identified a “helpers’ high” that improves psychological, physical and social well-being. However, this one comes with a caveat: if you are experiencing burnout due to an existing overwhelming caregiver role, this does not apply to you. For giving to be helpful, it must be motivated by a sense of pleasure in helping. We can’t pour from an empty cup, so we must fill our own cup before giving of ourselves to help others.
  9. Do something you enjoy.What are the things you did as a kid that brought you joy? Do them now. Participating in activities that we enjoy allows us to feel positive emotions and can interrupt the downward spiral into mental illness, improve resiliency, and foster hope.
  10. Take it one step at a time. For people that are struggling with mental health difficulties, this list (or even one item on the list) might seem like an impossible task. Start with one small step. Even a tiny shift can have ripple effects. Remember that real, sustainable change occurs slowly over time.

These steps are not a substitute for proper healthcare, but rather ideas for health promotion. If you are struggling to incorporate these ideas or despite incorporating them, please speak to a qualified health professional for further support.

Nicole Caines is a Registered Psychologist in Calgary, AB. She supports adolescents and adults struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, eating disorders, and life transitions. For more info, visit monarchpsychology.com

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Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), 579-592. doi:10.1037/a0021769

Nicole Caines