When we think about health and wellness, we often times forget all about our mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to shine a light on the meaning of mental health and what we can do in our everyday lives to effectively handle things.
Our mental health concerns the well being associated with our emotional, psychological and social state. It also includes how we handle these events in our thought, feelings, and actions.
From the fluctuating stress in our everyday life to clinical concerns such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, and food-related disorders, mental health can present itself in many forms.
The symptoms associated with these conditions are common and can be treated in a variety of ways. The key is understanding the state of your mental health remaining open for help early on.
Examining mental health
Recognizing a change in yourself or in a loved one should never be overlooked. Feel down or sad every now and then can be attributed to just a part of the human experience. Feeling sad, anxious, hopeless, disinterested in otherwise enjoyable activities, or changes in sleep pattern (not sleeping or sleeping often) is worth noting and a reason to seek help, even if it’s talking it out with a friend or loved one.
The following aspects of our life and lifestyle are greatly connected to our mental health and how we cope with or avoid certain potentially debilitating mental health issues. Here’re a few things to look out for when assessing the state of your mental health and where you may need to make major changes.
The gut-brain connection
The connection between the gut and brain goes a lot further than just getting butterflies in your stomach when you’re thinking about an event that makes you nervous or scared. The gut is considered to be your “second brain.”
According to Jay Pasricha, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, for decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But studies reveal that it may also be the other way around. Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes.
That means that if the gut is not doing its job for some reason, then it increases the likelihood of mental health issues. Controlling what’s in the gut—namely the bacteria—is the key to controlling how it acts and reacts.
How diet and nutrition affect mental health
Understanding that what’s in your gut matters regarding what goes on in your head, sugar could be the culprit and/or the instigator of mental health issues. Sugar contributes greatly to disruption in the digestive system and ultimately illness, such as diabetes as well as depression. But diet and nutrition play a major role in how we ultimately feel.
“What it boils down to is that what we eat matters for every aspect of our health, but especially our mental health,” says Dr. Monique Tello of Harvard Health.
A diet high in veggies and fruits, some whole grains, fish, olive oil, and antioxidants have been associated with lower risk of depression. And on the same note, a diet high in processed food, particularly processed meats, refined grains, packaged foods and sweets, while likewise consuming a limited amount of fruits and vegetables, results in a higher likelihood of depression.
The role of exercise
Some form of deliberate strenuous movement should be a part of our daily routine just as contribute to overall wellbeing. Exercise, especially doing so regularly, can work similarly to antidepressant medication for some in helping to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.
These results vary and not everyone will experience the same effects, or for the same amount of time as others. “Some people may respond positively, others may find it doesn’t improve their mood much, and some may experience only a modest short-term benefit. Nonetheless, researchers say that the beneficial effects of exercise on physical health are not in dispute, and people should be encouraged to stay physically active.” – Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Getting good sleep
Sleep is the body’s way of recovering, whether physically, emotionally, or psychologically. As with diet, the connection and cycle regarding sleep and depression can be murky. Does bad sleep habits cause depression or does depression cause bad sleep habits?
According to NIH, “Links between sleep and depression are strong. About three-quarters of depressed patients have insomnia symptoms, and hypersomnia is present in about 40% of young depressed adults and 10% of older patients, with a preponderance in females.”
Lifestyle and stress on the mental health
Having a demanding job or a sedentary daily routine could not only be a major contributor to how you handle mental health, but it could also play a role in the severity of the symptoms associated with mental health disorders.
“Job stress is a risk factor for developing symptoms of depression. Stronger associations were found for women. The impact of high job strain among both men and women was more harmful when there was repeated exposure.”
It’s not always easy to just change jobs or dump responsibilities that could be causing stress and other mental health issues. But understanding that things such as your diet, exercise/fitness regimen, and sleep are key components to addressing your mental health before seeking professional help from your doctor and pharmacist.
Reducing the the likelihood of mental health issues
Again, not all mental health issues are created equal. Some cases require relatively simple lifestyle changes while others maybe hereditary or require a doctor’s intervention. The key to solving the former is reducing the likelihood of them occurring in the first place.
Routine: Mental health is not much different than physical health when it comes to staying fit—it has to consciously be a part of your daily routine. That could mean anything from meditating every morning for 10 minutes to journaling every night before you retire. Whatever takes your mind off of the daily stress of life ought to be something that is a part of your everyday habits in order for you to stay on track.
Do what makes you happy, often: This one may sound simple, but oftentimes we can carry on in our day, doing all the things we NEED to do, while forgetting to do a few things we actually WANT to do.
Whether it’s cooking, watching sports, dancing, or playing video games, make it a point to stop and spend a moment on something you love.
Visualization: There are a number of great benefits to spending a few moments daydreaming and painting mental picturesfor what you want out of yourself and out of life in general.
One of the great benefits is “increased positive thoughts.” By focusing and thinking about how you want things to be instead of how you perceive things to be right now, you not only change the inner recording you hear in your head all day, but “you begin to invite positive outcomes into your life.”
Clinical disorders may not be as simple to combat. If you are experiencing difficult times and you don’t know what steps you should take, talk-therapy today is becoming more convenient than ever. With services like TalkSpace and BetterHelp, you can get the help you need right over the phone or computer.
Mental Health America offers incredible insight into mental health and offers ways for you seek help. There you can find interactive tools and worksheets that can help lead you to healthier mental lifestyle.