When someone is diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, first line treatments(opens in a new window) usually include psychological therapies and medication. What’s not always discussed are the changeable lifestyle factors that influence our mental health.
Even those who don’t have a mental health condition may still be looking for ways to further improve their mood, reduce stress, and manage their day-to-day mental health.
It can be empowering to make positive life changes. While time restrictions and financial limitations may affect some people’s ability to make such changes, we all have the ability to make small meaningful changes.
Here are five lifestyle changes to get you started:
1. Improve your diet and start moving
Wholefoods such as leafy green vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, lean red meat and seafood, provide nutrients that are important for optimal brain function.(opens in a new window) These foods contain magnesium, folate, zinc and essential fatty acids.
Foods rich in polyphenols, such as berries, tea, dark chocolate, wine and certain herbs, also play an important role in brain function.(opens in a new window)
In terms exercise, many types of fitness activities are potentially beneficial – from swimming, to jogging, to lifting weights, or playing sports.(opens in a new window) Even just getting the body moving by taking a brisk walk or doing active housework is a positive step.
Activities which also involve social interaction and exposure to nature can potentially increase mental well-being even further.(opens in a new window)
General exercise guidelines(opens in a new window) recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days during the week (about 150 minutes total over the week). But even short bouts of activity can provide an immediate elevation of mood.(opens in a new window)
2. Reduce your vices
Managing problem-drinking or substance misuse is an obvious health recommendation. People with alcohol and drug problems have a greater likelihood than average of having a mental illness, and have far poorer health outcomes.(opens in a new window)
Some research has shown(opens in a new window) that a little alcohol consumption (in particular wine) may have beneficial effects on preventing depression. Other recent data, however, has revealed that light alcohol consumption does not provide any beneficial effects on brain function.(opens in a new window)
Stopping smoking is also an important step, as nicotine-addicted people are constantly at the mercy of a withdrawal-craving cycle, which profoundly affects mood. It may take time to address the initial symptoms of stopping nicotine, but the brain chemistry will adapt in time.
Quitting smoking is associated with better mood and reduced anxiety.(opens in a new window)
3. Prioritise rest and sleep
Sleep hygiene techniques(opens in a new window) aim to improve sleep quality and help treat insomnia. They including adjusting caffeine use, limiting exposure to the bed (regulating your sleep time and having a limited time to sleep), and making sure you get up at a similar time in the morning.
Some people are genetically wired towards being more of a morning or evening person, so we need to ideally have some flexibility in this regard (especially with work schedules).
It’s also important not to force sleep – if you can’t get to sleep within around 20 minutes, it may be best to get up and focus the mind on an activity (with minimal light and stimulation) until you feel tired.
The other mainstay of better sleep is to reduce exposure to light(opens in a new window) – especially blue light from laptops and smartphones – prior to sleep. This will increase the secretion of melatonin, which helps you get to sleep.
Getting enough time for relaxation and leisure activities is important for regulating stress.(opens in a new window) Hobbies can also enhance mental health, particularly if they involve physical activity.
4. Get a dose of nature
When the sun is shining, many of us seem to feel happier. Adequate exposure to sunshine helps levels of the mood-maintaining chemical(opens in a new window)serotonin. It also boosts vitamin D levels, which also has an effect on mental health,(opens in a new window) and helps at the appropriate time to regulate our sleep-wake cycle.
The benefits of sun exposure need to be balanced with the risk of skin cancer, so take into account the recommendations for sun exposure(opens in a new window)based on the time of day/year and your skin colour.
You might also consider limiting your exposure to environmental toxins,(opens in a new window) chemicals and pollutants, including “noise” pollution, and cutting down(opens in a new window) on your mobile phone, computer and TV use if they’re excessive.
An antidote to this can be simply spending time in nature. Studies show (opens in a new window) time in the wilderness can improve self-esteem and mood. In some parts of Asia, spending time in a forest (known as forest bathing) is considered a mental health prescription.(opens in a new window)
A natural extension of spending time in flora is also the positive effect that animals have on us. Research suggests(opens in a new window) having a pet has many positive effects, and animal-assisted therapy (with horses, cats, dogs, and even dolphins) may also boost feelings of well-being.
5. Reach out when you need help
Positive lifestyle changes aren’t a replacement for medication or psychological therapy but, rather, as something people can undertake themselves on top of their treatment.
While many lifestyle changes can be positive, some changes (such as avoiding junk foods, alcohol, or giving up smoking) may be challenging if being used as a psychological crutch. They might need to be handled delicately, and with professional support.
Strict advice promoting abstinence, or a demanding diet or exercise regime, may cause added suffering, potentially provoking guilt if you can’t meet these expectations. So go easy on yourself.
That said, take a moment to reflect how you feel mentally after a nutritious wholefood meal, a good night’s sleep (free of alcohol), or a walk in nature with a friend.
This article was written by Professor Jerome Sarris, NICM Health Research Institute Deputy Director and Dr Joe Firth, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at NICM Health Research Institute and originally published on The Conversation.(opens in a new window)