Life can often be difficult… it can be stressful and complicated.
These accumulated stresses can make us susceptible to feeling poorly, and this can even make us susceptible to developing mental illnesses like depression.
So how can we support and build a strong foundation for our mental health?
Here are five basic ways to start:
1. Having Social Supports and Creating Connections to Others
Having social support and connections to other human beings is absolutely crucial to our mental health. Human beings are social creatures and we’re designed to be with and interact with others. It’s the way years and years of evolution have made us. If we don’t have social connections with friends, family, church, school, work or through other activity our mental and physical health suffers.
Way back in 1946, Spitz found that infants who do not have significant and frequent contact with their mothers have a compromised and underdeveloped nervous system — which affects pretty much all aspects of their social, emotional, and psychological development and functioning!
Social connections are protective and help us maintain stronger mental and even physical health by:
1. Eliminating or reducing the effects of stressful experiences by helping us gain perspective and discover less threatening explanations of negative events in our lives; this helps us to develop more effective coping strategies.
2. By promoting positive “psychological states like improved self-identity; by helping us find purpose, self-worth, and creating positive happy experiences that support health-promoting physiological responses”. Social connections also provide us with information about how to be healthy and can also be a prime source of motivation to help us better care for ourselves.
In sum, social connections and supportive relationships are crucial to our mental and physical health — social supports can actually and effectively protect us from the effects of stress and may even protect against developing depression or other mental health problems. (Turner and Brown, 2010).
So try to spend time with your friends and family. Go out for lunch, to a movie, to the park, for a coffee. Join a club, play a sport, find an outlet to fill your human need for connections. If the people you connect with aren’t near, make a phone call, Skype or even just send a text. Find some way to connect with others.
What if you’re isolated, like being in a new city? You can join a club like a book or hobby club, a running group, or even join a sports team. A great place to make new connections and make new friends is through a website call www.meetup.com
Another great way to meet new people and make new connections is through volunteering. Something we’ll talk about a little later.
Sometimes just getting out of the house and around people can even help us feel better when we’re down. Going to a fitness centre, the library, the mall or park can help even if we don’t interact with others one on one — having other people around can feel positive or reassuring.
2. Physical Activity and Movement
Movement and physical activity are crucial to our mental well-being. Our bodies were designed to move and be active and inactivity can harm us both physically and mentally.
According to Anshel (2006) the advantages of physical activity and exercise to our mental health are:
– improves our hardiness and resilience, allowing us to better tackle life’s problems and challenges.
– reduces and mediates our levels of stress
– increases our self-esteem and improves our self-concept. Exercise actually helps us see ourselves as more competent and capable.
– Reduces our levels of anxiety and worry
– Moderates and decreases the symptoms of depression and actually can reduce the likelihood of getting depression
Start small and go for a 20-minute brisk walk. But what if we don’t feel motivated to exercise? One trick I often use myself when I don’t feel like going for a walk or a run is to tell myself:
I’m going to go for a 10 or fifteen-minute walk or run and if I still feel unmotivated and crappy? I will turn around and go home. This way I get some exercise and you know what? 99% of the time I feel better once I start and I just keep going!
Join a sports team, a hiking or walking group, join an exercise class or start going to yoga. Exercise classes can also be a great way to make social connections.
3. Eat well and hydrate!
Making sure that we eat good healthy foods and drinking enough water are both crucial to how we feel. Mood, energy, blood sugar levels and nutritional intake are all related and making sure we keep our body and brain fueled is crucial to our mood and mental health.
In 2011 study of more than 5,000 Norwegians, Australian Psychiatrist and researcher Felice Jacka and her colleagues found lower rates of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder among those who consumed a healthier more traditional diet of protein and plant matter, than amongst people who followed a “modern diet” containing more processed and fast foods.
Here’s a link to the Health Canada guide to nutrition and diet — a good place to start to eat in a healthier way and improve your mood.
Interesting enough, just drinking enough water can also affect our mood! Researcher Lawrence Armstrong, a professor of physiology in University of Connecticut’s Department of Kinesiology found in a 2011 study, that even mild dehydration can affect how we are feeling.
The author’s of this study found that even mild dehydration can cause negative mood, an increased perception of task difficulty, lower concentration levels, and headache symptoms. (Armstrong et. al., 2011)
So even simple things like drinking water can help us feel more emotionally and mentally well. So drink up!
4. Volunteer and Contribute to your Community.
Volunteering can have great social and health benefits. In a recent study by Jenkinson et. Al. (2013) They found those that volunteered regularly had lower depression levels, increased life satisfaction, and enhanced overall well-being!
Volunteering helps us connect to the greater whole in our community. It can give us purpose, and meaning in our lives.
Existential Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said:
The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
So volunteer your time and effort for a cause or issue that you care about; work in a community garden, help out at your community association, volunteer at a local animal shelter or soup kitchen, or even join a non-profit board of directors. Find some activity that helps you help others and you’ll be surprised how good you feel.
Sleep is a basic need. Like breathing, drinking water, and eating, we need sleep in order to survive and thrive. Get enough quality sleep and that doesn’t necessarily mean the magical number of eight hours.
Maybe it’s more maybe it’s less… everyone is different and needs what their individual body needs. For instance, infants sleep 16 hours or more per day, adolescents sleep on average 9 hours and the elderly average only 6 hours. Adults have different individual needs and 7 or 8 hours may be enough for one person , but woefully inadequate for someone else.
How much sleep do we need? Adults have one major episode of sleep at night typically lasting about 7½ to 8 hours (but ranging from 6 to 9 hours). The amount of sleep that one needs is individual with some people being short sleepers, and others long sleepers. The amount of sleep that one needs is that which is sufficient for a person to awaken feeling refreshed and to be able to function optimally during the day. (https://css-scs.ca/files/resources/brochures/Insomnia_Adult_Child.pdf)
Sleep is important to mental health and is intricately related to our emotions and how we feel. Who doesn’t feel a little bit cranky when we don’t get enough?
Mood disorders and depression in particular, are
associated with insomnia and hypersomnia. In
vulnerable individuals problems sleeping should be
noted; enabling better sleep can bring significant
relief and help cope with the illness. (Canadian Sleep Society: Sleep and Depression)
Here is a link to some great information on “Normal Sleep and Sleep Hygiene” that can help you improve your sleep.
What if you have insomnia? This can really effect and wreck our moods. Here is some great information on how to deal with that:
So, these basic five things are essential ways to improve how we feel and they can even protect us against mental health problems. Of course, there are other ways too.
Really look at what’s missing in your day to day life and start out by making small changes. Maybe it’s drinking more water, joining a club, seeing friends, going for a long walk or even just eating your veggies? The point is, start by doing something and help yourself to deal with life’s stresses and support your mental health.
If for any reason you feel that your daily stressors are too much to handle or that you are suffering from the effects of depression, anxiety or another mental illness? Contact a qualified mental health expert like a Psychologist, a Social Worker or your Family Doctor.
Armstrong LE, Ganio MS, Casa DJ, Lee EC, McDermott BP, Klau JF, Jimenez L, Le Bellego L, Chevillotte E, Lieberman HR. (2011) Mild dehydration affects mood in healthy young women. J Nutr. 2012 Feb;142(2):382-8.
Anshel, M. H. (2006). Applied Exercise Psychology: A Practitioner’s Guide to Improving Client Health and Fitness. New York: Springer Publishing Company. Retrieved from Questia.
Cohen, Sheldon, 2004. Social Relationships and Health. American Psychologist
2012 Canadian Sleep Society “Insomnia” https://css-scs.ca/files/resources/brochures/Insomnia_Adult_Child.pdf
2004 Canadian Sleep Society “Normal Sleep and Sleep Hygiene” https://css-scs.ca/files/resources/brochures/normal_sleep.pdf
2006 Canadian Sleep Society “Sleep and Depression” https://css-scs.ca/files/resources/brochures/depression.pdf
Jacka FN , Mykletun A, Berk M, Bjelland I, Tell GS. (2011) The association between habitual diet quality and the common mental disorders in community-dwelling adults: the Hordaland Health study. Psychosomatic Medicine 2011 Jul-Aug;73 .
Caroline E Jenkinson, Andy P Dickens, Kerry Jones,Jo Thompson-Coon, Rod S Taylor, Morwenna Rogers, Clare L Bambra, Iain Lang and Suzanne H Richards , 2013 Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BioMed Central Public Health.
House JS, Landis KR, Umberson D Social relationships and health. Science. 1988 Jul 29; 241(4865):540-5.
Spitz, R. A. (1946). Anaclitic depression: An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood II. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 2, 313–342
R. Jay Turner and Robyn Lewis Brown (2010) Ch. 10. Social Support and Mental Health in Scheid, T. L. and Brown T. N. A Handbook for the Study of Mental Health , Cambridge University Press