According to the World Health Organization (WHO): “Mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health.” From many studies they’ve conducted, as well as other studies from around the world, we now know that poor mental health is linked to increased risk of death from heart disease, stroke and cancer. In addition, studies have shown that poor mental health is associated with gender discrimination, social exclusion, increased risk of violence and crime and an unhealthy lifestyle. With this in mind, WHO defines good mental health as a “state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
So, if you want to improve your mental health in 2016, here’s where you want to start:
- Eating well: Just like your mother told you, eating well is the cornerstone of a healthy physical life. What we know now, is that it’s also integral to a healthy mental life. There are many ways to eat, but many proponents such as the Mental Health Foundation, recommend the Mediterranean diet which incorporates a high consumption of beans, nuts, cereals, seeds, plant-based foods and fruits. The diet is also low in saturated fat, includes moderate consumption of fish, poultry and dairy, and low consumption of meats and sugary foods. Studies have found that people on this diet not only live longer, but they also have better cognitive function and mental health.
- Exercise: Here’s another one that can seem obvious but so many people don’t do. One of the top reasons for exercise avoidance is the misconception that it will take hours or be too hard. Studies from the University of Michigan have shown that you don’t have to go to grueling gym sessions. They found that such enjoyable activities as group nature walks could promote good mental well-being. “Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression,“ said study leader Dr. Sara Warber, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan.
- Sleep: It’s common knowledge that sleep problems can affect our mental well-being making us grouchy, judgmental and poor problem solvers. A 2010 study by researchers from the George Institute on Global Health in Australia found that people who have less than 5 hours sleep a night may be at a higher risk of mental illness.
- Managing stress: In 2014, researchers from the University of California-Berkeley found that stress can make the brain more susceptible to mental illness. There are many, evidence-based ways to reduce stress including things like yoga, mindfulness-meditation, exercise, grounding techniques, biofeedback and EMDR.
- Volunteer/find a hobby: According to the Mental Health Foundation, volunteering or starting a hobby is an effective strategy to promote and improve mental health. “Caring for others is often an important part of keeping up relationships with people close to you. It can even bring you closer together,” say experts from the organization. “Concentrating on a hobby, like gardening or the crossword, can help you forget your worries for a while and change your mood.” Having interaction with friends and family is also important for good mental health.
- Decreasing/eliminating drug and alcohol use: Alcohol and illicit drugs such as methamphetamine, marijuana and illegally obtained prescription medications are all toxins, and your body treats it as such. There are many negative effects from sustained drug and alcohol abuse. In addition, drugs and alcohol can exacerbate mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety. If you think you have a problem, seek help at a local drug and alcohol treatment agency. You can generally call for a free assessment and get some education and information so you can make decisions that help you reach your goals.
So there you have it. The top 6 tools for improving your mental health in 2016.