If you’re feeling, or ever felt, anxious, stressed or depressed, or just want to improve your mental well-being, you’re not alone. Mental health challenges and mental illnesses are a leading cause of disability worldwide. It’s estimated 20% of people in any given year will have a mental illness. And with the pandemic, it’s expected people are having mental health challenges more than ever before.
Your mental health relates to your well-being. This can be emotional, psychological and social. It affects how you feel, think and act. One’s mental health lies on a spectrum and can change from day-to-day, and even within the same day. It can be affected by a number of things including your genes and family history, as well as your environment and life experiences.
Having poor mental health, however, does not necessarily mean one has a mental illness. A mental illness is a clinically defined term to indicate disturbances to one’s day-to-day mental functioning. The top two illnesses are anxiety and depression, but also include conditions such as substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and dementia. And similar to conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses can be prevented and treated. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of mental health, there are actions you can take to improve how you feel.
Sleep and Mental Well-being
How much sleep you get and your mental health are closely tied together. It’s estimated between one quarter to one third of adults don’t get the minimum recommended seven hours of sleep per night. While a number of mental illnesses are associated with poor sleep, poor sleep may also increase one’s chances for getting a mental illness.
When you don’t get enough sleep, it makes it harder to concentrate, you may be more easily frustrated and irritable. This then leads to increased stress, worry and anxiety, which can further impact your sleep. Chronic lack of sleep (insomnia) can double the chances of getting depression. And sleep loss triggers the same areas of the brain as anxiety does. Even in people with generally healthy sleep patterns, poor quality sleep is associated with greater internalization of problems, psychological distress, and anxiety.
Having a good night’s sleep is key to maintaining good mental health. Several tips can improve sleep, such as having a sleep routine. This includes a set bedtime, a wind down time that limits screen time and a set wake time. Be mindful of napping during the day. A 20-30 minute nap may be enough to recharge, but longer can make you feel groggy afterwards and make it harder to sleep that night. Also, as alcohol is metabolized 4-6 hours after consumption, the increased heart rate and metabolism may be enough to wake you up. If these tips don’t work, cognitive behavioural therapy has been found to reduce insomnia and improve mental health.
Exercise Makes You Feel Good
Activity and exercise have long been associated with improving mood and releasing stress. After moving your body and getting your heart pumping, it’s hard not to feel better. People who exercise regularly have a lower chance of being anxious and depressed. It’s also known to help relieve stress. As a result, exercise is a recognized treatment for people with depression.
When you exercise, your body releases the feel-good endorphins. These hormones reduce any pain or discomfort associated with the activity. Similar to endorphins, exercise leads to an increase in endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids work on the same system affected by marijuana, and also help reduce pain and improve mood. Activities such as singing and cycling have been shown to increase endocannabinoids and improve mood.
With all these natural drugs circulating in your body, it’s hard not to feel good. And it doesn’t take much. As little as ten minutes of activity can lead to happiness. A feeling that can extend into the next day. Over time you’ll find you have fewer down days. People who exercised at least once in the past month reported having a day and a half less emotionally distressing days over that same time period compared to people who didn’t exercise.
Most of our daily thoughts are spent thinking about the past or planning for the future. Mindfulness meditation is about being present in the moment. During this time, focus is spent on being aware of your surroundings, physical sensations of your body, and your thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness recognizes we all have thoughts spinning around in our heads, but tells us not to place judgment on them. There is no right or wrong thought.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness with the most common ones focusing on one’s breathing. The aim is to relax the body and thoughts, and become aware of what is happening at that moment. It doesn’t mean you can’t have thoughts, but to let them pass freely through your mind. It’s common for community and fitness centres to offer group mindfulness sessions. But you can also do it on your own guided by videos on YouTube or apps for your phone (I use this one). Or even set up a practice all on your own. Each session can be as little as a few minutes and can be done most anywhere.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. And even a single session can have benefits in reducing anxiety. Mindfulness meditation is believed to work by lowering the hormones associated with stress. In addition, it’s believed to enhance attention and activate regions of the brain associated with emotional regulation.
Write Your Feelings Down
Many people find writing down their thoughts to be helpful. We all have lots of thoughts running through our heads. And whether it’s a list of things you need/want to do, or how you’re feeling, writing them down can relieve you of that mental burden.
Seeing your thoughts as words on paper may help you feel more in control and make sense of them. Some of those concerns may not seem so big of a problem when you see them in words. Writing on a regular basis (journaling) can help you identify things that may be triggers for stress and anxiety. Once identified, you can then look at ways to address those triggers. You can also write down positive thoughts about yourself or things you enjoyed about the day, which can also be therapeutic.
Writing down my thoughts helped me get through a particularly challenging time. While it didn’t do away with all of my concerns, it felt like a weight was lifted. I also found it helpful to share with others. I was better able to express myself in writing than in a conversation. And it allowed me to avoid repeating myself, which can be draining over time. Of course, what you write down and decide to do with it is personal to you.
Take Time for Yourself
Whether it’s to do one, or more, of the above, or something else entirely, it’s important for you to set time aside for yourself. Ideally everyday. In a busy lifestyle, this may be a challenge, but that makes it even more important to work on self-care. Building it into your routine, and setting time aside, just as you would any other task, can get you on your way.
Keep in mind, what works for one person may not work for you. The above are suggestions and there are many more things that can help as well. Sometimes it’s just slowing down and giving yourself space. This could be reading a book, watching a movie, getting a change of scenery, or even saying no to something that may add more to your plate.
And remember to be kind and patient with yourself. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings you are feeling. If you find your symptoms are lasting more than two weeks, see your doctor. And remember, it’s okay, to not feel okay.
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