7 simple habits to protect your mental health
- Lifestyle changes can help people manage anxiety and depression and take charge of their mental well-being.
- Some behaviors linked to improving or preventing anxiety and depression include addressing sleep issues, connecting with others, eating a nutritious diet, and exercising.
- Change can be difficult, especially for people with anxiety or depression, so it’s important to be kind to yourself.
- The best way to take care of your mental health is the approach that works best for you. In some cases, professional help may also be needed.
When Roy came to me for long-standing symptoms of depression and anxiety (they often run concurrently), he was hesitant at best. He wanted to feel better, but “getting treatment” didn’t fit his narrative of what he was “expected to do as an adult” in his culture. He had a decent, steady job, but felt his life lacked meaning and joy. He was so hard on himself and avoided others for fear of judgment.
Credit: Ian Stauffer/Unsplash
I knew he would go the other way if I jumped too quickly into a medical referral or diagnosis, so we started with the most human approaches – connecting on what was really going on for him and exploring changes in readily available lifestyles that aligned with his interests, motivations and values. Within weeks his spark began to return, and within months he felt he had a new breath of life. He wasn’t suddenly happy all the time. But he felt a new sense of his ability to take charge of his mental health.
Will everyone have a result like Roy from lifestyle changes? Certainly not – anxiety and depression are complex conditions with huge individual variations, varied underlying causes and varying levels of severity. But can everyone benefit from learning the basics of taking care of their mind, either separately or in addition to professional treatment? I believe him.
The following seven health behaviors are the main ones linked to preventing or improving the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
While everything on this list is simple, it’s far from easy. Change is difficult. And if you’re currently suffering from depression or anxiety, it can be especially difficult. That’s why one of the key behaviors is to be kind to yourself.
If you feel pressured to do so, pick one area to work on at a time, perhaps an area you feel particularly motivated or confident about, or an area that feels aligned with your most important values. Then take it one step at a time. The funny thing about change is that we often don’t know it’s happening, we just keep rowing in the right direction, and usually after a few or a few thousand twists and turns we look back in awe at how much we have come.
While 10-18% of adults in the United States experience chronic sleep problems, this number rises to 65-90% of those with depression and more than 50% of those with generalized anxiety disorder. Among those who suffered from depression, 65% initially had sleep problems. Addressing sleep issues can alleviate symptoms of mental health issues, and since sleep issues are a risk factor for mental health issues, it can also help protect your mental health.
There are many resources to help improve your sleep, like this free app.
A disposition that tends towards self-criticism or perfectionism can be a risk factor for anxiety and depression. This can include feeling that you have to be perfect to be accepted, an inability to accept your flaws, intense self-analysis, or an unrealistic sense of other people’s expectations and your ability to meet them.
Despite the fear of many who have this trait, the antidote to perfectionism isn’t dropping everything, or saying goodbye to standards – it’s self-compassion. According to researcher Kristen Neff, self-compassion has three components: self-benevolence versus self-judgment, common humanity versus isolation, mindfulness versus over-identification. How we treat ourselves through the ups and downs of life can have a huge impact on health and mental health.
3. Social Login
From the moment we are born, we need social connections to flourish.
A recent study led by Harvard researchers sought to understand what could best protect us from the depression that is within our control. After analyzing over 100 potential factors, they found that social connection was by far the most important protective factor.
It was a lonely year for many. And many are anxious about getting back to normal. But connection doesn’t mean a big party or a bustling office. It could be confiding in someone you trust about how you are really doing, listening to how someone else is really doing, giving thanks in a meaningful way, or having a (safe) visit with a family member or friend. If that seems out of reach, try making a short list of people who, at some point, made you feel like you belonged. Other studies have shown that simply bringing positive relationships to mind can have a positive impact on our ability to tolerate stress.
Exercise can be important in preventing depression, as having a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor. A study found that 15 minutes of vigorous exercise a day significantly prevents depression. Another study found that 12 weeks of 30-minute vigorous exercise three to five times a week reduced symptoms by 47%.
For the coexistence of anxiety and depression, a study 2020 under the guidance of James Blumenthal, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University, exercise was most effective when combined with medication. Otherwise, a high level of anxiety seemed to attenuate the effects of exercise in reducing depression.
What about anxiety? Studies show exercise can be a positive distraction, higher activity levels can protect against symptoms, and a single exercise session can have immediate benefits in reducing stress and worry.
Much has been written about the connection between food and mood. We have so many neurons and neurotransmitters in our gut that it’s been dubbed “the second brain”. In fact, 95% of the serotonin we produce comes from neurotransmitters in the gut. Traditional diets (such as the Mediterranean diet) high in vegetables, whole grains, and brain-healthy fats are associated with increased Risk reduced by 25-35% depression compared to the typical Western diet which is higher in sugar, processed foods and dairy.
Although we generally think of positive nutrition as a preventive habit, a 2020 study found significant reductions in depression symptoms, as well as co-occurring anxiety symptoms, after a 12-week intervention that offered nutritionist support for following a modified Mediterranean diet. These results suggest that nutritional therapy is a useful adjunct to treatment and may one day be validated as a treatment in itself.
6. Meaning and purpose
No list could be complete without a boost of meaning and purpose. If we struggle with negative moods and emotions, it can be especially important to define happiness for ourselves. As Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s quest for meaning“For success, like happiness, cannot be sought; it must follow.
It is difficult to control “happy”. It is much easier to control the “meaning”.
You can read more about finding sources of daily meaning in my previous article.
Through mindfulness, you can change your relationship to difficult thoughts and feelings. Many find that with continued practice they still have difficult thoughts and feelings, but they can observe them with a little more distance and a little less belief in them as fact. A study found that after eight weeks of mindfulness practice, practitioners showed increased concentration of gray matter, which is associated with emotional regulation, among other benefits. Mindfulness is not a panacea, but it can be a very useful tool in changing the way you meet challenges.
To start, you can find free guided meditations in line.
Which of these habits is the most effective? Well, it really depends on what works for you! If someone tells you that mindfulness is “the only way”, let that notion drift away like leaves on a river. Like a 2021 review from the University of Cambridge found, for example, that mindfulness is helpful in most clinical settings, but not necessarily more so than other wellness approaches, such as exercise.
So really, the best approach is: get all the support you can get (for clinical levels of anxiety and depression, professional therapy and medical evaluation are gold standard) and take care of your mind based on that. that works for you.