- Proper sleep - Sufficient sleep, especially REM sleep, facilitates the brain’s processing of emotional information. According the Sleep Foundation, during sleep the brain works to process and remember thoughts and memories. The brain stores new information, gets rid of toxic waste, almost playing a “housekeeping” role of removing toxins that build up in your brain while awake! Sleep also allows nerve cells to communicate and reorganize which supports healthy brain function. Research also shows a lack of sleep can be especially harmful to the consolidation of positive emotional experiences. This can influence mood and emotional reactivity and is tied to mental health disorders and their severity, including the risk of suicidal ideation and behaviors. Proper sleep allows the body to repair cells, restore energy and produce important hormones and proteins. The CDC recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for adults 18-64 yrs old and nine to ten hours of sleep is recommended for children 6 to 18 yrs old. When I work with my clients we always talk about “sleep hygiene.” This is a critical part of expanding our “window of tolerance,” which is our capacity to tolerate difficult feelings and maintain the ability to “think and feel” at the same time. Sleep hygiene is a crucial part of mental wellness and self care. Please check out my blog about “Sleep Hygiene” for more information. I’ve compiled tips from several sources for my sleep hygiene guide! And if following some of the guidelines and making small adjustments does not help with your sleep and you find yourself continuing to struggle, I encourage you to make an appointment with your primary care doctor or consider making an appointment with a mental health therapist today.
- Gut health and nutrition - Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut. Stress and depression can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract. There has been increasing research on the bi-directional communication between the central nervous system and the gut. Inflammation of the gut has been linked to causing several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. Linked with gut health, nutrition and the way we feed our brains directly impact the ability for the brain to produce important chemicals and hormones that are related to creating a sense of wellbeing internally. In short, what we put into our mouths directly impacts not just our physical health but our mental health. We are fueling our bodies AND our brains! We are also creating an environment in our microbiome that is either setting us up to have strong immune systems and support our nervous systems or an environment that feeds inflammation, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Food allergies and “leaky gut” syndrome can be induced by untreated trauma and chronic stress. If you suspect you need professional help to get your gut and nutrition reset reach out to your primary care provider or a nutritionist for some extra support and resources.
- Purpose - Finding your why is so important! Research shows that when people feel purpose in their life it gives a more meaningful existence. When you live each day to the fullest, you know who you are, where you’re coming from and where you’re going. Knowing your purpose and living into it helps you stay focused and motivated. It can enable you to feel more gratified and gives life more clarity. A robotic life can begin to feel like ground hog day… each day getting up and doing the same meaningless things day in and day out can lead to a lack of stimulation and boredom which can cause depression. Finding purpose also tends to enable individuals to live a value-based life which gives a sense of “who I am.” People who find their purpose tend to challenge themselves and battle through fears. We can find purpose in small things! To find purpose and gratification in your job, your family, volunteer work, community work and connection can make a huge difference in the quality of your life which directly affects your emotional and mental health.
- Silent reflection - Research shows that noise can have a pronounced physical effect in elevated levels of stress hormones. Sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. Researchers have also found that silence can release tension in the brain and the body in just two minutes. Experienced regularly, silent reflection and stillness can relax busy minds and bodies and develop inner calm, improving emotions, behavior, mental and physical health. Quiet practices that connect us to our bodies and breath such as yoga can lower stress hormones in our bodies while simultaneously increasing brain benefiting chemicals like endorphins and GABA. It creates mental clarity and calmness, increases body awareness, relieves chronic stress patterns, relaxes the mind, centers attention and sharpens concentration. This moves you from the sympathetic nervous system (arousal) to the parasympathetic nervous system (or from fight and flight to rest and digest). There are several great meditation apps that can be downloaded right onto your phone! Daily breath work, meditation, yoga practice or silent reflection practice can make a huge impact on your overall mental wellness.
- Community and Connection - Humans crave connection! We are social beings…. made for relationship! We were not meant to live in isolation. Community provides belonging, support and purpose. Research shows that people who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Studies further show that connected people also have a higher self esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative which has a reciprocal affect of others feeling more trusting and cooperative in return. Community can also provide a sense of belonging and social connectedness, aiding the feeling of purpose mentioned above. This is true across culture, race, and socioeconomic status. Neighborhoods with higher levels of social cohesion experience lower rates of mental health problems then neighborhoods with lower social cohesion independent of how rich or poor the neighborhood. Where you choose to find community and connectedness is up to you! There is no one size fits all. If you haven’t found a strong sense of community keep trying! Remember, as important as it is to find community for your mental health, it is just as important for others to have connection with YOU. You are a one of a kind, no one can contribute to this world in the same way you can. We all need each other!
- Play & Movement - We have long heard that “play is the language of children.” That is because a child’s brain doesn’t fully develop until they are in their early 20’s. So they use the emotional and creative right side of the brain to process their feelings and experiences. As we get older our frontal lobe continues to develop along with the Broca’s area located in the left hemisphere of the brain. It is associated with speech and articulation. Children express themselves through play long before they are able to express themselves with words and process verbally. Did you know it is just as important for adults to play as it is for children? Just as children need free space and time to use their imagination and play, adults need space and time to do something voluntarily and just for fun! Dr Stuart Brown from the National Institute for Play discusses 8 types of play for adults: the collector, the creator/artist, the director, the explorer, the joker, the kinesthete, and the storyteller. Research clearly shows that regular exercise can be just as effective as medication and psychotherapies. It reduces depressive symptoms and boosts our mood by increasing a brain protein called BDNF which helps nerve fibers to grow! Your mind and body are intimately connected! While your brain is the master control system for your body’s movement, the way you move can also affect the way you think and feel. Find a way to move your body today and notice the difference in how you feel!
- Boundaries - Learning to set and maintain boundaries is a vital part of an individual’s emotional and mental health. Boundaries are all about feeling clear about where you end and another begins. There are two types of boundaries: internal and external. If you’re able to take accountability for your feelings and actions, it’s a sign you have strong internal boundaries. If you often feel resentment, anger, anxiety or feel take advantage of it could indicate weak external boundaries and you’re consistently being pushed past your own limits and values. In order to set boundaries for yourself, you need to know what they are. These are determine by your core values. If you are unsure what your values are, begin with some self reflection. By tuning into your feelings, past experience and how you want to show up in the world you will become more aware of what matters most to you and what you are unwilling to compromise on. Boundaries are an essential part of mental health. They help protect you by saving your emotional and mental energy, they help you grow, and often act as a form of self-care and prioritizing your needs. If you have found yourself struggling with boundaries it may be helpful to seek additional guidance and support from a counselor. Most often we can struggle with boundaries because they were never modeled for us. So be patient with yourself as you discover what is important to you and how to set boundaries to take better care of your mental and emotional health.
- Lifelong Learning - In the words of Albert Einstein, “When you stop learning you start dying.” The brain is a muscle… the more it is used the stronger it becomes! When we stop learning we stop seeking to understand. This can create a mental environment of fear. Learning enhances self-esteem, a sense of purpose and hope, and feelings of competency. Setting goals, being open to new ideas and continuing to learn throughout life helps boost well-being and builds resilience. It keeps us connected, involved and increases our ability to change and find meaning in our lives according to research from the Oxford Review. I encourage you to reflect today about what you might pursue learning… perhaps you might like to develop a new skill such as sewing or biking? Or maybe you would like to learn a new language or to research something interesting by listening to a new podcast. Maybe you could learn a new sport or try a new physical activity? We can learn using new technology. It’s also never too late to go back to school! Reflect about what your personal interests might be, make list of things you would like to learn or be able to do, figure out how you would get involved and then find a way to set time aside for learning! You will not be disappointed by the mental and emotional growth you will feel.
- Creative outlet - Creative outlets help us to manage stress and difficult emotions. They can become wonderful “tools” in your tool kit of emotional regulation. It can offer a psychological break to problems and stressors that arise in our lives. They can reduce anxiety, boost mood, and slow your heart rate which increases positive emotions, lessens depressive symptoms, reducing stress, decreasing anxiety and even improving our immune system functioning. The act of creating requires focus and concentration and some psychologists call this state of creativity “flow.” This state of creative flow is caused by a change in our brain function. Brainwaves slow down and original thoughts are better able to form. In a “flow” state of creating, our brain releases endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, pleasure and satisfaction inducing chemicals that affect creativity and well-being. Creative activities are designed to help you feel more peace and calm and increase feelings of joy and contentment!
I listed 9 pillars of mental health… Maybe start with one today and make one small change. Move toward the habits and the exercises that will support your mental health and wellness. Change takes time so be patient with yourself!
The Center for Compassion and Alturism Research and Education www.ccare.standford.edu
The National Alliance on Mental Health www.nami.org
www.nifplay.org The National Institute for Play