Thinking about improving our mental health can feel overwhelming–especially when we’re under the influence of negative emotions such as anger, sadness or anxiety. However, there are a few simple things that you can do in the moment that can help…and, if you practice these things on a regular basis, you may see an improvement in your overall well-being. So, what are they?
1. Stop and Breathe
As humans, we are under a lot of stress. Our stress levels encourage us to be ‘shallow’ breathers–instead of taking deep breaths; we take short, shallow breaths. If we pay attention, we may notice that most of our inhales barely make it past our collar bone! This way of breathing encourages panicky feelings as we’re not getting enough oxygen to our brains–it’s as if we’re hyperventilating. If that’s our normal, how should we breathe?
Have you ever watched a baby breathe? They naturally ‘tummy’ breathe…slow, deep, relaxed breaths. Tummy breathing helps to calm the nervous system, which puts the breaks on the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. You can practice this type of breathing by gently placing your hands on your stomach and inhaling until you feel your tummy rise and fall.
If you are interested in practicing your breathing as a way to cope with difficult emotions, a meditation/breathing download is available on the Welcome Page of Blaikie Psychotherapy. The exercise takes 20 minutes and includes instructions.
2. Eat Something Healthy
Are you familiar with the ‘hang over’ from a greasy, high-fat, calorie-dense meal? I know that I am! If I have made a stop at my local fast-food palace as a way to cope with negative feelings, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t feel better afterwards.
Our brains and bodies are connected. There is now a branch of science called Nutritional Psychiatry that looks at the effects of food on our mental health. Scientists are recognizing the interplay between mental health and a healthy gut (the microbiome). When we provide our bodies with healthy nutrients, we are encouraging brain health. This article from the Harvard Medical School explains how eating a diet high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants helps to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain.
So, if you’re feeling down, grab an apple instead of a doughnut!
We have known for a long time that exercise is a good way to improve our mood. There’s nothing like a good stomp around the block after an argument!
The great thing is that it doesn’t have to be a big deal…just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week will provide benefits. While 150 minutes may sound like a lot, it’s only a 20 minute walk per day. And the 20 minutes can be spread out over the day…park the car a bit farther from where you’re going…take the stairs when possible…hit replay on your favourite tune and keep dancing. When we’re mindful of ways to increase our amount of movement, it’s easy to find 20 minutes.
4. Enjoy Nature
Not only can we add 20 minutes of movement into our day, we can do it outside. While spending time in a forest or at a lake is ideal, the benefit is in getting outside. Is there a park or other green space in your area? What about your backyard?
A recent trend called “Forest Bathing” encourages us to benefit from the healing properties of trees. According to a CTV News article, the forest bathing movement is all about immersing oneself in the healing properties of trees and plants. It involves simply walking — quietly, slowly and deliberately — in a forest, and taking in the sounds, scents, colours, forms and general vibe of nature.
The concept is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere.” The certified forest therapy guide quoted in the article stated that “studies in Japan and Korea found forest bathers after their walks had an increased number of “natural killer cells,” immune system cells that combat disease and may even help prevent some kinds of cancer. The researchers believe natural killer cells are boosted when people breathe in organic compounds called phytoncides released by trees.” Apparently, forest bathing helps to lower cortisol levels, thereby lowering your stress levels.
If you’re curious about nature therapy or forest bathing, you can read more about it here.
When we get overwhelmed by big emotions like anxiety or anger, our limbic system (or lizard/emotional brain) is over-stimulated. This means that the logic part of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) is not in charge. By counting, which is a ‘thinking’ activity, we put that part of our brain back in the driver’s seat, and we stop the flooding of emotions. While counting our breaths may help, it can be more helpful to count something that is external to us.
One suggestion that I often give to clients is, when needed, look at what is around and find something to count. In a meeting room?…count the number of pens or paperclips on the table. In a store?…How many items are on the rack or shelf in front of you. At home?…Count the number of books on a shelf, spots on the carpet, dust bunnies on the floor. Outside? Count trees or cars. We can always find something to count.
6. Talk to Someone
One of the signs of depression is self-imposed social isolation. We don’t feel like interacting with other people, so we don’t. The more we keep to ourselves, the deeper we fall into our negative thoughts and the less we want to spend time with others….and the pattern repeats. I’m not talking about the bigger problem of a chronic lack of friends, but the turning away for others.
Social interaction is important for our mental health. We are social creatures and need contact with others. So make a point of talking to at least one person during your day…maybe it’s the person who makes your coffee or tea…smiling at someone who crosses your path…asking a co-worker about their plans for the weekend. It doesn’t have to be deep, just a sharing of humanity.
This post provides 6 simple ways to improve your mental health. However, if you are dealing with a significant mental health challenge, these may not be enough. If you would like to get in touch to talk more about what you are experiencing, you can reach me through my contact page.
And now, since humour is also good for mental health. Here is some classic Monty Python. Enjoy!