Are you feeling mentally drained? Do you long for a break from all of your nagging responsibilities of the day? Perhaps you are burnt out and need a long-awaited vacation. As fantastic as that sounds, the far more likely explanation for your “burnout” is that you are not taking proper care of your mental health. Adequate nourishment of your mind can lead to a dramatic increase in stress durability, maximize your happiness by reducing depression and anxiety, as well as improve your brain’s cognitive functionality all together. Whether you are in a slump, or just want to ensure you are taking all the necessary actions to optimize your mental health and brain function, I have prepared a comprehensive guide to 6 research backed essential elements of a healthy mind.
Essential Element #1: Diet
A healthy diet is often overlooked in relation to overall mental health, however eating whole foods may contribute more than you think to your mental well-being. Most people avoid eating healthy foods regularly because it simply isn’t as convenient as the fast food establishments and frozen meals at the grocery store which entices you through ease, comfort, and brevity. You may already be aware of the physical health risks of eating junk food regularly, but the negative effects actually venture beyond that. Your mental health is also affected by consuming junk in the place of healthy foods. A recent study on how a person’s diet correlates to depression concluded that there is strong evidence linking a poor diet to depression. With a sample size of 101 individuals split into two randomly selected groups of 38. Over the course of 3 weeks, one group acted as the control group, and the other was assigned a clean diet of fruits, vegetables, fish, and lean meats. The conclusion at the end of the study found that the diet group showed substantially lower levels of self-reported depression symptoms than the control group. In addition to the conclusion of the study, 9 of the subjects in the ‘diet’ group were contacted 3 months later via phone call who each stated that they maintained the same level of reduced depression symptoms 90 days after the study. Maintaining a healthy diet prevents depression, and is also the building block of essential element #2, which stretches the psychological benefits of dieting even further.
Essential Element #2: Exercise
Exercise is by and large the best natural “medicine” for treating the mind, and chances are you aren’t getting nearly enough of it. A recent study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 22.9% of U.S. Adults age 18-64 meet the guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise. These are substantial numbers which very well might bear some correlation to the United States’ skyrocketing obesity and depression levels. With that in mind, it is important to learn about the plethora of research backing not only physical benefits to exercise, but also psychological. The common consensus is that exercise helps you lose weight, and become physically healthy, however the health benefits greatly exceed just the physical realm. Regular exercise has been shown to increase resilience to stress, greatly reduce symptoms of depression, and has been prescribed by Therapists to treat anxiety. With so many health benefits, exercise is the perfect addition to your daily routine in order to see significant improvements in overall mental health.
Essential Element #3: Socialize
Socializing is one of the simplest ways of improving your mental health because luckily, you already do it every day! Whether it be at work, school, or with family, socializing is nearly unavoidable. However, when you consider the health benefits, you’ll probably be inclined to make more time specifically to socialize. As you may know, work isn’t always the greatest place to have meaningful conversations, therefore making time for friends is essential to fill that gap. Building strong friendships can have all kinds of benefits such as increased empathy, a reliable source to vent to, and can lead to a host of other benefits depending on the person. Genuine connection is a priceless commodity which is worth the effort to search for and build with one or more people if you haven’t already. In fact, a mind-blowing study on social relationships found that a lack of social connection has a greater negative impact on your health than high blood pressure, obesity, and even smoking! Adding to that Dr. Emma Seppala stated in her article written for Stanford Medicine: “People low in social connection are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behavior, and even suicidal behaviors which tend to further increase their isolation.” Adequate time spent having meaningful conversations with friends should not be overlooked, and is essential to maintaining your mental health.
Essential Element #4: Pursue a Hobby
Life can get hectic, and finding time for personal hobbies can easily get lost in the routine and responsibilities of the day. What’s even more alarming is that most people don’t even have a hobby. If you fall into either of these categories, or are just considering your options, there’s always room for more hobbies! Hobbies give you an escape from the stress, demands, and worries of everyday life. Having a hobby in which you are passionate about is an invigorating, emotional experience. A feeling that nothing else can replace. The best part about finding a hobby is that there are so many of them! There are creative hobbies, social hobbies, physical hobbies, relaxing hobbies, engaging hobbies, educational hobbies, adventurous hobbies, and everything in between! If you’re having trouble finding a new hobby, here is a comprehensive list of various hobbies. Pick one that sounds interesting, and give it a good shot. Then rinse and repeat until you find one you are passionate about. Having a creative hobby has especially good benefits on the mind, and is worth looking into if you don’t already have a creative outlet in your life. A study in 2016 has proven that partaking in an every day creative outlet increases your overall happiness and mood. Additionally, a study of 702 Australian participants showed that engaging in 100+ hours of creative expression per year provides a substantial increase to the mental well-being. With all the positive benefits creativity brings, it is a no-brainer to include some form of creative expression in your daily life!
Essential Element #5: Disconnect
Mindlessly scrolling through social media, browsing memes until nothing seems funny anymore, getting sucked down a Youtube rabbit hole, binging an engrossing series on Netflix, playing “just one more round” of an addicting video game. Chances are, you’re guilty of at least one of these unproductive habits and understand the deep seeded feeling of guilt at the other end of a binge. Technology is extremely beneficial to the structure and success of our society, however, it has also provided the masses with a constant over-stimulation of dopamine hits through its instantaneous functionality and endless ocean of content to browse. Its difficult to understand just how refreshing it feels to disconnect from all the temptations of the web until you actually do it. The benefits of reducing social media consumption are scientifically sound and said to decrease loneliness, depression, anxiety, and fear of missing out (FOMO) according to a 2018 study of social and clinical psychology. This is not to say you should throw your phone off a bridge and go live in the forest away from all technology, its merely a nudge to encourage you to cut back on the quantity of your media consumption. Numerous studies have been done linking time spent in nature to various benefits to your well-being. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can increase memory, alleviate depression symptoms and increase motivation, and even boost creativity! Furthermore, Stanford research has found nature to be an adequate prescription for overall mental well-being. The therapeutic prescription of nature has even coined a term: “Ecotherapy” among many psychologists. With all the research backed evidence for the health benefits of spending time in nature, what are you waiting for? Take a hike! (Literally).
Essential Element #6: Sleep
Perhaps the most overlooked cause of stress, anxiety, depression, and overall reduced cognitive processing is a lack of sleep. Sleep is the easiest human necessity to skip out on, but its also the easiest to get more of. Scientists have theorized for centuries on the reasoning for sleep, but it is still unclear why we do it. One thing is known for certain, people need sleep and a lot of it. Without enough sleep, your brain is deprived of rest and results in a slew of issues with your cognition. Kimberly Fenn, a Psychologist involved in a 2019 sleep deprivation study, stated the following about the effects sleep deprivation has on cognition:
“Our research showed that sleep deprivation doubles the odds of making placekeeping errors and triples the number of lapses in attention, which is startling,”
Sleep deprivation can effect more than just cognitive processing, it can also increase anxiety by up to 30%, as discovered by Matthew Walker, a professor of Neuroscience and Psychology in a paper he published on anxiety and sleep in 2019. Professor Walker also mentioned in his paper that “sleep is a natural remedy for anxiety.” Furthermore, studies have found that a reduced number of hours slept per night can greatly increase the risk for depression. One study in particular discovered that the chances of getting depression increases from 27% to 53% when you go from 7-8.9 hours of sleep per night down to 5 hours per night. With so many psychological issues occurring from a lack of sleep, it’s practically self-sabotage not to ensure you’re getting enough of it! If you want to keep your brain functioning and healthy, the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults.
A Wake Up Call:
Your mental health deserves to be treated with the utmost care, because failing to do so can be detrimental to your well-being. Now that you are aware of all the ways you might be unconsciously mistreating your mind, and are also informed of the of all research backed damage it is causing, you are presented with an opportunity to correct your bad habits. Adhering to the 6 essential elements covered in this article will ensure that your mind is in tip top shape all while protecting it from illness and reduced functionality.