Keeping a Healthy Mind
We have now been given the option to exercise as much as we want, which helps us to keep our physical health in check, but what about our mental health?
Whilst being active and releasing all of those endorphins can have a positive impact on us mentally, what if it is not enough, or perhaps it’s not an option for you? In keeping with mental health awareness week, here we explore some easy, realistic ideas on how you can overcome such common feelings as loneliness, anxiety and depression during this difficult time and in the comfort of your own home.
1. Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi
Any exercise that involves deep breathing, focus, and mindfulness will help to improve your mental health. Studies have shown that increased deep breathing feeds more oxygen to the brain, encouraging it to go into a state of relaxation. When you breathe deeply you can shift your body’s nervous system from an anxious state which is called ‘fight or flight’ to a deeply relaxed state, known as ‘rest and digest’. The fight or flight response is generally invoked when we face danger or confrontation, for example. However in this difficult time we may be provoking this response all too often due to money worries, job worries, loneliness, missing loved ones, relationship problems, and so on. Staying in the stress response state can cause numerous health problems such as high blood pressure, which is a major risk for heart disease. The build-up of stress contributes to anxiety and depression. The stress response also suppresses the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds and other illnesses – a major risk, currently.
So through yoga, Pilates or tai chi, we can invoke the relaxation response. Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange and therefore can slow the heart beat and lower or stabilise blood pressure. It is worth trying to incorporate one of these activities into your daily routine. Research suggests that just 12 minutes per day can have a profound improvement on a person’s mental health. Have a look at our blog called ‘Yoga to keep us young’ for more insights and resources and to help you to decide which practice may suit you best.
If you are struggling with mobility problems or do not have much space available to you, be reassured that simply by sitting or lying down somewhere comfortable and engaging in deep abdominal breathing will still provide you with that same relaxation response and move your body into a state of rest and digest. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. First, take a normal breath, then try a deep breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully, now breathe out slowly through your mouth or nose, whichever feels more comfortable.
Within a few days you should notice the benefits and feel a general sense of calm, no matter what you are facing throughout your day.
2. Happy eating
Of course in these troubling times, we can find it all too easy to reach for the comfort food and drink. As much as it may provide a temporary relief, it is not a healthy habit to get into. Alcohol and other drugs, sugar and processed snacks can wreak havoc on our mental health in so many ways – interrupting decent sleep patterns, creating hormone imbalances, and pushing us towards the stress response.
There are many delicious foods that are easy to incorporate into your diet that will help to shift your mind away from a stressed and depressed state:
Omega 3 fats – fatty fish such as salmon, trout and sardines, as well as chia seeds and flax seeds are all rich sources of omega 3 fatty acids. These are vital for building brain and nerve cells, for learning and memory, also they may slow age related mental decline and help ward off Alzheimer’s disease. It is said that not getting enough omega 3 can increase your risk of mental decline and depression.
Foods rich in vitamin C – oranges, lemons, strawberries, bell peppers and broccoli are all rich in vitamin C, which is essential to your body’s ability to make neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin, all of which provide mood stability and help with the prevention of depression.
Foods rich in vitamin B6 – carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, green peas, lentils and other legumes and bananas will significantly help towards boosting your mood, as they help the brain to make serotonin, norepinephrine, and melatonin which all help to lift depression. B6 is especially helpful in treating pre-menstrual stress and depression.
Foods rich in Zinc – such as legumes, seeds, nuts and whole grains, can have a therapeutic role in treating mood disorders. Studies have shown that zinc deficiency can lead to symptoms of depression, ADHD, difficulties with learning and memory, seizures, aggression and violence.
Foods rich in Magnesium – mostly leafy greens, avocado, whole grains, legumes and tofu can all play a role in facilitating the hormone balance, enzyme activity and neurotransmitter function that regulate your mood and overall health. Magnesium was in fact the first medically acknowledged substance to effectively treat depression.
Foods rich in folate – including avocado, oranges, spinach and asparagus. Folate is vital for helping the body create new cells and supports the formation of DNA. Folate also contributes to serotonin regulation, one of the ‘happy hormones’. Studies have shown that a deficiency in folate has been linked to depression.
Foods rich in Selenium – brazil nuts, tuna, mushrooms and lentils will not only boost your mood but also help with fatigue. A biological psychiatry study showed that people who received selenium reported a general elevation of mood, as well as reporting a decrease in anxiety, depression and tiredness.
Foods rich in Vitamin D – also known as ‘the sunshine vitamin’. These are fairly difficult to come by, as we know the best way to get our vitamin D is to be out in the sunshine. Supplements may also be a good idea if you do not have the chance to sit outside for a decent length of time. If you want to try to incorporate it through food as well, look for fortified foods such as milk and orange juice, and don’t be afraid to eat the flesh of your fatty fish serving as it is known to contain a small amount of vitamin D.
If you are panicking that you will be missing out or depriving yourself of any fun by changing your diet to incorporate the above, do not worry too much, as coffee and chocolate are also on the eat happy list!
Coffee is a great source of antioxidants. As a vasodilator, it also causes your blood vessels to expand, improving your circulation. To top it off, the caffeine in coffee stimulates dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter that produces the feeling of euphoria.
Chocolate is well known as a mood-boosting food. It contains phenethylamine, which triggers the release of pleasurable endorphins. It also contains anandamide, which produces feelings of elation and exhilaration. As if you needed more convincing, chocolate contains polyphenols which have been shown to have a positive effect on mood. It is best to opt for at least 70% dark chocolate to ensure that your processed sugar intake is still low and you can get the full benefits of the above natural ingredients.
3. Gardening and time outside
As we mentioned above, it is very important to get our daily dose of vitamin D, and the best way to do so is to soak up a decent amount of sunshine outside. If you don’t have a garden at home then try to get out at least once a day, and for at least 30 minutes. Even if it is not bright sunshine outside you will still benefit, as the rays penetrate through the clouds. If you are house bound or struggling with limited mobility, it will still prove beneficial to open the windows of your house or apartment for the majority of the day, and sitting near open windows, as the fresh air also helps to lift mood. You could look into investing in a ‘sad’ lamp perhaps, designed for those who suffer from seasonal adjustment disorder, the bulbs in these lamps emit a very bright light that simulates the sunlight, encouraging the brain to reduce melatonin, (the hormone that makes one sleepy) and increase serotonin production.
If you are lucky enough to have a garden, it is not just the exposure to sunlight and subsequently vitamin D that can benefit you. In our last blog ‘Goodness in your garden’ we highlighted how gardens can contain a variety of health boosting remedies, however there are many other benefits to having a garden and the act of gardening, especially when it comes to mental health. You may have been watching the Chelsea flower show this week, in which Thursday’s episode was all about the benefits of gardens and gardening on mental health.
Of course there is the obvious element of exercise which we touched on at the beginning, the release of serotonin and endorphins, but studies also show that those who regularly tend to their garden show significant reductions in depression and anxiety, and improved social functioning. Gardening has also been found to help maintain independence and prevent cognitive decline. This is partly down to the sensory elements, for example catching the scent of rosemary on the breeze could trigger some treasured memories, or if a whiff of lavender reaches your nose, you’ll feel an instant calm.
In fact green space in general can promote wellbeing, a recent study has shown that people living near green space reported less mental distress. Also a lower rate of illnesses including depression, anxiety, heart disease, asthma and migraines has been found in people who live within half a mile of green space. So even if you only have space for a little windowsill garden, go ahead and get your hands dirty! For more advice on what to grow and where, have a look at the royal horticultural society website – www.rhs.org.uk.
4. Get creative
Learning a new skill or sinking your teeth into a creative activity is fantastic for a sense of mental wellbeing. By doing something you are good at, you will enjoy yourself whilst you are doing it, and of course you will be able to enjoy a great sense of achievement. Anything that keeps you entertained is great to do, be it knitting, painting or drawing, puzzles, cooking, crafts, DIY, music, creative writing, and so on. It is said that creative expression boosts our confidence, focuses our minds and acts like a natural antidepressant, helping to reduce anxiety.
5. Get social
Perhaps easier said than done at the moment, but even in lockdown we can keep in touch with family and friends, in fact we have no excuses because we have more time on our hands! Thanks to digital platforms such as skype and facebook, we can have video calls with our loved ones. For those who don’t have internet or webcams, you can still simply pick up the phone for a good old chin wag.
By staying in touch with our friends and family, we can be sure to enjoy more positive feelings of love and connection, again leading us away from the stress response and helping us to feel relaxed and happy. Friendship is a crucial element in protecting our mental health. We need to talk to our friends and we want to listen when our friends want to talk to us. Our friends can keep us grounded, and can help us get things in perspective. It is worth putting effort into maintaining our friendships and making new friends, as friends form one of the foundations of our ability to cope with the problems that life throws at us.
6. Read an inspiring book
Reading has been found to be hugely beneficial for our mental health. According to new research from Oxford University Press, reading challenging language sends ‘rocket boosters’ to our brains, which in turn boosts our mental health. Classics from William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens were proven to help relieve depression and chronic pain. Dr Paul Byrne explained the benefits of Reading: “Bibliotherapy, quite simply, is about books as therapy. It’s not meant to take the place of medicine, but it can compliment it.”
Books can take you to a different place. They can relax you and calm you, and they can offer wisdom, or humour, or both. In 2013, a study of 96 patients that suffered with mild depression, found that those who read saw improvements in their symptoms, in comparison, those in a control group who didn’t receive bibliotherapy treatment didn’t see any change.
Regular reading not only improves mental health, but also means that you could enjoy a longer life than those that don’t read. Yale University School of public health found in 2016 that those who read books had a 20% reduction risk of death over 12 years compared to non-book readers.
7. Get enough sleep
There is a close relationship between sleep and mental health. Living with a mental health problem can affect how well you sleep, and poor sleep can have a negative impact on your mental health. To ensure you get a decent night’s sleep, make sure you establish a routine. Try to establish a regular sleeping pattern by going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day. Go to bed only when you feel tired enough to sleep, then get up at your usual time. This may mean you will spend less time actually in bed, but more of the time in bed asleep.
Be sure to relax before you go to bed. You may find a relaxation routine can help you prepare for sleep. There are several things you can try, such as listening to relaxing music or having a bath, breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, visualisation and meditation.
Try to resolve stress and worries. Try to identify anything in your life that’s causing you stress or worry that might be affecting your sleep. You may find it helpful to talk to a friend about the thoughts and feelings that affect your sleep or write them down. Also, aim to stay away from technology late at night. Use of bright screens and laptops and phones in the evening has been shown to negatively affect sleep try to give yourself some free time an hour or so before bed to help yourself prepare for sleep.
8. Listen to music or watch a funny film
It is a well-known fact that music can make us feel good. Music releases a mood enhancing chemical in the brain called dopamine. Studies show that dopamine is released at moments of peak enjoyment. Dopamine is associated with feel good States in response to certain stimulants, such as eating sweets and enjoyable food, to being in love. In this study, levels of dopamine were found to be up to 9% higher when volunteers were listening to the music they enjoyed. I’m sure you’ve had that moment where you’ve listened to a favourite song and it gets to the point where you have goosebumps, or chills, that is the body’s response to dopamine - that is your peak enjoyment, be sure to play your favourite music if you are feeling a little low, it will quickly cheer you up.
The same can be said for watching a funny movie. Humour is a powerful healing agent, and not only for depression and anxiety. Laughter can in fact decrease pain. A team of Swiss pain experts presented their study on how humour can provide relief to chronic pain patients in Florence in 2013: the lead scientist clams that “humour is a suitable strategy for increasing pain tolerance on the one hand, and for improving quality of life in chronic pain patients in the other.” Humour activates the release of endorphins, and relieves muscle tension. Humour can help us fight off disease and it also aids our immune system. When we laugh, we breathe with our diaphragm, which stimulates the cleansing of the lymphatic system. The increased flow of lymphatic fluid passing through the lymph nodes eliminates toxins, and the increased number of lymphocytes circulating in the blood protects us from disease. Laughter also decreases inflammation. In a 1996 Japanese study of 41 people with rheumatoid arthritis and 23 healthy subjects, research has demonstrated that laughter reduced levels of inflammation triggering cytokines in the people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Laughter is also known to reduce the levels of 3 stress hormones, cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopac (a brain chemical that helps produce adrenaline). Laughter helps prevent heart disease, according to a study presented at the American college of cardiology in 2000, they found that people with heart disease were 40% less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease. Laughing regulates blood pressure and increases oxygen-rich blood flow throughout our body, both of which are critical to Heart health.
9. Don’t watch too much News
The media we consume daily has an impact on our thinking, behaviour, and emotions. If you’ve fallen into a pattern of regularly watching or listening to the news, the majority of what you’re consuming is likely about the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. And while staying up to date on local and national news, especially as it relates to mandates and health updates, is critical during this time, experts say over-consumption of the news can take a toll on your physical, emotional, and mental health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the COVID-19 outbreak is proving to be stressful for most people. During an infectious disease outbreak, the CDC says stress can include changes in sleep or eating patterns, worsening of mental health conditions, fear and worry about your health and the health of loved ones, and difficulty concentrating.
Consuming the news can activate the sympathetic nervous system, which causes your body to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Then, when a crisis is happening, and we are experiencing this stress response more frequently, more physical symptoms may arise. Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping.
To strike the balance of moderation while staying informed, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends seeking news about COVID-19 mainly so that you can take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and your loved ones. Once you have that information, it’s time to turn the news off.
Scheduling a “worry time” each day is a common strategy for managing the symptoms related to anxiety disorders. Scroll through the news, acknowledge anything you are worried about, and make plans for addressing any issues.
Then, choose a time that is far enough away from your bedtime so that your brain has time to settle before you go to bed. The idea is to minimize worry and news intake by scheduling it into your day. After your worry time is over, put everything aside and remind yourself that it’s not time to worry right now and move onto other things. Your brain will eventually get used to this new routine and it will start to be able to let worries go more easily.
10. Spend time with animals
Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve your cardiovascular health. Caring for an animal can help children grow up more secure and active. Pets also provide valuable companionship for older adults. Perhaps most importantly, though, a pet can add real joy and unconditional love to your life.
Studies have found that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets. One study even found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months. Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax. Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets. Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without. Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
Stroking, hugging, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe you when you’re stressed or anxious. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and most dogs are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost your mood and ease depression.
While people with pets often experience the greatest health benefits, a pet doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rate.
By adopting some, or all, of these healthy habits if possible, you can be sure to keep your mental health in check during this troubling time. Remember that if a lot of these options are not available to you, there are various communities and charities out there providing help in many ways, including counselling.
References: health.harvard.eu / healthline.com / rhs.org.uk / foodrevolution.org / scmp.com / mind.org.uk / everydayhealth.com / harpersbazaar.com / helpguide.org / verywellmind.com