Many of us are, frankly, obsessed with the health of our bodies—except when it comes to our brains. Most people don’t think much about the most complex organ in our bodies until we are forced to consider our mental health because something has gone wrong. Some of the things that can go wrong with our brains are outside our control—we can’t always do anything to prevent genetically inherited conditions, the consequences of trauma, or other forms of injury and disease.
At the same time, our mental health is not entirely outside our control. In fact, even when a genetic predisposition is present or our circumstances are harmful, our lifestyle choices can prevent a disorder from developing, lessen its severity, or help us achieve better recovery. Regardless of our predispositions, experiences, or sense of health, it really doesn’t make sense for anyone to neglect the opportunity to protect and strengthen our mental health.
No matter who you are, why not give some thought and care to your mental health this year? Here are 11 ways we can all do that.
Laughter really is among the best forms of medicine. Studies have shown that laughter can improve our health in multiple ways, including lightening our mood, relieving tension, and improving our cognitive function. It can also change our outlook on life, make us more creative and resourceful, and make us more open to friendly relationships with other people. I hope you have someone in your life who can make you laugh — but you can always work on making yourself laugh, too, and you might entertain someone else in the process. If all else fails, try YouTube.
Exercise in general is good for our mental health, and walking is great. For reasons scientists don’t completely understand, walking in nature specifically is especially good for our brains. Try going for a walk each day, either as part of your exercise routine or for a quick head-clearing stroll. Get outside for it if you can. By the way, some studies have shown just being in nature, walking or not, is very good for our brains. So get out there!
3. BE GRATEFUL
Gratitude is good for our mental health. It changes the way our brains function. It brings discipline to our thoughts, and it redirects our attention to thought patterns that are good for us rather than destructive. It also reduces depression, envy, frustration, regret, and other negative emotions that work against us. It can literally change our minds. So count your blessings. If you make the effort, you’ll never run out of things to be grateful for.
For people who believe in God and the power of prayer, it can’t seem particularly surprising that studies would show prayer is good for us. When we connect with God, turn our attention to his love for us, express trust in him, renew our perspective, and receive God’s comfort, of course we’re going to experience a kind of nurture and help we can’t receive anywhere else. Prayer in community and on behalf of others can also strengthen the sense of support and connection in our relationships with other people (which are also good for us). In case you had any doubts, research does indeed show that prayer can reduce depression, stress, and anxiety — and is good for our overall health.
5. EAT WELL
Most of us readily accept the idea that eating well is good for our bodies, but it’s common to overlook the effect our diet can have on our minds. More and more studies are showing links between nutrition and mental health. So eat consistently, eat healthy foods, and pay attention to what seems to feed you well, body and mind.
6. SLEEP WELL
Sleep and mental health have an intertwined relationship — a problem with one causes problems with the other. Mental health problems can disrupt our sleep patterns, and sleep problems can cause mental health dysfunction. It’s important to consistently go to bed at a healthy hour and get a full, restful sleep (seven to nine hours for most adults).This can be especially critical for people who have some kind of struggle with their mental health. If you do experience a sleep problem, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor. Sleep disruptions can be indicators of a mental health problem or any of a host of other health issues.
7. DO SOMETHING DIFFICULT
Hard work (as long as it’s balanced with other health-supporting activities) can be very good for us — and meeting and overcoming challenges is a great way to support our mental health. It helps us develop mental strength and confidence, learn (which is very good for us), and tap into new or dormant internal resources. So consider tackling something that is going to challenge your mind.
8. FACE YOUR FEARS
When you feel fearful or anxious, your mind and body may tell you the best thing you can do is avoid what scares you. But the truth is, our fears grow larger as we avoid them. Psychologists know the best way to deal with anxiety is to face the things that scare us and push through our reactions to them. Counterintuitive as it may seem, this can be a healing process. If necessary, seek support for this process in the form of someone who specializes in fear, anxiety, and possibly exposure therapy.
9. GO TO CHURCH
Research has shown that people who regularly attend religious services experience fewer problems with depression and other psychiatric problems. This makes sense when you think about it: nurturing our spiritual nature lifts the other elements of who we are, just as caring for our physical or emotional health has an impact on every other aspect of our well-being. Attending services keeps us in contact, and perhaps in nurturing relationship, with a community of people. It fosters a sense of meaning in our lives — and it reminds us that we have hope in God when we are feeling hopeless. Oh, and one more thing: the more often people attend religious services, the lower their risk for substance abuse, which is highly correlated with mental health problems — which brings me to the following point…
10. STAY CLEAN AND SOBER
Many people with mental health problems also have problems with substance abuse. In fact, substance abuse and addiction is itself a category of mental disorder. For people needing emotional or mental relief, drugs and alcohol can seem like a good idea. They might seem helpful, but they always make things worse. Substance abuse can actually cause mental health problems in some cases, particularly in people who use drugs in their youth.
If you struggle with a mental health problem or you’re experiencing emotional difficulties, resist the temptation to turn to drugs or alcohol for help or escape. I promise you will only dig yourself in deeper if you go down that road. If you already have this pattern in your life, please recognize that your mental health is unlikely to improve unless you also receive help for substance abuse. Seek help from a “dual diagnosis” program that treats both.
11. DO SOMETHING CONSTRUCTIVE
Start or restart a hobby. Do something creative. Get involved in a service project. Read. Learn about a new topic. Help someone else with a project. Help a kid with homework. Studies have shown such activities can be great for our overall health and can have specific benefits for our mental health.
Making choices like these won’t guarantee you never experience a mental disorder or emotional struggle — and they probably won’t be enough to “cure” a challenge you already face, but in either case, they will help. So as you’re thinking about your health, give some thought to that powerful organ that sits above your shoulders. Consider the all-important function of your mind — and do something good for yourself.
First published January, 2018 at AmySimpson.com. Published with permission.
Amy is the award-winning author of Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry, Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World, and Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. She’s also an editor for Moody Publishing, a leadership coach, and a frequent speaker. You can find her on Twitter.