The stresses of 21st-century living mean we have a lot stacked against us when it comes to maintaining mental well being. It’s easy to see why so many of us find ourselves in less than optimal mental health. If you’re struggling with your mental health right now, there are still steps you can take to take back control. If you’re feeling more optimistic, it’s still an opportunity to fix the roof while the sun is shining. To ensure better mental health for life, we need to be proactive rather than reactive. 

Statistics from NHS Digital show that 70.9 million prescriptions for antidepressants were handed out in 2018 alone, an almost 200% increase on figures from a decade earlier1. Medication is, of course, a vital lifeline for many suffering from severe mental health conditions. There are also some fantastic support services out there if you are struggling, such as Mind and The Samaritans

But could there be other methods to help us improve our life-long physical and mental health alongside such interventions? While the causes of mental health issues are complex and varied, several less complicated tools go a long way to alleviating the cognitive load many of us bear daily and hopefully head off mental ill-health before it can spiral out of control.

1. Improving gut health

The health of our gut microbiota plays a pivotal role in both immunity and mental health. Better gut health allows us to metabolise food and lose weight more effectively, reduces systemic inflammation that contributes to many diseases, improves our immune response and increases the production of the neurotransmitters that are vital for psychological well being.

There are three main pillars to improving gut health: 

  1. Dietary improvements: removing inflammatory foods, eating whole, single-ingredient unprocessed foods, eating a wide variety of nutrients, 
  2. Stress management: chronic stress is catastrophic for gut health, as are the standard tools we often use to manage it, such as high-calorie foods, alcohol and drugs. Finding other ways to remove or better manage our stress response is vital for a healthy microbiome. Meditation, finding a new hobby, scheduled self-care or anything else that gives you a break from life’s stressors is a worthwhile investment.
  3. Improving sleep quality and quantity. Most of us get either too little or poor quality sleep. Not only does this create a vicious cycle of increased cravings, reduced insulin sensitivity and low mood, it is also positively correlated with decreased gut health.  
  4. Eating lots of fibre. Fibre breaks down in the gut to create short-chain fatty acids. It is these compounds that our body uses to make serotonin and dopamine along with other neurotransmitters. 

Keep an eye out later on in our health series to learn more about why gut health is so important and what steps you can take to improve it.

2. Exercising daily

Exercise is fundamental for mental well being because of both its short-term and long-term effects. General activity is also key to increasing physical fitness and losing weight, which brings its own benefits to mental health.

Beyond this, evidence from clinical trials indicates that the psychological benefits associated with exercises are similar to those typically found in standard forms of psychotherapy. For those who have good mental health, exercise may act as an essential preventative measure. For those who suffer from mild to moderate emotional illness, exercise may function as an effective treatment method2. And this doesn’t always need to be formal exercise – getting out and moving more can bring significant mental health gains. Evidence shows that the simple act of walking more has restorative effects, particularly those experiencing low mood3

Exercise that allows us to communicate and participate socially also has particular benefits for psychological health. Studies show direct correlations between higher levels of participation in active leisure activities and improved physical health, mental health and wellbeing4. Whether it’s a walk with a friend, fitness class or joining a local sports team, there are many options available to match the level you feel able to take on right now.

3. Reducing your social media exposure

Many of us feel we don’t have ten minutes a day to meditate yet happily spend far more time mindlessly scrolling through social media. While some people find social media an important source of support, doing a social media and news detox now and then certainly won’t harm your mental health. In fact, limiting social media use to thirty minutes a day has been shown to lead to significant improvements in mental well being5. Consistent exposure to negative news stories can also be harmful. Of course, much of the psychological impact of such information is highly dependent on our outlook on life and how far we allow ourselves to be influenced by it6. However, there’s no doubt that the kind of persistent low-level negativity that many of us experience daily is not conducive to feeling happier. While you might not be able to manage a full social media or news detox, you can at least carve out areas of the day that are no-go periods, such as the first hour of your day or immediately before bed. Using this time to reflect on the day by journaling, keeping a gratitude journal or stretching is far more likely to put you in a positive mind frame for the day.

4. Giving gratitude

Not all of us are happy or grateful all of the time, and that’s completely normal. Studies show that neurochemical differences in the central nervous system can cause us to be more or less happy at certain times7, known as our happiness “set point”. However, we only inherit around 50% of our happiness through our genes, and our environment makes up around ten per cent. The good news is that it is our intent that determines up to 40% of our happiness. What this means is that we have a lot more control when it comes to improving our happiness by adapting our mindset and actions8

Gratitude is a buzzword that you may have heard thrown around but may not fully buy. However, there’s a lot of scientific evidence to show that actively being more grateful has many benefits for both physical and mental health. For instance, gratitude is associated with improved life-long mental healthiness, lower risk of psychiatric disorders and higher levels of life satisfaction9,10. Mindfulness changes the plasticity of the brain and thickens the areas responsible for decision making, emotional flexibility and empathy. These changes to the brain’s neural structures trigger “good hormones”, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which help regulate the effective functioning of the immune system and our mood. All of this means that we are better equipped to manage our emotions, anxiety and stress responses daily.

The great thing about gratitude is that it is completely free! If you don’t feel like you have much to be grateful for right now, start small. Even the sun shining or the smell of warm bread can be little things in your environment that you can pick up on. Try writing them down on a notepad or even on post-it notes in a jar that you add to every day, which you can open up at New Year as a way to reflect.

5. Creating a wellbeing routine

How much of your daily routine serves you being in great mental shape? Being mentally resilient to the one thousand and one stressors that are thrown your way every day takes time and effort. If you don’t invest in your mental well being, how can you expect yourself to be able to bat those challenges away effortlessly? A fundamental part of mental resilience is practical boundary setting, particularly when it comes to your time.

For the very first hour of your day, make your mental health your priority. Use this time to meditate, stretch, eat a nutritious breakfast without distractions or journal. Investing in this small window will reap untold benefits for productivity as well as your relationships throughout the rest of the day. Setting yourself up for good mental health in the morning gives you far more mental space to focus on the things that matter. Setting aside more time for your psychological well being could be just the investment you need to get that next promotion at work or identify a new life-changing opportunity.

6. Talking things through

If you’re struggling with your mental health and you need more support, you aren’t alone. If you need to talk to someone, there are many helplines that put you into touch with someone who won’t judge you can help you talk through what you’re feeling. Below is a list of external service providers you can contact in a time of crisis.

The Samaritans. To talk about anything that is upsetting you, you can contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), email jo@samaritans.org or visit some branches in person. You can also call the Welsh Language Line on 0300 123 3011 (7 pm–11 pm every day).

SANEline. If you’re experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else, you can call SANEline on 0300 304 7000 (4.30 pm–10.30 pm every day).

The Mix. If you’re under 25, you can call The Mix on 0808 808 4994 (Sunday-Friday 2 pm–11 pm), request support by email using this form on The Mix website or use their crisis text messenger service.

Papyrus HOPELINEUK. If you’re under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings, or concerned about a young person who might be struggling, you can call Papyrus HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141 (weekdays 10 am-10 pm, weekends 2 pm-10 pm and bank holidays 2 pm–10 pm), email pat@papyrus-uk.org or text 07786 209 697.


References

1.  NHS Digital (2019). Prescription cost analysis: England 2018. https://digital.nhs.uk.

2.  Raglin, J.S. (1990). Exercise and Mental Health. Sports Medicine, 9, 323–329

3.  Roe, J., & Aspinall, P. (2011). The restorative benefits of walking in urban and rural settings in adults with good and poor mental health. Health & Place, 17(1), pp. 103–113.

4.  Yoshi I., Mannell, R.C. (2000). Hierarchical Dimensions of Leisure Stress Coping, Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 22:3, pp. 163-181.

5.  Hunt, M. G. et al. (2018). No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 37, No. 10, pp. 751-768.

6.  de Hoog, N., and  Verboon, P. (2020). Is the news making us unhappy? The influence of daily news exposure on emotional states, British Journal of Psychology, 111, (2).

7.  Zahn R. et al (2014). Individual differences in posterior cortical volume correlate with proneness to pride and gratitude. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9, pp.1676–1683.

8.  Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin Press.

9.  Kendler KS, et al. Dimensions of Religiosity and Their Relationship to Lifetime Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2003, pp. 160:496–503.

10.  Wood, A.M., Froh, J.J., Geraghty, A.W.A. (2010) Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, pp. 890–905.