There is more to our well-being than just our physical health. Prioritizing our physical health is important, but there are other aspects of wellness that we shouldn’t neglect. Today, there is an increased level of awareness around mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. It’s becoming clear that many aspects of our modern lifestyles are not conducive to a healthy mindset, and being mentally healthy can take effort. Depending on caffeine to wake up in the morning, eating processed foods for the sake of convenience, and constant exposure to social media certainly isn’t helping matters.
The way we treat our bodies and the way we use our minds both affect our mental health. Throughout each day, we have the opportunity to make choices that can benefit our mental well-being or detract from it. Everything from how often we exercise to what we put on our plates to how much sleep we get can affect the way our brains function. The mind-body connection is very real, and today, it’s crucial that we acknowledge this. Luckily, we have the opportunity to make changes that will benefit both our bodies and our minds and set us on the path to mental well-being. Here are a few ways that we can cultivate mental well-being day in and day out.
Getting Quality Sleep
Sleep is an often overlooked aspect of mental well-being. Adults need at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night, but most of us are getting slightly less than that. But when we consistently sleep for less than seven hours a night, problems begin to arise. We might have trouble staying focused, and we may find it difficult to concentrate. We might even experience lapses in memory and realize that it’s tough to remember things that happened just a few days ago. Why does a lack of sleep have this effect on our mental well-being?
When we’re exhausted and our bodies have not had enough time to rest and recover, our brain cells actually cannot communicate with each other as effectively. This is why we forget things when we’re tired, and why our reaction times can be delayed. This explains why driving after an all-nighter would be almost as dangerous as driving drunk. Basically, our brain’s ability to translate visual information into a conscious thought slows down, and this can be dangerous.
So, how can we create healthy sleep routines? Make getting those seven to eight hours a top priority. Taking a melatonin supplement or drinking a soothing herbal tea before bed like chamomile or valerian can help you doze off. And make sure to turn off the smartphone at least an hour before bedtime—the blue light from our digital devices can make it hard to get any shuteye.
Eating “Brain Foods”
Our brains need the right fuel to run efficiently. A good intake of healthy fats is non-negotiable for brain health. Meat and eggs can provide plenty of healthy fats, but even people who don’t eat animal products have a wide variety of options that they can incorporate into their diet. Avocados, coconut, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and nut butters are all good sources of healthy, plant-based fats.
Over the past few years, dietitians and scientists working in the field of nutrition have changed their tune regarding dietary fats. Fats are no longer demonized, and there is no reason to be afraid of consuming them as part of a balanced diet. In fact, fats are vital and necessary.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are necessary for optimal brain health. Eating fish like salmon will provide plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, as will taking a fish oil supplement. For those who don’t eat fish, stocking up on plant-based sources of omega-3s like flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds is a smart idea, and there’s also the option of taking an algae-based omega-3 supplement just to make sure all the bases are covered.
People sticking to the popular ketogenic diet may be exceptions to this rule, but for the vast majority of us, our brains primarily run on glucose. Ditch the white flour and refined sugars, and stick to healthy carbohydrate sources like beans, sweet potatoes, whole fruits, and colourful vegetables.
We’ve all seen the way that alcohol affects people in the short term. Drinking too much leads to slurred speech, a loss of fine motor control, an inability to focus and concentrate, and memory loss. Going overboard on a night out can leave someone with no memory of the night before. But alcohol doesn’t just have a negative effect on us when we’re having a few too many drinks.
Over time, drinking too much can cause serious damage to the brain. It can result in brain shrinkage, and people who have a history of alcoholism may struggle to commit new information to memory and experience memory lapses.
We don’t have to be 100% sober all of the time for optimal brain health, but there is no doubt it—excessive drinking does not contribute to mental well-being. In fact, it is always a net negative. There is a huge difference between a glass or two of red wine at dinner and binge drinking every weekend. Cutting down on the number of drinks we consume each week is a step in the right direction. It can be difficult because so many social events involve alcohol, but saving the drinks for rare special occasions is a positive change for many people.
Many of us spend hours each day on our smartphones, scrolling through social media feeds and wondering where the time is going. Spending so much time on social media is hurting our attention spans, and as we switch from one screen to another, we barely take the time to process all of the information we’re taking in. We skim through articles, we glance at a headline and assume we have the full picture, we see debates about nuanced issues devolve into angry generalizations in a comments section. We rarely think critically about we’re seeing online, and it’s actually hurting our mental well-being.
Intellectual stimulation is another important component of mental well-being. Sitting down to read a good book, watching an engaging documentary, or listening to podcasts about subjects that we’re interested in are far more productive uses of our time than clicking around aimlessly online. And all of these are still good ways to relax and unwind. Yes, it’s fun to veg out every once in a while and watch reality TV or look at colourful profiles on Instagram, but we’re spending far too much time on activities like those and not enough time really using our brain power.
Setting Strong Personal Boundaries
When it comes to mental well-being, it’s easy to assume that it’s all about what goes on inside our own minds. But our environment can have a massive impact on our mental well-being, and that includes the people we spend most of our time around. Sometimes, we don’t even realize that our relationships with certain people have been taking a toll on our mental health.
It can be hard to accept that a close friend, relative, or romantic partner is actually a bad influence. But sometimes, we have to acknowledge these painful truths in order to focus on our own mental well-being. Walking away from a relationship that is no longer serving you and setting personal boundaries to protect your inner peace can be tough to do at first, but once you do it, it feels liberating. It can be very draining to be around people who bring us down, but letting them go is freeing and can do wonders for your mental health.
Meditation isn’t just for monks and hippies in yoga class anymore—everyone from startup founders to elementary school students are learning this ancient mindfulness practice, and millions of people across the world have already experienced the benefits.
Meditation doesn’t just make us feel a little more zen in the moment. When it becomes a regular part of our routines, this practice can actually change our brains. People who meditate on a consistent basis actually have more grey matter in their brains than people who don’t. Why does this matter? The increased volume of grey matter can actually lead to lower stress levels, improvements in memory, and increased feelings of empathy.
How does one get started with meditation? At first, it can seem like it would be boring, but after a few sessions, it’s easy to get the hang of it. Simply sitting quietly and focusing on the breath for a few minutes each morning and night can bring benefits. People who find it a little tougher to concentrate without their minds wandering can try using a meditation app with guided meditations.
Overall, mental well-being is the result of supportive routines and a dedication to self-care. We often push ourselves to stay busy and be super productive, but sometimes, slowing down and making sure that we’re truly taking good care of our bodies and minds is key.