If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. One in four people in the UK experience mental health problems each year. And worries about things like money and jobs can make it harder for people to cope.
Support is available. However, if you feel your mood starting to dip and need a pick-me-up, there are a few things you can do for yourself to give your mental health a boost.
We talk to Dr Natasha Bijlani, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Group, about the things you can tick these off your daily checklist to help you feel stronger and face the day ahead.
Obviously, a healthy diet is important if you want to feel good about how your body looks on the outside, but nutrition can also play a vital role in how you feel on the inside. While mental health is traditionally thought of as emotionally-rooted, what you eat is now thought to play a key role in the onset as well as severity and duration of depression.
Depressed people tend to skip meals or select sugary junk foods which are thought to contribute to low mood. "Healthy eating habits contribute to optimal body function including brain processes and performance," says Dr Bijlani. "All of us must have noticed how our mood, enthusiasm and energy levels slump when we skip meals or haven’t eaten enough."
As outlined in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, ensuring that you follow a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals alongside plenty of water can contribute to a balanced mood, so aim to eat well every single day.
When you’re depressed, the first instinct is often to retreat inwards and isolate yourself, rather than reach out to friends and ask for help. If you’re feeling down you might find yourself withdrawing from friends and family.
"Loneliness can contribute to quite serious mental ill health," says Dr Bijlani. "Talking allows us to “share” our emotions and experiences, we gain and give support to each other and we can feel part of a community and be connected to each other."
Studies have also shown that socialising alters brain activity which decreases stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms and supports calm and happy feelings. If you are feeling down, now is the time to get in touch your friends, make new ones or put yourself in situations where you will be surrounded by others. If you can’t see them in person, pick up the phone or try video calling them.
The importance of a good night’s sleep is common knowledge these days. But the two-thirds of Brits who reportedly suffer with sleep-related problems on a regular basis might not realise that sleep deprivation also plays a vital role in your mental health too.
Insomnia is generally regarded as a symptom of depression, but new research suggests that lack of sleep may actually be a cause of it. "Poor sleep or oversleeping can also affect mood, energy and concentration levels alongside very many adverse physical consequences," says Dr Bijlani.
The good news is researchers found that treating insomnia with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) could reduce mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and paranoia. Keep regular sleeping hours and aim to get a healthy amount each night to keep your mental health in check.
Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise should convince you that fitness is one of the fundamental elements of good mental health. Research suggests that exercise and physical activity are associated with better quality of life and positive mental health outcomes to boot.
"Mental health is inextricably linked with physical health and the old saying “a healthy body leads to a healthy mind” may not have been originally derived as a result of a sound evidence, as modern science demands, but is definitely true and has been proven many times since," says Dr Bijlani.
"Exercise or any physical activity is also very important in mental as well as physical wellbeing," adds Dr Bijlani. "We release endorphins (natural “feel good” hormones) when we are physically active and regular exercising can be immensely helpful in boosting mood and maintaining a sense of well-being. Activity increases circulation, improves stamina and fitness."
The documented benefits of fitness go beyond mood. "Engaging in regular exercise allows for some structure into one’s day and can provide relief from work and other pressures," explains Dr Bijlani. "There are added benefits of companionship and team work in group sporting activities."
A breath of fresh air in the great outdoors can work wonders for your mental health. A recent study found that walking in woodland contributed to decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods, and another found that outdoor walks helped with major depressive disorder.
"There is growing acceptance that exercising outdoors, especially in “nature” surroundings rather than built up urban spaces is significantly advantageous," says Dr Bijlani. "It is thought that there is an especially calming feel of greenery and nature."
Walking in nature has also been found to boost memory more than urban environments and in another study, researchers found a decrease in both the heart rates and cortisol levels of of participants who spent time in the forest compared to the city.
We also know that keeping a good vitamin D level boosts our mood so getting outside has the added bonus of topping this up. Read guidelines here as to whether you need to take a supplement and try and make sure you have plenty of vitamin D containing foods in your diet.
Everyone likes a hug. However, did you know that, like eating, sleeping and breathing, physical contact is a fundamental part of human nature? According to research, regularly touching people promotes emotional wellbeing in everyone from babies to OAPs, while another study found that hugging can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
"Humans are essentially social in nature and even though we have quite varying needs for contact with others, communication by talking, hugging and touching (as appropriate, depending on the nature of the relationship of course) is a crucial “need” all of us require satisfaction with for optimal functionality," says Dr Bijlani.
If you’re feeling down or you are concerned you may have a mental health problem, always seek help from your GP. If you require urgent medical attention, call the NHS 111.
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