The new year is here, and most of us are likely to have made at least one resolution for 2016. But while the majority of our goals for the coming year will incorporate improvements in physical health – such as hitting the gym and losing weight – have you thought about how you could improve your mental health?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO): “Mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health.”
This is a statement that is supported by numerous studies. One from 2012 published in The BMJ, for example, found that individuals with poor mental health are at increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Other research recently reported by Medical News Today linked mental illness to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
What is more, studies have associated poor mental health with gender discrimination, social exclusion, increased risk of violence and crime and an unhealthy lifestyle.
But what is the definition of good mental health? WHO say it is a “state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
The UK’s Mental Health Foundation also describe good mental health as the ability to learn, form good relationships with others, and express, manage and feel an array of positive and negative emotions.
In this Spotlight, we look at some ways in which you could improve your mental health and well-being, ready to take on whatever life throws at you in 2016.
Most of us are aware that a healthy, balanced diet is beneficial for physical health. It can help with weight maintenance and protect against a range of illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
But following a healthy diet also has benefits for mental well-being. As the Mental Health Foundation state: “Your brain needs a mix of nutrients to stay healthy and function well, just like the other organs in your body.”
One of the healthiest diets is considered to be the Mediterranean diet, which incorporates high consumption of beans, nuts, cereals, seeds, plant-based foods and fruits. The diet is also low in saturated fat, includes moderate consumption of fish, poultry and dairy, and low consumption of meats and sugary foods.
A 2012 study reported by MNT revealed that the Mediterranean diet is not only good for physical health, but it is also beneficial for mental well-being. And in 2013, another study of almost 11,000 middle-aged women found that those who followed a Mediterranean diet not only lived longer than control participants, but they also had better cognitive function and mental health.
“Maintaining physical, cognitive and mental health with aging may provide a more powerful incentive for dietary change than simply prolonging life or avoiding any single chronic disease,” said the researchers of that study.
In September 2014, MNT also reported on a study published in BMJ Open suggesting that eating five portions of fruits and vegetables a day is good for mental well-being.
The research team – led by Dr. Saverio Stranges of the University of Warwick Medical School in the UK – found that of 14,000 adults, 35.5% of participants who ate five or more portions of fruits and vegetables a day had good mental well-being, compared with 6.8% of participants who ate less than one portion a day.
“These novel findings suggest that fruit and vegetable intake may play a potential role as a driver, not just of physical, but also of mental well-being in the general population,” said Dr. Stranges.
There are a number of foods and drinks that are associated with poor mental health. “The foods and drinks that most often cause problems are those containing sugar, artificial additives (E numbers) and caffeine, as spikes in our intake in these can be detrimental to our mental health,” Sam Challis, information manager of UK mental health charity Mind, told MNT.
Physical activity is important for all aspects of health, including mental well-being. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise.
But you do not have to engage in long, dull sessions on the treadmill to reap the mental health benefits of exercise. In 2014, MNT reported on a study by researchers from the University of Michigan, which found that group nature walks could promote good mental well-being.
“Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise, and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster,” said study leader Dr. Sara Warber, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan, adding:
“Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression.”
Challis noted that research from Mind also found that 9 out of 10 individuals who took part in green exercise activities, such as walking and gardening, reported improved mood. Other studies have shown that outdoor exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety. Challis told MNT:
“Being cooped up indoors or living a largely sedentary lifestyle both at the office and on the sofa at home can have a knock-on effect on mental health.
Getting physically fit and achieving personal goals boosts our confidence and self-esteem and helps combat feelings of hopelessness, which can often come over us when we’re feeling low.”
It is common knowledge that sleep problems can affect our mental well-being. A 2010 study by researchers from the George Institute on Global Health in Australia found that people who have less than 5 hours sleep a night may be at higher risk of mental illness.
“Sleep problems – even quite mild ones – can damage your well-being and quality of life,” Challis told us. “Too little sleep over a sustained period can leave you vulnerable to developing mental health problems, but there are lots of things that you can do to improve your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.”
The Mayo Clinic recommend going to bed and getting up at the same time every day – even at the weekends and during holidays – as a routine can boost the body’s sleep-wake cycle, promoting a better night’s sleep.
A bedtime ritual – such as a warm bath or reading a book – may also encourage better sleep, as such rituals tell the body it is time to wind down. “Electrical screens, TVs, computers and phones all stimulate your brain, making it hard to relax, so it’s best to switch them off in advance, to help you switch off,” noted Challis.
Challis also told us that the sleep environment is important for a good night’s sleep, and that most people tend to sleep better in a cool, dark and quiet room.
A high intake of alcohol, caffeine and sugary foods in the evening can disrupt sleep patterns, so experts recommend limiting their use for a better night’s sleep.
All of us experience stress at some point. Whether a result of work, relationships or money problems, it is widely accepted that stress can take a toll on our mental health.
In February 2014, MNT reported on a study by researchers from the University of California-Berkeley that found stress can make the brain more susceptible to mental illness. But there are ways in which we can reduce or manage stress to promote better mental well-being.
Numerous studies have reported the stress-reducing benefits of yoga and mindfulness-based meditation. A 2008 study published in PLOS ONE found that the activities put the body into a state of rest by changing its gene response to stress. A more recent study found that yoga may reduce the risk of anxiety and depression in expectant mothers.
Staying positive during difficult times may also reduce stress. A 2012 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that smiling during stressful periods could lower the body’s stress response, regardless of whether a person is feeling happy or sad.
Adopting the lifestyle changes mentioned previously – such as a healthy diet, regular exercise and quality sleep – can also help combat stress. “Other useful techniques for managing ongoing stress include making lists to help put things into perspective, taking regular breaks and being assertive about not taking on too much,” said Challis.
When it comes to tackling work-related stress, Challis told MNT:
“Developing good relationships with colleagues so you can build up a network of support and confiding in someone you trust, at work or outside, about what upsets you or makes you feel stressed can help you feel on top of workplace stress.”
But although employment can cause stress, being unemployed may be even more detrimental to mental health.
“Being in paid employment is generally considered to be a good thing,” Challis said. “It’s more than just a way of earning a living: it provides identity, contact and friendship with other people, a way of putting structure in your life and an opportunity to meet goals and to contribute. And while it’s possible to embrace an alternative point of view, and thrive without paid work, unemployment is linked with poor physical and mental health and poverty.”
But according to the Mental Health Foundation, taking up voluntary work or adopting a hobby may be just as effective in promoting good mental health.
“Caring for others is often an important part of keeping up relationships with people close to you. It can even bring you closer together,” say experts from the organization. “Concentrating on a hobby, like gardening or the crossword, can help you forget your worries for a while and change your mood. It can be good to have an interest where you’re not seen as someone’s mum or dad, partner or employee. You’re just you.”
Challis told us that having interaction with friends and family is also important for good mental health.
“People are naturally social beings and most of us feel the need for rewarding social contact and relationships,” he added. “Being sociable and connecting with other people is rewarding in its own right and can help significantly improve mental well-being. Perhaps even more importantly, building up a support network can also be vital for when you aren’t feeling so good.”
Now that MNT have outlined some ways in which you can promote good mental well-being for the coming year, it is time to put them into action.
But Challis told us that when setting personal goals for the new year, it is important to be realistic:
“By setting yourself over-ambitious New Year’s resolutions, you’re potentially setting yourself up to ‘fail,’ and this can have a real impact on your self-esteem.
Instead of aiming for unrealistic targets that may distress you, try to think more broadly about your mental well-being. Simple things can contribute to a much more positive outlook on life, such as engaging in some exercise, making time for loved ones or taking time out for yourself to relax.”
The Mental Health Foundation echo Challis and provide some other tips on setting New Year’s resolutions and sticking to them:
- Set your goals ahead of New Year’s Day; do not wait until the last minute
- Talk to friends, family and work colleagues about your resolutions and tell them how they can help you stick to them
- Keep a weekly record of how far you have come; this can help you stay motivated
- When you achieve a goal, celebrate by treating yourself
- If you slip up – for example, you break your diet one day – treat it as a minor setback. You can always get back on track the following day
- It will take time to get used to any changes you have made, but if you are finding it difficult, do not give up!
As experts from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) told us, you do not need a new year to make healthy changes; you can make them at any time of the year.
“But New Year is an opportunity to think about the improvements you’d like to make and then take concrete steps to achieve them,” they added. “Set realistic goals, develop an action plan and set it in motion.”
The MNT team wish you all a healthy and happy 2016!