If I ask you which one is more important: your physical or mental health? What would you say? It’s indeed difficult to prioritise one over the other because the mind and body function as one entity that forms a human being. Having said that, your psychological well-being is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood, just as your physical health is.
Most of us know how to look after our physical health in general, but for many others, mental health protection is something of a blurred knowledge. The simple truth is that mental health affects physical health, and physical health affects mental health. We can’t overlook the mind-body connection as bad mental health brings unhealthy habits that often go along with it leading to somatic problems.
For example, negative emotions such as sadness or anger which accompany depressed people, may not directly cause disease. However, a pessimistic attitude can lead to chronic stress, increased cortisol levels, comfort eating, drinking, smoking, fatigue, less physical activity, all of which can lead to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, diabetes, and other health conditions. Likewise, being diagnosed with serious physical illness or having a heart attack can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety.
Achieving and maintaining emotional and mental wellbeing is an active, dynamic process that takes work on balancing your emotions, thoughts, feelings, and behavior, but the benefits are well worth the effort if you want to protect your health. So where do you start, and how can you manage your mental wellbeing?
It all starts with you
The best way forward is to focus on implementing changes that you can control. Here are 5 constructive steps you can take to feel more positive, energized, and improve your mental health. These are the pillars of general wellbeing that affect how we think, feel, and act as we cope with life.
- Build strong relationships. We need emotional and physical intimacy to maintain our overall well-being. When your intimate relationship is happy and healthy it acts as a buffer against mental illness, especially anxiety and depression, and it gives you a purpose and sense of belonging. Equally, toxic relationships can badly affect your mental health. Also, the more socially connected you are to your family, friends, community, the less risk there’s for struggling with mental health issues. Connect with positive people that make you feel comfortable expressing your needs, fears, and desires. To increase trust and strengthen the bond between you, offer your emotional support, and do things that benefit other people.
- Be physically active. Exercise stimulates happy hormones (endorphins and serotonin) so it can reduce feelings of stress and depression and improve your mood. These neurotransmitters act on the opiate receptors in the brain by reducing anxiety and also act as natural painkillers. You don’t have to be involved in a high-end exercise regime to feel the benefits. Thirty minutes of brisk walking for at least five days a week, can still make a difference. Exposure to natural light and being in nature further benefits your mood and productivity.
- Eat healthy food for a good mood. A diet rich in healthy, fresh whole foods can optimize your mental functioning and well-being. It can also boost your immune system due to being rich in antioxidants that fight the free radicals in the body. If there are not enough antioxidants in your body to reduce the free radicals, all sorts of problems can appear, including anxiety and depression. The Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil, fish, and low in red meat and saturated fats is associated with a 30% reduced risk for depression.
- Sleep well. Most people need eight hours of sound sleep to function at their best. Lacking quality sleep can make you tired, irritable, and more likely to become depressed. Also, sleep deprivation can contribute to an imbalance of two hunger hormones; ghrelin (signals hunger in the brain) and leptin (signals fullness in the brain, suppresses hunger). So, when you don’t get adequate sleep, your body makes more ghrelin and less leptin, add to it the elevated cortisol levels in your blood and, there you are – tired, hungry, and ready to satisfy your appetite with fast food that is a bad choice for your health.
- Develop constructive coping skills. Stress is a part of life so, practising good coping skills can help you deal with stressful situations in healthy ways. Taking control over your attitude and actions will also help you develop confidence when facing difficult situations. Say no to alcohol, smoking, junk food, taking drugs, or other unhelpful behaviours which, are all wrong coping ways to manage emotions. You can get temporary relief but, unhealthy coping mechanisms contribute to poor mental health in the long run. Instead, start practising problem-based coping (solution-focused thinking to eliminate specific stressors such as a stressful job) and emotion-based coping (regulating the negative emotions such as learning anger management techniques).
Finally, do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask for professional help if you have been experiencing any emotional or mental problems. Reaching for a balanced life is a key to achieving psychological resilience, better health, and life satisfaction. Therefore, no matter how big or small, the psychological problems need addressing if you want to enjoy a good quality of life.
Zana Busby is an experienced psychologist and author, having spent over 20 years studying and practising psychology and psychotherapy.