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Enhance your mood and mental health in five ways

When someone is diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, first-line treatments usually include psychological therapies and medication. What’s not always discussed are the changeable lifestyle factors that influence our mental health.
Even those who don’t have a mental health condition may still be looking for ways to further improve their mood, reduce stress, and manage their day-to-day mental health.
It can be empowering to make positive life changes. While time restrictions and financial limitations may affect some people’s ability to make such changes, we all have the ability to make small meaningful changes.

To get you started, here are five changes you can change your life:

1. Improve your diet and start moving

Wholefoods such as:

  • leafy green vegetables
  • legumes
  • wholegrains
  • lean red meat
  • seafood

provide nutrients that are important for optimal brain function. These foods contain magnesium, folate, zinc and essential fatty acids.

Foods rich in polyphenols, such as:

  • berries
  • tea
  • dark chocolate
  • wine
  • certain herbs

also play an important role in brain function.

In terms of exercise, many types of fitness activities are potentially beneficial:

  • swimming
  • jogging
  • lifting weights
  • playing sports

Even just getting the body moving by taking a brisk walk or doing active housework is a positive step.

Activities which also involve social interaction and exposure to nature can potentially increase mental well-being even further.

General exercise guidelines recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days during the week (about 150 minutes total over the week). But even short bouts of activity can provide an immediate elevation of mood.

2. Reduce your vices

Managing problem drinking or substance misuse is an obvious health recommendation. People with alcohol and drug problems have a greater likelihood than average of having a mental illness, and have far poorer health outcomes.

Some research has shown that a little alcohol consumption (in particular wine) may have beneficial effects on preventing depression. Other recent data, however, has revealed that light alcohol consumption does not provide any beneficial effects on brain function.

Stopping smoking is also an important step, as nicotine-addicted people are constantly at the mercy of a withdrawal-craving cycle, which profoundly affects mood. It may take time to address the initial symptoms of stopping nicotine, but the brain chemistry will adapt in time.

Quit smoking and you will have a better mood and less anxiety.

3. Prioritise rest and sleep

Sleep hygiene techniques aim to improve sleep quality and help treat insomnia. They including adjusting caffeine use, limiting exposure to the bed (regulating your sleep time and having a limited time to sleep), and making sure you get up at a similar time in the morning.

Genetically some people are more morning persons than evening person and vice versa. That’s why we need to have some flexibility in this regards (especially with work schedules).

It’s also important not to force sleep — if you can’t get to sleep within around 20 minutes, it may be best to get up and focus the mind on an activity (with minimal light and stimulation) until you feel tired.

The other mainstay of better sleep is to reduce exposure to light — especially blue light from laptops and smartphones – prior to sleep. This will increase the secretion of melatonin, which helps you get to sleep.

Getting enough time for relaxation and leisure activities is important for regulating stress. Hobbies can also enhance mental health, particularly if they involve physical activity.

4. Get a dose of nature

When the sun is shining, many of us seem to feel happier. Adequate exposure to sunshine helps levels of the mood-maintaining chemical serotonin. It also boosts vitamin D levels, which also has an effect on mental health, and helps at the appropriate time to regulate our sleep-wake cycle.

The benefits of sun exposure need to be balanced with the risk of skin cancer, so take into account the recommendations for sun exposure based on the time of day/year and your skin color.

You might also consider limiting your exposure to environmental toxins, chemicals and pollutants, including “noise” pollution, and cutting down on your mobile phone, computer and TV use if they’re excessive.

An antidote to this can be simply spending time in nature. Studies show time in the wilderness can improve self-esteem and mood. In some parts of Asia, spending time in a forest (known as forest bathing) is considered a mental health prescription.

A natural extension of spending time in flora is also the positive effect that animals have on us. Research suggests having a pet has many positive effects, and animal-assisted therapy (with horses, cats, dogs, and even dolphins) may also boost feelings of well-being.

5 When you need aid, reach out

Positive lifestyle changes isn’t a replacement for medication or psychological therapy but, rather something people can do themselves on top of their treatment.

It can be challenging to change your lifestyle but it’s very positive. Some changes such as avoiding:

  • junk foods
  • alcohol
  • quit smoking

is very hard to stop. In some cases it’s best to get professional support.

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