How to Improve Mental Health
Mental health issues affect all of us, no matter how mentally healthy we think we might personally be. Odds are that you or someone you know struggles with mental illness, which is one of the most common health conditions in the United States. Approximately one out of every five U.S. adults, or 46.6 million people, are affected by mental illness each year. Regardless of whether or not you have a diagnosed mental illness, our mental health and emotional well-being ebb and flow over time. Mental health has an impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors each day, so having poor mental health can make life feel much harder than it already is. Fortunately, there are ways to improve your mental health.
What is mental health?
Mental health refers broadly to an individual’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Our mental health has an impact on everything we do during the day, from how we think to how we feel, act, react, and make choices. Our ability to manage stress, our relationships with other people, and how we conduct ourselves at work and at home can all be impacted by our mental health. Mental health is not stagnant, so it ebbs and flows throughout our lives for a variety of reasons. Although some people are more susceptible to experiencing difficulties with their mental health than others, people may begin to experience problems with their mental health at any point in time, even if they have never had an issue before.
What is mental illness?
The terms mental health and mental illness are often used synonymously, but the terms have different implications. Mental health is comprised of a person’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being, and everyone has mental health, whether it is in a positive or negative place. By contrast, mental illnesses are conditions that impact a person’s thoughts, mood, behavior, or feelings. Some people experience mental illness on a chronic or long-term basis, while others may struggle with it only occasionally. Examples of common mental illnesses include eating disorders, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. People with mental illness may experience good and bad periods in regards to their mental health or even just their emotional health, while people without mental illness may struggle with poor mental health or mental health problems without having a diagnosable mental illness or mental disorder.
What causes mental illness?
Mental illness is not attributable to any one specific factor; indeed, there are many factors that can contribute to the onset of mental illness. However, some factors can increase a person’s risk of experiencing mental illness, including:
- Biological factors, including genetic predisposition and chemical imbalances in the brain
- Early adverse life experiences, including a history of trauma, abuse, or neglect
- Feelings of loneliness or isolation
- Experiences with a chronic medical condition, including cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
- Having few friends or distanced relationships with family members
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
What are early warning signs of declining mental health?
Mental health changes over time as we navigate the ups and downs of life, and there are some early warning signs to be aware of that indicate declining mental health. It can be difficult to recognize these signs in yourself, so it is also important to keep an eye out for your loved ones if you notice them experiencing any signs or symptoms, especially when it comes to their social interactions. Each type of mental illness has different warning signs and symptoms, but there are some warning signs that are common to a number of mental illnesses as well as declining mental health. Early warning signs of declining mental health include:
- Feeling confused, angry, on edge, forgetful, or nervous
- Withdrawing from activities and people you once enjoyed
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Difficulty with acknowledging self-worth
- Severe mood swings
- Sharp increase in alcohol or drug use
- Abnormal sleeping or eating patterns
- Decrease in energy
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Increased arguments with family and friends
- Struggling to perform daily tasks
- Hearing voices that are not there or believing things that are not true
- Feelings of numbness
- Thoughts of self-harm
- Repetitive thoughts or memories that won’t go away
What does it mean to have good mental health?
Your idea of good mental health may be different from your best friend’s, but in general, there are some key characteristics that most people agree accompany good mental health. People who are mentally healthy generally have some or all of the following characteristics:
- The ability to learn new skills and adapt to changing or stressful situations
- An overall feeling of contentment
- The capacity to handle stress and rebound from adversity
- A feeling of having meaning or purpose in life, in both personal relationships and activities
- Sufficient balance of work, play, relaxation, and activity
- The ability to create and sustain meaningful and fulfilling relationships
- Excitement for life and the ability to laugh and enjoy oneself
- Good self-confidence and self-esteem
How can you improve your mental health?
There are numerous ways to improve your mental health, most of which start with making lifestyle changes. While lifestyle changes alone won’t work for everyone, they are an excellent starting point for improving your mental health.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet
The first place to start working on your mental health is your diet. Believe it or not, food can play a huge role in your mental health, especially when you load up on unhealthy options like alcohol, fried food, refined carbohydrates, and caffeine. On the other hand, whole foods like fresh vegetables, avocados, whole grains, beans, leafy greens, fresh fruits, and fatty fish can improve your mental health by boosting your energy and improving your overall mood.
Make social connections
Some people are more social and outgoing than others, but social connections are important to all of us. Human beings are social creatures, and many of our emotional needs are met through relationships and interactions with other people, whether that's face to face or through a screen. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made meeting up in person difficult, but it is still possible to cultivate positive connections and relationships from afar. Video calling a friend, connecting with the grocery store clerk from behind your mask, or meeting up while maintaining social distancing can all provide opportunities for connection that can help you feel more positive and improve your mood.
Regular exercise and increased physical activity are often listed among the best ways to improve your mental health, and with good reason. Exercise helps produce endorphins that help to lift your mood, and it can make a big difference for people struggling with depression and anxiety. Physical activity helps to release stress, improve sleep quality, and improve memory retention, among other benefits, and you don’t have to run a marathon in order to see the results. Although it can be challenging to find the energy to work out when you’re already struggling with low energy, going for a walk on your lunch break or taking your dog on an evening stroll can provide those mood-boosting effects without making you feel exhausted in the process.
It seems that stress is a part of everyone’s lives these days, and unfortunately, it is a major contributor to mental health issues. Lowering your stress levels and learning to manage your stress can help improve your mental health, and there are many ways to do it. If you can’t cut out some of the obligations that are making you stressed, try practicing mindfulness exercises like meditation or yoga. As noted above, exercise can also help to lower your stress levels, as can taking up a daily gratitude practice. Try to make time to do things that you enjoy, such as spending time with friends or family, watching a favorite show, or spending time outdoors.
Get enough sleep
If adding a few extra hours to your nightly sleep routine sounds impossible, you’re probably sleep-deprived. Sleep plays a huge role in mental health, and missing out on the recommended number of hours (seven to nine hours per night for adults) impacts not only your mood but also your energy level, ability to deal with stress, physical health, and your cognitive abilities. The best way to get more sleep is to start improving your sleep hygiene and begin winding down at the end of the day by putting away electronics at least an hour before bed, sleeping in a dark, cool room, and relaxing before bedtime.
Seek professional help
While living a healthy lifestyle and learning to manage stress and build positive relationships are all important keys to improving your mental health, some people may need additional help to get their mental health to a positive place. If you find yourself unable to make healthy lifestyle changes or have made changes and are still feeling like your mental health is on the decline, it may be time to seek professional help. Mental health professionals may be able to prescribe medications that can help you manage your condition or provide therapy or counseling to help you work through any mental health conditions that you may be experiencing. Mental health should be treated with the same seriousness as physical health, so it is important to seek help when you need it.