If you learn to cook well, you can impress your friends. If you learn to manage your finances, you can become wealthier. If you learn to code, you’ve acquired a valuable skill that will keep you employed in good times and bad. When it comes to life skills, these tangible talents clearly stand out. But being able to manage your mental health may very well be the most important life skill, since having an off-kilter state of mind can seriously impair your ability to function in society, not to mention your ability to make use of your other skills.
Think of it like a car: You can spend money on an engine with more horsepower and faster acceleration, but it’s not going to be of much use to you for long if you don’t regularly replace the engine oil.
Although we don’t think of them as such, mental illnesses are among the most common forms of disease. One in 5 Americans, or 46.6 million people, will experience a mental illness in a given year. Nearly half of all homeless people have a mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder. Mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder and depression, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S.
Clearly, there’s more we can be doing.
Mental health is a broad subject, and not every strategy will work the same on everybody else. If you have a serious mental health condition, the best way to stay healthy is to regularly visit your mental health professional to help manage your care. However, there is evidence to support the positive impact of certain activities on your mental health.
The gut contains a surprising number of neurons: over 100 million. There are so many neurons in your gut that it is sometimes referred to as your second brain. So, it should come as no surprise that your first brain is heavily influenced by what’s going on with your second.
Our microbiomes, or the small galaxy of bacteria living inside of our guts, are constantly talking to our second brain. Gut bacteria pump out neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, all of which significantly affect our mood. In fact, a full 95 percent of our bodies’ serotonin is produced in the gut. The bacteria that are producing these neurotransmitters aren’t self-sustaining; they need the right foods to survive. When your diet contains too much of one kind of food and not enough of another, the diversity of bacterial species in your gut goes down.
Research has shown that gut bacteria play a major role in the rise of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other illnesses. Furthermore, many types of medication, including antidepressants, are modified by your gut bacteria. So, when it comes to preserving your mental health, focusing on your diet is an excellent first defense.
Pulling an all-nighter has about as big an impact on performance as having a blood alcohol content of 0.10. Not only that, but it’s also a major blow to your psychical well-being. Getting enough sleep is a challenge for those suffering from a mental health disorder; 50 to 80 percent of psychiatric patients experience chronic sleep problems, as compared to 10 to 18 percent in the general U.S. population. It’s not hard to see why this is. Insomnia is a common symptom of mental illnesses, but in truth, it can be a major cause of them as well.
There is significant evidence that REM sleep is related to the ability to process emotions, and when this sleep cycle is disturbed, it can have a major impact on your mental health. PTSD, for instance, has been linked to a failure of the brain to process memories when sleeping, and major depression has been linked to excessive REM sleep. Getting a consistent night’s sleep can help regulate these issues.
Of course, getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done, especially if a mental health condition seems like its directly interfering. Fortunately, there’s a few strategies one can employ to make it more likely that you’ll get a better night’s sleep.
Mindfulness meditation is arguably the best practice for staying mentally healthy. This form of meditation encourages mindfulness, or (according to Bishop et al.), “a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.” This kind of meditation is especially useful for those with anxiety, as it trains you to sort between useful worrying, the kind that motivates you to solve a problem, and useless worrying, the kind that ends up doing more harm than the thing you’re worrying about.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, explained the benefits of meditation for anxiety-sufferers to the Harvard Health Blog. “If you have unproductive worries, you can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently,” said Dr. Hoge. “You might think ‘I’m late, I might lose my job if I don’t get there on time, and it will be a disaster!’ Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that — a thought, and not a part of my core self.'”
The evidence backs this up. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University reviewed nearly 19,000 meditation studies and found that meditation reduces anxiety, depression, and stress. It also enhances mental performance and increases compassion, which is always a nice bonus.
And, of course, this list has to close with exercise. Regular exercise complements the other items in this list well, as it leads to improvements in sleep and can encourage a greater awareness of one’s diet. We all know that exercise will improve your cardiovascular health, but it also has a major impact on mental health. So much so that some researchers argue exercise should be prescribed beforecertain psychiatric drugs when treating mental health issues and that every mental health clinic should have its own gym.
Aerobic exercises, such as jogging, swimming, and even dancing, have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. Exercise in general improves self-esteem and cognitive function and reduces stress. Not only does exercise release endorphins that can give a much-needed boost for depressed individuals, it also improves blood flow to the brain, helping to ensure that critical parts of the brain get the nutrients they need for proper function.
Originally published on Big Think.
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