Updated: Nov 2
When building a house, it wouldn’t make any sense to build the roof first. You must start with the foundation. Mental health is the same: to foster good mental health we must focus on foundations of good mental health and getting those established before we attempt to address more intense issues or deep therapeutic work. Good mental health takes effort and commitment, and hopefully these tips will help get you lay the groundwork for improving yours.
Foundation 1: Sleep
Sleep is essential to give your brain and body time to recharge. Without adequate and restful sleep, you may find you experience negative impacts on your ability to concentrate, regulate your emotions, process memories, and think clearly. These consequences can increase your risk of medical conditions and diseases that have been linked to lack of sleep, and significantly reduce your capacity to cope with life’s stresses. Keeping to a regular bedtime schedule is a good place to start when working on your sleep hygiene. Once that is solidly established, you can start building the walls of your good sleep hygiene habits such as adding things like a bedtime routine, regular wake-up time, and mental techniques for helping you get to sleep. For more tips on how to improve your sleep habits, see this blog post.
Foundation 2: Food
Our bodies need food in order to give us the energy we need to survive, and good eating habits are critical for meeting this need.
When we are stressed, overwhelmed, or are experiencing life's challenges, we tend to throw our good eating habits out the window. As proper nutrition for your body can help you fight off stress and disease, it is essential to fuel your body so you are best equipped to face life’s challenges.
In times of stress food may feel like it is not a big priority as many people experience decreases in their appetite when they are stressed. People will often skip meals as the effort to prepare food and eat it can feel daunting. However, skipping meals is like not having oil in your car: you may be fine for a while, but your vehicle will not be performing at its peak and over time you may do damage to your engine. To fuel your body efficiently, It is critical to make eating regularly a top priority.
At times it can be difficult to eat as appetite can be impacted by many factors such as your mood and stress levels. At these times it can be helpful to graze regularly throughout the day and try to eat small meals. Focusing on enjoyable foods, things that are easy to eat, and/or quick to make can be helpful. Using distraction such as watching your favorite show while eating helps some people eat more when they do not feel like eating. For others, doing the opposite and mindfully eating their food helps motivate them to eat. If you have no idea what strategies would be better for you, consider trying out a variety of approaches to see what fits best.
While some people experience a decrease in their appetite when stressed, others experience an increase in their appetite when stressed. Often those who experience an increase in appetite also worry they may over eat or use food in a negative way to cope. For those who relate to this, it can be helpful to introduce more mindful eating practices such as not eating with distraction and being conscious of portion sizes. Portioning snacks into bowls/individual bags can help you be mindful of how much you are eating at one time. Eating enjoyable foods is essential to living a happy and fulfilling life in my opinion, as life is too short not to eat the cake: we just don't want to eat the whole cake at once or we might get a tummy ache.
In addition to portion size, focusing on increasing intake of fruits, vegetables and proteins can help keep you full and satisfied longer. Aiming to have a wide variety of nutrients in your diet is important so your body has all the types of fuel that it needs. A car needs many different fluids to run properly: not just gas. Your body is the same: it needs a wide variety of nutrients to have a well-rounded diet to function at its peak performance level.
Foundation 3: Exercise
Exercise is torture for many of us (including myself), but physical exercise can improve your mental health, reduce the risk of disease and help you manage stress. When you are stressed your body releases stress hormones such as cortisol. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins that counteract these stress hormones. If you do not exercise, you are robbing your body of the opportunity to utilize those free good feeling hormones.
If you struggle with exercise as much as I do, it can be helpful to start very small and build on your successes. Starting with a reasonable and achievable goal such as 5 minutes of exercise will help you establish the habit while reducing the risk of injury from unused muscles being overworked. Once you have established 5 minutes per day consistently, you can start to increase your minimum workout time to 10 minutes, then 15 and so on until you are at your end goal. Implementing a gradual workout routine is not as much of an interruption to your busy schedule, is easier on your body, and is more motivating because you will be able to get some momentum on your goals. In addition, it is easier to convince yourself to do something for 5 minutes compared to trying to convince yourself to go workout for an hour.
Very often starting small can feel very uncomfortable, as it can seem like a waste of time. "5 minutes isn't going to do any good" is often an argument our brains like to make to try to keep us from doing something that is new, scary and uncomfortable. While it is true that working out for 5 minutes every day will not make you a body builder or a bikini model, that is not the outcome we are aiming for. What we are aiming for is to establish a regular workout routine, increase exercise as a priority, and most of all to reap the mental health benefits that come from exercise. If you are still skeptical, for one week do a workout for 5 minutes and log the benefits that you personally receive. Common things to log include:
Ability to focus
Sense of accomplishment
Any other benefits that you can think of.
Focusing exercise goals/outcomes on how you feel rather than how you look will help you establish exercise as more of a priority as you will be able to focus on the immediate rewards, not the long-term gains that are sometimes less motivating as they are more difficult to see.