At some level, your mind is all you have. It's the base layer for everything you'll ever experience.
Consequently, your mental health determines the quality of your life. If your mind is perpetually caught in anxiety, depression, and stress loops, it's hard to spend your time on Earth enjoyably.
Addressing mental health issues can be complicated, but holistic strategies—sleep, exercise, diet, and others—can move you in the right direction. Combine enough of these strategies, and you'll find a mighty wind at your back pushing you towards a happier life.
This article will share those strategies and the science that supports them. First, though, let's start with a definition.
Defining Mental Health
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as "a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community." [*]
In other words, good mental health means being happy, confident, productive, resilient, and useful to other humans. Most of us want to check these boxes.
Conversely, poor mental health is usually marked by anxiety, depression, excessive stress, or some combination. Let's quickly run through each.
Anxiety is the most common mood disorder, affecting 15% of people at some time in their lives.[*] When someone suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, persistent fear and worry plague their days and nights.
These feelings are often accompanied by unhappiness and declining interest in normally pleasurable activities. (The main criteria for depression.) Depression and anxiety are considered "comorbid" because they often present together.
Finally, stress. We all feel this symptom of emotional tension, and sometimes it's adaptive. A little stress can kick your brain into gear if you need to hit a critical deadline. But if you're constantly stressed, that will cut into your well-being.
Humans aren't built to be perpetually switched on. We evolved in small tribes that spent considerable time in repose.
Yes, when a mammoth ambled by, our ancestors would get a surge of cortisol so they could take care of business. But most of the time, they chilled.
COVID-19 and Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic offers an example of the consequences of collective stress. This stress took the form of:
- Health-related stress (will I get sick?)
- Job-related stress (will I lose my job?)
- Social disconnection stress (how will I see my loved ones?)
- Uncertainty stress (what's going to happen?)
The stress has diminished as we've emerged from the worst of it, but the psychological damage is undeniable. According to the WHO, global rates of anxiety and depression have increased by 25% after the pandemic.[*]
Let's use that statistic as motivation. Now more than ever, we need to focus on mental health.
What Are 5 Ways To Improve Mental Health Naturally?
By now you're probably wondering, "How can I improve my mental health?" This section will answer that question, but first, a quick caveat.
We can't solve every mental health issue with lifestyle modifications. Often we need pharmaceuticals, therapy, and other medical interventions to provide the benefits required. Consult a mental health professional for guidance.
With that in mind, let's review five strategies to foster psychological well-being.
#1: Seek human connection
One reason lockdowns were so challenging was the isolation they engendered. Our happiness and physical health are directly tied to the quality of our social networks.[*]
Relationships can also act as a buffer against stress. For instance, one study found that breast cancer patients with more social support had lower cortisol levels.[*] Another found that head trauma patients who joined support groups in the hospital were less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.[*]
So double down on your valuable relationships and seek support during challenging times. (Check out the Carb Manager community for a little extra connection.) Your life will be smoother for it.
Does meditation improve mental health? If so, what type of meditation is best?
Most research has focused on mindfulness meditation, which improves anxiety and depression symptoms in various populations.[*] So mindfulness is a good starting place.
Mindfulness entails maintaining a clear, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions as they arise. To learn mindfulness meditation, use an app like Waking Up or read a book like Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana.
Savvy mental health professionals prescribe exercise to their patients. It's a well-documented mood enhancer.[*]
Exercise may improve mood by:
- Boosting cerebral blood flow
- Stimulating excitatory chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline
- Producing happy, painkilling chemicals like endorphins and opioids
- Raising your body temperature
- Giving you the underrated pleasure of beating that annoying guy in pickleball
- Distracting you from quotidian worries
And to reduce financial stress, read how to exercise on a budget without a gym membership.
If you aren't sleeping well, you won't be the best version of yourself. Mood included.
In a 2019 study, researchers asked people to track their sleep and moods for six weeks using mobile apps.[*] They found that sleep quality significantly impacted next day mood—much more than mood impacted sleep.
In other words, focus on fixing your sleep for mood improvements. Not the other way around.
#5: Eat to reduce inflammation
Many scientists believe that inflammation (not serotonin) is the primary chemical driver of depression.[*] When researchers injected folks with a Salmonella vaccine to create an immune response, the vaccine group had a more negative mood than the control group.[*]
And so, if you want to keep your mood up, keep inflammation down. Diet is an excellent place to start.
The remedy is to eat a nutrient-dense diet of meat, fish, eggs, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. (Prioritize fatty fish to get more mood-boosting omega-3 fats in your system.) As a bonus, eating whole foods (like a whole foods Keto diet) helps with weight management, and maintaining a healthy weight helps reduce inflammation.[*]
A Holistic Approach to Mental Health
Your mind is all you have, and there's plenty you can do to care for it. If you seek authentic connections, meditate, exercise, sleep well, and eat right, you'll help foster mental stability during life's ups and downs.
The more you improve your mental health, the better your life will be. So pick at least one strategy and set a micro goal to improve it today.