As the new year quickly approaches and we say goodbye to 2014, many of us begin to think about our resolutions for the upcoming year. Common resolutions are often related to physical health – such as losing weight, going to the gym more, or trying a new yoga studio – but what about how you could improve your mental health?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO): “Mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health.” This is a statement that is supported by numerous studies. One from 2012 published in The BMJ, for example, found that individuals with poor mental health are at increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer as well as a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
The definition of good mental health is a “state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Who wouldn’t want to improve that?
Most of us are aware that a healthy, balanced diet is beneficial for physical health. It can help with weight maintenance and protect against a range of illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
But following a healthy diet also has benefits for mental well-being. As the Mental Health Foundation state: “Your brain needs a mix of nutrients to stay healthy and function well, just like the other organs in your body.”
One of the healthiest diets is considered to be the Mediterranean diet, which incorporates high consumption of beans, nuts, cereals, seeds, plant-based foods and fruits. The diet is also low in saturated fat, includes moderate consumption of fish, poultry and dairy, and low consumption of meats and sugary foods.
A 2012 study reported by MNT revealed that the Mediterranean diet is not only good for physical health, but it is also beneficial for mental well-being. And in 2013, another study of almost 11,000 middle-aged women found that those who followed a Mediterranean diet not only lived longer than control participants, but they also had better cognitive function and mental health.
Physical activity is important for all aspects of health, including mental well-being. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise.
But you do not have to engage in long, dull sessions on the treadmill to reap the mental health benefits of exercise. Recently, MNT reported on a study by researchers from the University of Michigan, which found that group nature walks could promote good mental well-being.
“Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise, and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster,” said study leader Dr. Sara Warber, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan, adding:
“Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression and anxiety disorder.”
It is common knowledge that sleep problems can affect our mental well-being. A 2010 study by researchers from the George Institute on Global Health in Australia found that people who have less than 5 hours sleep a night may be at higher risk of mental illness.
“Sleep problems – even quite mild ones – can damage your well-being and quality of life,” Challis told us. “Too little sleep over a sustained period can leave you vulnerable to developing mental health problems, but there are lots of things that you can do to improve your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.”
The Mayo Clinic recommend going to bed and getting up at the same time every day – even at the weekends and during holidays – as a routine can boost the body’s sleep-wake cycle, promoting a better night’s sleep.
All of us experience stress at some point. Whether a result of work, relationships or money problems, it is widely accepted that stress can take a toll on our mental health. Adopting the lifestyle changes mentioned previously – such as a healthy diet, regular exercise and quality sleep – can also help combat stress. Other useful techniques for managing ongoing stress include making lists to help put things into perspective, taking regular breaks and being assertive about not taking on too much.
Developing good relationships with colleagues so you can build up a network of support and confiding in someone you trust, at work or outside, about what upsets you or makes you feel stressed can help you feel on top of workplace stress.
By setting yourself over-ambitious New Year’s resolutions, you’re potentially setting yourself up to ‘fail,’ and this can have a real impact on your self-esteem.
Instead of aiming for unrealistic targets that may distress you, try to think more broadly about your mental well-being. Simple things can contribute to a much more positive outlook on life, such as engaging in some exercise, making time for loved ones or taking time out for yourself to relax.
Ultimately, remember you do not need a new year to make healthy changes; you can make them at any time of the year. But New Years is an excellent opportunity to think about the improvements you’d like to make and then take concrete steps to achieve them. Set realistic goals, develop an action plan and set it in motion.