Our current health model is reactive rather than preventative. The notion that many health issues can be prevented through daily habits and lifestyle changes isn’t exclusive to physical health. Mental health exists on a continuum and works similarly to physical fitness levels. The more preventative measures you take, the more equipped your coping skills are for when stress levels reach critical points. Positive psychology research has found basic lifestyle and habit changes that allow us take care of our mental health. Below are five simple and effective ways to maintain and take care of your mental health.
Meditate - Not only does meditation provide a myriad of physiological differences (lower heart rate and cortisol levels) it actively helps your ability to let go of thoughts. Meditation is an antidote to stress and overanalysis, the trigger of many mental health problems. At its essence meditation is reactivity training, the more we train ourselves not to overthink and react but rather to observe our thoughts, we are able to create more inner-peace and as esoteric as that sounds, it is the strongest mediator of stressful triggers in the promotion of positive mental health.
Move daily - From walking or stretching for ten minutes to a full-blown Olympic lifting session, creating a relationship with your body is a protective factor for mental health. The more attuned we are with our body, the more it allows us to build an awareness of elements that are not thoughts. Exercise and movement also help us enter a state of flow, although different from meditation it has great psychological value. Flow states allow us to be present in movement and activity. Exercise also releases healthy levels of endorphins, the same reward system as food, alcohol and drugs.
Start a gratitude practice - When we scan the environment for positive attributes, we train our brain to seek out the positive in any given circumstance. The more neural pathways are used, the stronger they become and start to become the default mode of the brain.
Make sleep a priority - Sleep is the foundation of health. When we sleep our brain is as active as when we are awake. The brain cleans itself, organises thoughts, engrains memory, and strengthens neural pathways, so when we are awake we are able to respond and thrive emotionally and physiologically to our surroundings. To deprive yourself of sleep (even for one night) you enter a day where you react slower (poor quality work outs and driving abilities), misread facial expressions, increased appetite for sugary foods and lower immunity.
Connect with people you enjoy - “As social creatures, humans need close friendships not only for survival but also for health, longevity, and life satisfaction” (Feldman, Gordon, Influs, Gutbir, & Ebstein, 2013). We are truly ‘wired to connect’—born biological mechanisms that allow us to start forming connections from birth. Very easily we can become consumed with work and we push social connection to the wayside as make ourselves busy pursuing goals. Remember to check in with friends and family. Make an effort to engage with a friend once a week, it activates the reward system and decreases activity in areas involved in social judgment, negative emotion, and “mentalising” (assessing other people’s emotions and intentions).