What Does it Take to Have Optimal Mental Health?

After practicing as a psychologist and preventive health professional for over 30 years I have seen some common practices that can make or break our mental, physical and spiritual health.  

Having been dedicated to helping my clients achieve a sense of mental well-being I have found that for most people this can be done with a deliberate and consistent lifestyle adjustment.  For some clients that alone is not enough and psychotherapy along with psychiatric medication may be necessary to manage mental health symptoms.  Even still, optimizing mental health can be assisted by the following and adjusted per personal preference and comfort.  

Sleep and Mindfulness Exercises

More than practically anything else, sleep deprivation can be the source of chronic irritability, low energy levels, inability to concentrate, lack of interest in things that formerly brought pleasure, low libido, and the resultant relationship problems that can ensue.  All of this looks like depression and many people are being treated with medications when they simply need to put together a proper sleep hygiene program.   There are many apps available to help you get to bed and get up at the same time each day - a first healthy step toward getting regular and sufficient sleep.  Teach your body that you intend to start slowing down before bedtime - and of course all evidence points to staying away from electronics at least an hour before bed; something about the blue light keeps us revved up.  Try a mindfulness exercise - like meditation, mental yoga, or breathing - there are many to be found  all over the internet - find one that helps you calm your thoughts and that will make it easier to manage your emotions.  "Change Your Thoughts and You Can Change Your World."  

Get Out in the Sunshine and Move Everyday

Connect to nature, take a walk, play with your dog, plant a garden, watch the birds - get outside!  Moving our bodies helps us sleep better, prevents injuries, and keeps us physically and mentally flexible.  And the sun's rays are good for our mental health - Vitamin D deficiency is nearly epidemic and this vitamin is essential for our mental wellness.  Where you have a season-long lack of sun install full spectrum light bulbs, they mimic the sun's rays, can help with your mood, and even your ability to concentrate.  Nature deprivation has now been shown to have significant consequences especially for our children who do not play outside as much as earlier generations and who spend more time every day in front of a blue screen than they do in school and with friends and parents combined.

Eat and Drink Well

What we eat has a direct impact on our well-being, physical and mental.   Recent research shows that the risk of becoming depressed over time is lower among adults who followed a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and beans, and other non-processed foods. All signs point to a plant-based diet for optimal spiritual health as well.  Even if you can't make a commitment to a lifetime of veganism, many meals per week can be conscious of who and what you are ingesting.  Eating animals and their byproducts like dairy, is fraught with hormones, antibiotics and chemicals that have an impact on our health.  In addition, no adult mammal drinks milk after it is weaned, except for humans and their companion animals.  Be aware of how advertising influences you and make a point of learning the facts for your health.  Perhaps another single thing that can be done to change health is to drink water as the sole or primary source of hydration.  There is nothing like it for providing the proper hydration for all of the body's needs.  Alcohol ingested only minimally has been shown to be better for our health and for our healthy relationships.

Be Kind to Yourself and Others

One surefire way to improving our spiritual and emotional health is by showing compassion and forgiveness for first ourselves and then it makes it easier to develop empathy and caring concern for others.  The old motto that you need to love yourself before you can love anyone else is not to encourage you to be self centered and narcissistic.  It is to recognize that we are all vulnerable, fragile beings who are not perfect, make mistakes, and benefit from kindness and forgiveness.  This empathy can extend to nonhuman-others as well and this serves to broaden our self identity to that of other creatures who are mistreated and persecuted.  From there we have a self interest in working towards eliminating cruelty wherever we see it.  Doing something positive for others increases our self esteem and self worth and improves our mental outlook on life.  Ed Abbey said, "the antidote to despair is action," - when we are aware of things that are damaging our environment and wildlife, doing something to help makes us less anxious and despairing.  

Get a Physical

Not that physicians should dictate our health because they are largely in the sickness business not the wellness business, but getting certain physical tests during a check up can rule out things like hypothyroidism, anemia and other medical conditions that can mimic mental health problems such as depression.  There is no sense in treating depression if that's not what you have.  And even if you do, that does not mean being on medications for life.  Get help from a psychologist when it's needed, just like you would if you had any other condition, it need only be brief and solution-focused, and you should feel a more lasting and fulfilling difference than you would with medications alone.  See a psychiatrist for psychiatric meds, they are the specialists, not an internist or GP.   Talk with your doctor about your lifestyle and see if making changes can help you wean off your meds.  Unfortunately, some  mental health conditions do require lifelong meds but that doesn't mean you can't incorporate these lifestyle changes to help you feel better overall.