As a psychology undergraduate , I first learned of the importance of sleeping enough, balanced eating, and exercising when it came to keeping our bodies and mind healthy. Truthfully, however, I didn’t think of these things as crucial during the process of diagnosing a mental illness as I very naively thought that your current environment, your upbringing, and neurotransmitters (chemicals in your brain) were solely what affected how you reacted to mental illnesses.
That line of thinking didn’t last long once I started interacting with clients very shortly thereafter. In fact, during initial sessions with clients, whether children or adults, one of the first questions I asked them was how their sleeping, eating, and exercising were going. If balanced, these three fundamentals of living are what help not only our bodies but also our minds stay on a healthy track. Read on to learn how to make it easier on yourself to balance these (and how I’ve felt when I myself have neglected these 3 in the past)
1. Healthy Eating – If you’ve experienced a high from a soda or a stomachache from a sugary food then you know how quickly our body responds to what we put in it – or not put in it! I’ve always been sensitive to the lack of food in my body and have a vivid memory of skipping lunch one day in high school. What was the outcome? Picture asking my mom to pull over on our way home from school and me dry heaving on the side of the road – my stomach was so empty it made me nauseous. Skipping meals creates an imbalance in the nutrients that fuel your mind and body but nowadays it’s easy to have a healthy snack on hand- think fruit, granola bars, or even a healthy smoothie you bring from home! Need more science behind this suggestion? Research has pointed to omega-3 fatty acids as helping to fight depression, so it’s not just about healthy eating and snacking for a healthy mind and body, but also for healthy and happy emotions. Just like omega-3s, the nutrients in fresh fruits and veggies keep the chemicals in our brains at their optimum levels. Here’s the hands-on part: the easiest way to eat healthy is to…… buy healthy! So next time you’re at the store just avoid the aisles and shelves with junk food and head to the produce section to fill your cart. You’ll end up eating what you bring home with you so skip the Cheetos and soda and opt for apples and lean proteins.
2. Sleeping – Have you ever pulled an all-nighter (or had a newborn for that matter??) I’ve experienced both of these and know what a cranky zombie I am the next day. In addition to decreased concentration, a chronic lack of sleep actually affects your memory in the long run. It also affects your ability to deal with stress and makes your irritable which can lead to bigger mental illnesses if left unchecked. Hear me out, there’s a reason why sleep deprivation is a torture technique. Your brain is literally repairing its connections when you’re catching zzz’s. I’ll be totally honest and tell you that I’m the worst night owl. My husband works really long hours and often the only time I hang out with him is after 10pm so in the past we’ve gotten in the habit of going to sleep at 2am – we’ve been known to actually go on dates at 3am. Lately tho, we’ve begun to dial this waaay back and begin our nightly routines much earlier. Be gradual about this, choose 2-3 nights a week to head to bed at a reasonable time and you can gradually increase this to most nights once you’ve established this habit. BUT feel free to party into the wee hours of the morning every once in awhile, just don’t make it a habit.
3. Exercise – You’ve heard over and over again that exercising makes endorphins, which in turn make you happy. But did you know that exercise actually helps fight the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and can be as effective as antidepressant medication? Let me give you two examples that contrast the effects of exercise. There were a few months in graduate school that I was incredibly busy and did not make time to exercise – running in Central Park was the first thing to go, despite living just 2 blocks from it! What came of this included anxiety, being on edge, and actually feeling more sluggish. Compare this with another busy time of mine: my senior year of college I was juggling 18 credits, a job as a writing advisor at my school’s writing lab, conducting research for two different professors, and being an associate editor at the university’s undergraduate journal of psychology. That same semester, my husband did an internship in DC and we lived apart for 4 months (it sucked!) while I finished up school in Utah. I decided that I was going to get fit and exercise every day so I’d look awesome when he got back from his internship :D. I ended up having so much energy to keep up with my demanding schedule but more importantly I know this exercise is what helped me stay sane and happy while I was apart from my husband (believe me, it was depressing having to move back in with roommates (even tho they were wonderful!) after having already been married for 2 years ha). The key to exercising consistently is being gradual about it (starting to notice a theme?). Begin slowly and with easy workouts that get your heart rate up 2 or 3 times a week. If you fall off the workout wagon know that it’s super common but that you can get back on again (it’s ok if you need to start out slowly!)
So there you have it 3 simple things to better mental health. I’m always interested in hearing your experiences when you have or haven’t done these, let us know what it was like for you in the comments!