The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of caring for your mental health. Times are tough and there may be many factors beyond your control right now, but there are steps that you can take to help you to weather the storm. Improving your mental health doesn’t have to mean a complete lifestyle overhaul; there are many simple changes you can make to balance your brain chemistry. The best approach is to take it slow and try to integrate some of the following habits into your daily life.
1. Eat a Balanced Diet
It may sound like boring advice, but your diet directly impacts both your physical and mental health. When times get tough, it may be tempting to reach for chocolate and crisps, but it’s important to think about the long-term effects of the food you consume. Studies have linked junk food to depression and psychological distress, so save it for an occasional treat as part of a balanced diet.
Ensure that you include plenty of protein in your diet, as this helps your brain produce more dopamine, a well-known “happy hormone.” Carbohydrates, meanwhile, boost serotonin levels to stabilise your mood. It’s also important to eat plenty of foods that are rich in Omega-3, a healthy fat that can help to increase your sense of wellbeing and improve cognitive function.
2. Exercise Regularly
Physical and mental wellbeing often go hand in hand. When you exercise, you experience a rush of endorphins which boost your mood and help to combat stress and anxiety. Studies have found exercise to be an effective antidepressant and it can also increase self-esteem.
You don’t need to join a gym or run miles and miles every day. For most people, 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week is considered to be optimal, or just 75 minutes if you prefer high intensity training.
3. Reframe Your Thoughts
“Think positive” might seem like stating the obvious, but it’s easier said than done. However, with a little practice, reframing your thoughts in a more positive light can change your life. Reframing is a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique that allows you to identify negative thoughts and consciously choose more beneficial ones instead.
At first, it may be helpful to journal this process. Write down your negative thoughts, then examine how they make you feel. For example, you might catch yourself thinking “I shouldn’t even bother applying for this job because there will be hundreds of applicants, and I won’t stand out.” This is likely to make you feel inadequate and lower your self-esteem.
Next, write down some alternative thoughts about the situation that make you feel more positive. For example, “I’m hardworking and talented, and this could be a great opportunity for me.” Focus on this instead. It may feel false or difficult at first, but
Reframing is a simple but very powerful technique. It may feel false or difficult at first, but with a little practice, this strategy can really help you to stay positive and make the best of difficult situations.
4. Keep a Gratitude Journal
Gratitude seems to be a bit of a mental health buzzword these days, but it’s so much more than that. Taking time out of your day to think about what you’re grateful for can give you a new outlook on life. In fact, this practice is often recommended by mental health professionals and studies have shown that gratitude has a positive impact on our sense of wellbeing.
5. Open Up to a Loved One
If you’re struggling with your mental health, don’t underestimate the power of talking. A problem shared is a problem halved, so just getting things off your chest will make you feel better. In addition to this, your chosen friend or family member may be able to offer a fresh perspective and useful advice. It always helps to know that you’re not alone and that someone is there for you, so keep lines of communication open and don’t be afraid to share how you feel.
6. Stay Hydrated
Many studies have found that the majority of adults don’t drink enough water, which is bad news for mental health. Dehydration increases your risk of anxiety and depression, so it really is important to drink eight glasses per day. If you find plain water too boring, try squash or herbal tea.
7. Cut Caffeine
You may not want to hear this, but too much coffee can be detrimental to your mental state. Excessive caffeine consumption increases anxiety and can even trigger panic attacks. As if that weren’t enough, caffeine can make it difficult to fall asleep at night, which is even more damaging to your mental health. If you’re not ready to quit cold turkey, try to limit yourself to one or two cups in the morning.
Meditation is beneficial for mental health in a variety of ways. Not only has it been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, it can also help manage symptoms of depression and improve the quality of your sleep. You don’t have to meditate for hours at a time, but try to make it a part of your daily routine. 10 minutes in the morning or before bed is a great target to aim for. If you’re just starting out there are lots of free, guided meditations on YouTube or you could download a smartphone app for when you’re on the go.
9. Help Others
Although the covid-19 pandemic has been an undoubtedly difficult time, it has well and truly demonstrated the power of community. Helping others allows us to feel good about ourselves, thus improving our mental state. It’s always rewarding to know that you’re making a difference.
10. Take Breaks
Many of us are guilty of skipping breaks during the working day in an attempt to finish early, but working uninterrupted for long periods of time can actually hamper productivity. A short walk or even stepping outside for a quick breath of fresh air can make a big difference to your mental state. Regular breaks allow you to refresh and re-centre yourself, so don’t neglect them. Set a reminder on your phone if necessary or schedule a stroll with a friend.
Prioritising your mental health is always worthwhile, and small changes add up over time. Remember that good habits take practice to develop, so don’t be too hard on yourself and bear in mind that consistency beats perfection any day of the week.