Exercise regularly. Relax. Eat healthy foods. Reduce stress. We’ve heard these recommendations over and over again. They are all widely recognized as being good for your physical health.
But did you know these and several other simple but important behavior changes can also be vital for maintaining and improving your mental health?
Psychologist Roger Walsh (University of California, Irvine) cites over 150 scientific references to make a very convincing case for incorporating eight “therapeutic lifestyle changes” (TLCs) into your regular routine, not only to improve your physical health but also to reduce or ward off distress associated with a variety of mental health issues.
Here’s a quick recap of the eight TLCs and some of the findings which show how they can help improve your mental health:
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce depression, age-related cognitive decline, anxiety, and some symptoms of schizophrenia. With mild or moderate depression, the benefit of exercise is similar to that of medication and psychotherapy. Both aerobics and weight training show benefits. Higher intensity workouts longer than 30 minutes and maintained for over six months show larger effects. Exercise can also improve academic performance, aid in stroke recovery and reduce memory loss and the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.
2) Nutrition and Diet
Numerous studies show that a low-calorie, low-fat diet including fish, fruits and vegetables can have multiple benefits for your mental health. It can improve academic performance in children, help with mood disorders and schizophrenia in adults, and reduce age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In addition, taking supplemental omega-3 fish oil can possibly help reduce depression, bipolar disorder, cognitive decline, schizophrenia, and ADHD. Also, there are associations between Vitamin D deficiency and cognitive impairment, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, so some practitioners now suggest regular use of this supplement.
Overexposure to artificial environments with noise and poor lighting can disrupt mood and sleep patterns, impair attention, reduce academic performance in children, and cause more problems with thinking in older adults. Excessive media immersion can also reduce attention, cognition, and increase stress. For centuries, interaction with natural surroundings has brought calming and healing benefits and greater overall physical and mental health. Enjoying nature and the outdoors has been shown to reduce stress, depression and ADHD symptoms. Patients in hospital rooms with a view of nature have less pain and stress, better moods, better outcomes from surgery, and can leave the hospital sooner.
People with mental illness often have a poor quality of life related to personal intimacy, and social isolation contributes to poorer health. Interactions with others have been likened to an inoculation against physical and mental health challenges. The positive therapeutic relationship that is built in psychotherapy can help people establish better relationships with friends and family. Good relationships are known to enhance happiness, quality of life, resilience and reduce health risks ranging from the common cold to stroke and even mortality.
5) Recreation and Enjoyable Activities
Recreation often involves play, which has been shown to reduce defensiveness, improve well-being and help develop social skills and maturity in both children and adults. Humor seems to reduce stress, improve mood and support immune system response and healing. Painting, music, and poetry have long been used as healing activities. A central benefit of most recreational activities is they foster positive emotions and provide positive reinforcement, which in turn have additional physical and psychological benefits.
6) Relaxation and Stress Management
Chronic stress causes multiple physical and emotional difficulties. A variety of self-management skills including meditation, yoga, tai chi, and muscle relaxation have been shown to consistently reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. When used in combination with traditional psychotherapies, meditation can reduce insomnia and aid in the treatment of eating disorders and borderline personality disorder. Meditation can also enhance thinking and may reduce age-related cognitive decline.
7) Religious and Spiritual Involvement
Many people find religion and spirituality a vital tool to cope with stress, illness and adversity. Studies consistently show that involvement in spiritual activities is most often beneficial when it is based on positive themes of forgiveness and love. It is less likely to be helpful or may even have negative effects when focused on guilt and punishment. Mental health benefits of spirituality include improved relationships and reduced rates of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and suicide. Additional benefits of regular participation in spiritual activities are increased social support, service to others, and perhaps increased longevity.
8) Contribution and Service
Serving others helps both the receiver and the giver. Giving time to help others reduces feelings of greed and jealousy and increases qualities of joy, love and generosity. People who volunteer are happier, healthier, and may even live longer. Helping other members in a support group contributes to the overall effectiveness of the group. Exceptions to the positive benefits of helping are found if someone experiences burnout from extended caregiving or if the service is fueled by an imposed sense of duty or obligation.
Dr. Walsh notes that mental health professionals haven’t always done a very good job of recognizing the value of the TLCs and they don’t often recommend them to the people in their care. Also, further study is needed to examine the role of these therapeutic lifestyle changes in promoting greater mental health. Might they be more effective if several are combined? What is needed to raise awareness among mental health professionals and consumers to more deliberately employ these TLC’s routinely?
Perhaps the message to take away is to try a little TLC and see if you feel better.
So, here’s a question: What’s a TLC (therapeutic lifestyle change) you could make in the near future to help improve your mental health? Please leave a comment. Also please consider subscribing to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!
Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66, 579-592.