One of my other jobs besides psychotherapist is conducting mental health assessments. At the end of the assessments, I identify an area or two that clients can begin work on to improve their mental health functioning.
Most of us do a great job maintaining our mental health functioning AND most of us have periods when we don’t do so well for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it can be a relatively easy fix. A few basic changes can have a powerful effect.
The Big Three: Exercise, Diet, and Sleep
As part of my daily routine I strive to eat three healthy meals, get a good night’s rest, and get some exercise. Easier said than done given the hectic, face-paced lives most of us tend to live.
In my professional life, I often hear, “I used to exercise regularly but now I’m just not moti-vated.” I know, I get it. There are days I don’t feel like exercising, such as when I’m having a bad day or I’m just tired and overwhelmed. But I don’t question whether or not I should do it; I just do it, it’s part of my daily routine, no matter how I feel about exercising in those moments.
After I complete my exercise routine, 98% of the time, I feel better, even a little bit. Research demonstrates time and time again that regular exercise is an effective treatment for mood issues, plus you get all of the physical health benefits. I also notice that after exercising, I’m more likely to do something else I didn’t want to do, such as deal with that big pile of dishes I’ve been avoiding. One positive act builds upon another. Pretty soon I feel better.
Weird, or is it? It’s this concept of “contrary action” – doing what you don’t feel like doing – to improve a given situation.
The same goes with eating three healthy meals per day. Sure, I’d eat donuts regularly if I could, but if I did, it would take its toll. I admit I’ll have a donut every now and then – no big deal, but more importantly I eat three basically healthy meals per day, consisting of some proteins and fresh fruits and/or vegetables. It gives me more energy, which enables me to more easily do the things that make my life meaningful. Moreover, mood is tied to one’s blood sugar level – balanced blood sugar lends itself to balanced moods. The term “hangry,” which refers to feeing angry because you’re hungry, reflects this connection.
Now for sleep. This can be tricky. Many of us strive to get the sleep we need, but we continuously fall short, which leads to low energy, low motivation, and low moods. Getting good sleep calls for good sleep hygiene, such as cutting back on caffeine (especially in the afternoon); turning off personal devices an hour or two before bedtime that emit “blue light” that tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime; and avoiding intense conversations, movies, and books later in the evening. Did I mention that exercise is great for sleep? Well, it is! Just make sure you finish exercising two to three hours prior to bed.
Even with good sleep hygiene, mental health issues may prevent you from getting a good night’s rest, eating regularly, and getting exercise. Anxiety, depression, other mood issues, and/or substance abuse are the most likely culprits. One indication you are struggling with these problems is a “racing mind” – it’s hard to turn your thoughts off or you feel restless, nervous, or worried when it’s time for sleep.
When dealing with any mood or anxiety abnormalities, employ the techniques of Mental Health 101. If you don’t see a significant improvement in a couple of weeks, it may be time to see a therapist.
Peter Lear is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in the treatment of addictions. He is also a Registered Yoga Teacher. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-981-7227.