The Pursuit of Happiness: Lifestyle Changes for Mental Fitness
To borrow from Hollywood, the pursuit of happiness is perhaps what all of us have set out to do. With our current lifestyle, it’s not very hard to feel like Atlas (although one buckling under pressure), as if we’re bearing the weight of the entire world on our shoulders. Juggling around a high-stress work environment or a demanding educational curriculum and personal relationships, with others and most importantly, with oneself, can be quite draining. This is not without consequence- such a strain is unhealthy both for mental and physical health, worse, if you’re already struggling with these health problems.
Lifestyle changes can go miles in helping realign yourself, to recover from anxiety, stress, depression and the like; if you aren’t, then it will be a great preventive measure for not letting your body lapse into these states. All your organ systems come together, complexly interconnected to form you and thus any dysfunction has various factors contributing to it. Medication will target a part of the problem but changing your lifestyle will help in a well-rounded recovery and also, prevention of a relapse.
Physical Activity: Build Some Mind Muscle
Regular exercise will help increase your memory retention and focus, regulate your mood, better your body’s stress response and help in brain plasticity, apart from its many physiological benefits. Start your day with some yoga, go for a run, hit the gym (brownie points if you go to an outdoor gym!). Tailor your workout to suit your needs, a study indicated that this can lead to better results than when you don’t. Besides improving cognition, it will re-energise you (supplementing that daily cuppa), keep you sorted and consequently more productive throughout the day. The Vitamin D your body receives from the early rays of sunshine is needed for synthesizing neurotransmitters, which are at the root of a lot of mental health issues.
Alternatively (or additionally, if you’re really enthusiastic) engage in a sport. Move as much as possible during the day- take the stairs, walk or cycle to work. If you have a desk job, try not to sit throughout the day continuously. Take short breaks to walk around or stretch. These habits are stepping stones towards a mentally fitter you
Food: You Are What You Eat
It is the fuel that keeps your cogs running so naturally, healthy food means a healthy you. This is the same archetypal advice that has been drilled into our heads and although we know better, we’re increasingly adopting a diet quite the opposite of healthy- with processed, packaged food taking center stage. You might not realize it, but your digestive system and your nervous system along with your psychology are way more interconnected than you ever thought they were.
What you eat actually goes a long way in determining your mood. Polyunsaturated fats form a large chunk of your brain, Vitamin B12 and magnesium have important roles in regulating brain chemistry and therefore, in regulating mood. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are made from amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and these chemicals are the most implicated factors in the pathophysiology of mood disturbances. So your dietary plan should include lots of vegetables, fruits, seeds, etc for getting those nutrients into your system.
- Soybean, walnuts, salmon, chia seeds are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids;
- Dairy products, eggs, fortified cereal are rich in Vitamin B12;
- Green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grain are rich in Magnesium;
- Meat, dairy, peas, grains are rich sources of Protein
Try to incorporate these into your meals. Meat is a great source of protein but a non-vegetarian diet often leads to veggies being neglected; strike a balance between the two, according to what your body needs. Carbohydrate-rich food should also be present in your meals, however, don’t give in to that urge of instant gratification. Avoid food with a high glycemic index for these will give your body a high but short-lived burst of energy after which energy levels will come crashing down- proving to be a quite a rollercoaster ride for your body. Aim at eating food with a low GI which will provide a moderate but longer supply of energy.
A lot of mentally ill people have a poor dietary plan which only contributes to their problems. Improving this will help in a better recovery and prevention of these problems. To understand more about how your diet works, how you actually are what your microbes eat, check these out- The Surprisingly dramatic role of nutrition in mental health, Food For Thought
Creative Expression: Finding Meaning in Suffering
Channel your inner self and let go! Write some prose or poetry (or even, prose-poetry), sing your heart out, act, cook, dance, doodle, whatever works best for you. I cannot stress how important this step is! Get it all out, what’s in your head, lift the weight off of your shoulders. Unlock and release yourself so that you live freely without your mind like a noose around your neck.
It might help you understand yourself a little better. Ask and many a person will tell you that a particular pattern in their doodle or a line in their poetry have offered them insight into what might have been bugging them, without them being aware of it. Any such expression will be invaluable in providing a cathartic relief from toxic thought cycles, fears, worries, stress, sadness, anger… all those bits of your psyche that are debilitating to your normal functioning.
Meditation: A Critical Analysis of the Self
Any kind of mindfulness exercise can be a good starting point for you if you’re a novice. Use apps that offer guided meditations, join a group, go for mindfulness-based therapies, whatever suits you best. This will help you cultivate a sense of awareness and through thorough introspection, upgrade to a state of meta-awareness, which can be defined as being aware of your awareness (okay, I think you’ve had enough of this word).
It will bring clarity to your life, develop a better sense of self, better emotional reactivity, better stress responses, reduce the decline in brain function associated with aging and so on. All these changes are brought about by changes in your brain like an increase in grey matter in particular areas concerned with these functions and change in the kind of brain waves emitted. After all these more external changes in lifestyle, journey inward to your depths to solve that bugging identity crisis.
Sleep: Time to Recharge
This is a very crucial factor in keeping you functioning. If you have anxiety issues, are depressed or have some other mood regulation issues, almost always, sleep is affected. An irregular sleep cycle leaves people irritable, depressed and feeling all tangled up. Work is affected, relationships go for a toss and more harm is done to your body as a disrupted circadian rhythm interferes with physiological functions as well.
Getting your sleep back on track is vital for mental and physical health. Set regular timings for sleeping and waking up, eat a light dinner and exercise for it will help you sleep better. Try to keep your bed free of clutter- it might be interfering with your ability to fall asleep. Don’t engage in brain-stimulating activities like watching tv or browsing through your social media on your phone as they may be getting you too wired up to sleep. Instead of going for that cup of coffee during the day( or worse, the evening) try doing the Stimulating Breath Exercise to re-energise. To unwind and calm yourself down to fall asleep more easily, try the Relaxation Breath Exercise.
All these aspects of your life tie in together. Your body and mind are not two separate entities but parts of a whole, look after one and you look after the other. If you exercise and eat well, you will sleep better. If you sleep better, you will feel more motivated to exercise and make the right food choices. It comes full circle. Start with something, anything, and the rest will slowly fall into place.
I can spout off a bunch of studies to try to prove the efficacy of all of these to you but it might still look like a faraway, unrealistic prospect. My experience of benefitting from it might make it more tangible for you but what works best is trying it out yourself. Start small and work towards your goal gradually, with patience and commitment and this will seem achievable.
If you’re suffering from mental illness, you probably need this all the more because unhealthy lifestyles are often complementary. Sticking to a plan might seem hard, it might seem as if nothing can pull you out of this deep, dark pit you’re stranded in but there is hope to hold on to, and this is it! Don’t let your illness define yourself.
If someone you care for is struggling with mental illness, check on them regularly- drop a text or two(or even better, call!) to see if they’re following their plan and keep motivating them. Knowing that someone cares makes a lot of difference.
Take care of your body and it will take care of you.
Artwork by: Siddartha Sreenivas
Written by: Tanisha Agarwal