Health Q&A

10 Habits to improve your mental health

February 5, 2018

There’s no denying that mental health is a serious issue that should not be ignored. The mind is just as important as the body and even more so in that it has a direct effect on the physical wellbeing of your body. Recurring negative thoughts can create a pattern of harmful thinking that, in turn, can lead to poor decisions and unhealthy routines.

The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) defines mental health as being “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”

The SAFMH goes on to explain that those with good mental health have the following key traits:

  • A zest for life – being able to laugh and enjoy life to the fullest
  • A sense of contentment
  • Being able to deal efficiently with stress
  • Balance – in other words, being able to juggle work and play; or rest and activity
  • Self confidence and high self-esteem

Focusing on your mental health has long-term advantages and far-reaching benefits like longevity, spiritual wellness and healthy relationships. Here are some daily tips that we can all practice to improve our mental health for the better:

1.Exercise

This one comes as no surprise but, while the physical benefits of exercise are self-explanatory, the mental impact remains unnoticed or underappreciated. So how does a bit of cardio affect your mental health? Easily put – it’s a powerful mood enhancer. Physical activity releases endorphins, the ‘happy’ neurotransmitters that dull your perception of pain. So the chemical acts as a natural painkiller, making you feel happier. This is why people feel invigorated after a workout. While you don’t necessarily have to complete a gruelling 10km run, a light 30 minutes per day on the treadmill or a leisurely stroll around your neighbourhood will go a long way in lifting your mood and reducing your waistline.

Therapists have recommended exercise as a combatant against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stress and anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Start small and end big – that’s the smart way to go. Choose a workout time when you are most energised and select activities that you really like. If you can’t stand the gym then try other workout options like taking the stairs instead of the lift or by doing stretches during your favourite soapie. It’s also important to reward yourself for a job well done. If you committed to a power walk then have an ice-cream afterwards; by incorporating exercise into your daily life it will become less of a chore.

2. Socialise

We are by nature social animals so it stands to reason that isolating yourself is bound to have a negative impact on your mental health. It has become all too easy in today’s modern, techno-gadget world, to push out real social interaction or engagement in lieu of a quick email or text. But there really is no substitute for healthy social connections. Interacting in a group environment helps satisfy your primal need to connect, be part of a group, form bonds and a sense of identity. For some it’s as easy as connecting with friends and family, but for those who do find themselves in the unfortunate position where they lack the basic support systems to socialise, it requires just a little bit more effort to reap the bountiful rewards. Do some investigating – if you’re creative, why not join an art club? If you’re a nature enthusiast – a birding or hiking club? The age-old cliché rings true – there’s something out there for everybody. Catching up with friends at a coffee shop will always outdo sitting at home alone, and will make for far more interesting social media posts.

3. Watch your diet

Give your fridge a makeover! It goes without saying that diet is important, but how does it affect your mental health? There are foods that are implicated in regulating mood and can contribute to the management of or decrease the risk of mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder.

The nutrients and minerals found in some foods form the building blocks for certain chemicals or neurotransmitters that have specific bodily functions and can affect your mood or mental functioning. Give yourself the best start by investing in the best possible brain food. Nutritionists have identified the following foods as being beneficial for good mental health:

  • Salmon
  • Lentils
  • Bananas
  • Sweet potatoes

If none of these are any of your favourites, you can always look out for foods that are rich in the right nutrients. Those best for mental health are: iron as it’s instrumental in the production of both serotonin and dopamine; and vitamin B6 – as a lack thereof has been linked to cognitive impairment.

4.  Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep can’t be stressed enough when it comes to good mental health. It may be easier said than done, especially if you have loads to worry about, but that is all the more reason to make sure you get a good eight hours of shut-eye each night. Although your brain keeps working while you sleep, it also helps ‘reset’ your brain, which is essential for memory and learning. We’ve all experienced those days where we didn’t get enough sleep the night before and battled to concentrate during the day. If you suffer from insomnia, try drinking some calming chamomile tea before bed.

5. Meditate

The benefits of meditation as a means of de-stressing are well known. It takes just a few minutes, each day, to calm oneself and become more mindful of the present. Practitioners concur that it’s a great alleviation for stress and anxiety. The best time to meditate is first thing in the morning and you can start off with just five minutes per day and build on from there.

6. Practice posture

Are you guilty of slouching at your workstation? Studies have started to point fingers at the debilitating effects that poor posture can have on your physical wellbeing and mental health. Having bad posture can lead to muscle pain and stiff joints, which can only lead to feelings of stress and emotional discord. In addition to which, poor posture denotes a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. So practice your posture at work or home. Sitting up straight can be an immediate boost to your mood.

7. Be grateful

Teaching yourself to be grateful for what you have instead of focussing on all the perceived negativity or unfairness in your life will go far in creating a positive mental attitude. Gratitude is closely aligned with mindfulness and, if you’re battling to keep track, consider a gratitude journal. This way you can look back and reflect on the blessings in your life. If you need a start, consider some of the people who are in your life and what it would be like if they were absent or think about those who are less fortunate than yourself or even about someone who did something nice for you with no intention of receiving a reward.

“It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy.”

8. Give Back

Volunteering, extending a helping hand or engaging in an act of kindness can assist with good mental health by allowing you to connect with others. Volunteering at your local church, hospital, SPCA or service club will connect you with like-minded people who share your ideals and values and offer you a social bond, alleviating loneliness and combating depression or anxiety.

If you don’t have time to volunteer every day, you can always get your ‘fix’ by doing small things like giving a colleague a compliment. Their smile will brighten your day. Or, help out the pensioner struggling to load their groceries or offer to walk your neighbour’s dog as part of your exercise regime. There are many ways that you can give back if you put your mind to it and your mind will thank you for it.

9. Learn something new

Keep your mind alert by challenging yourself with new skills. Becoming narrow-minded or set in a boring, predictable routine will do nothing to promote a positive mindset. Commit to frequent and original mental challenges and new ideas as it’s a great way to cope with stress and invigorate your mind. So, engaging in an activity that is mentally unfamiliar can result in improved cognitive functioning, attention to detail and working memory. Whether it’s your lifelong dream of learning a new language, taking a different route to work or learning to draw with your non-dominant hand, it’s all beneficial for your improved mental health so don’t let your brain become lazy.

10. Find your purpose

As indicated by the South African Federation for Mental Health, those with the best mental health have a zest for life – they have found their purpose. Studies have revealed that having a conviction or sense of purpose can provide you with the resilience needed to act as a buffer against life’s stressors. Some of it may seem daunting, but with a little introspection and personal discovery, it can be an exciting exploration into your journey in life.

With this daily recipe in hand, you have all you need to embark on the road to positive mental health. Start making the changes in small doses and, as the changes and positivity enter your life, you will become the change you want to see in yourself.

It’s important to not only improve but stay on top of your health. Check out our medical aid options and get in touch to find the option that’s best for you. We would love to hear from you so please share your thoughts and ideas on our social media platforms.

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