According to the World Health Organization (WHO) good mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes their full potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make meaningful contributions to their community.
In other words, mental wellness comes from feeling balanced, connected to others, and ready to meet life's challenges.
Mental health is much more than the absence of illness, rather it is a broad concept that applies to us all. For example, you can have poor mental health with or without a diagnosable illness. Similarly, you can have good mental health with or without a diagnosable condition.
It is helpful to think of mental health as a continuum, ranging from excellent mental health to severe symptoms. Where we are positioned on the continuum can vary day-to-day or even moment-to-moment, depending on internal and external influences.
It is important to remember that shifting from one end of the continuum to the other, or somewhere in between, does not signify personal achievement or shortcoming; it is a natural process we all go through at some point in life.
You may often hear me refer to mental wellness in the form of the popular cliché “it's a journey, not a destination” – this is because good mental health is a process that requires regular maintenance and depends upon several key ingredients.
Listed below are the 6 key ingredients I focus on with my clients in their journey towards mental wellness.
1. Restorative Sleep
Sleep and mental health are strongly linked and the evidence points to a bidirectional relationship. For instance, living with a mental health disorder can make it difficult to obtain a full 8-hours of uninterrupted sleep. On the other hand, poor sleep, including insomnia, can be a contributing factor to the start and worsening of mental health problems.
Everyone’s situation unique, so the ideal treatment for mental health and sleep problems depends on the individual. Treatment for one person may entail working with a trained medical doctor or psychiatrist to review the potential benefits and risks of different types of treatments, including prescription medications. Others may need to address their sleep hygiene.
Improving sleep hygiene by fostering sleep-friendly habits and creating a space that is conducive to sleep can go a long way in reducing sleep disruptions.
Strategies for improving sleep hygiene include:
Moving your body and getting plenty of fresh air and natural light exposure during the daytime.
Avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine in the evening.
Having a set bedtime (and sticking to it)
Establishing a wind-down routine, such as a soaking in a bath, going through the motions of a face-care regimen, meditation, journaling, reading, etc.
Dimming lights or turning on a lamp with soft lighting.
Putting away electronic devices for at least an hour before bed.
Maximizing comfort and support from your mattress, pillows, and bedding.
Blocking out light (sleep mask, blackout curtains, etc.) and sound (ear plugs, white noise app, etc.) that could disrupt sleep.
2. Self-care and Compassion
Self-care is a general term that encompasses everything you do intentionally for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. While this seems obvious to some people, many find it difficult to prioritize self-care and put their needs first. For some, self-care is even thought to be selfish or self-indulgent; however, this could not be further from the truth.
Self-care benefits both you and everyone around you. When you take the time to relax and recharge, you are refueling yourself with the energy and mindset you need to engage with life and interact with those around you.
Even if you think you are faring relatively well, prioritizing self-care is vital. Rather than waiting for red flags or a full-blown breakdown, you can show up for yourself in meaningful ways to sustain yourself in a world full of relentless pressures.
Self-care looks different from person to person, as we are all individuals with unique needs and preferences. Listen to your inner voice to find out what brings you peace and joy.
A few of my personal favorite self-care tactics include:
Setting goals and priorities - decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you feel like you’re taking on too much and retire tasks that no longer serve you in a positive way.
Communicating Boundaries - when you’re transparent about your boundaries, people will understand your limits and know what you are and aren’t OK with.
Mindset Shifting - identify and challenge your negative and unhelpful thoughts.
Expressing gratitude - remind yourself daily of things you are grateful for.
Taking quick breaks for a mental check-in – close your eyes (if you feel comfortable doing so) and breathe deeply. Scan your whole body, releasing tension as you find it. Check your posture and adjust as necessary.
Engaging in a relaxing activity - these activities may resemble those in your nighttime wind-down routine, such as meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises, as well as journaling or hobbies such as painting or reading.
Doing something you enjoy - treat yourself to a spa day, sit under a tree with your favorite book, visit your favorite café, go for a leisurely walk, sign up for a dance class, visit a DIY pottery shop, break out the paints and get creative or follow a long with a paint by number, bake cookies while listening to your favorite album, take a candle-lit bubble bath, or binge a Netflix series you’ve been meaning to get around to etc.
Mindfulness is a skill developed by deciding to slow down, pay attention, and be curious about things that we’re experiencing internally and externally. This practice is based on three concepts: attention, curiosity, and acceptance.
Attention means that we are aware of things in and around us, including internal thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, as well as things happening in our environment. Curiosity entails exploring without judgment. We observe thoughts, feelings, or sensations from a neutral perspective, examining different viewpoints so we can get a clearer picture of what’s going on within us. Finally, acceptance involves embracing the present moment as it is; the good, the bad, and the ugly, rather than resisting or avoiding it.
Mindfulness allows us to stand back and get a clear on the thoughts and feelings we experience. It enables us to understand our emotions better, cope better with difficult thoughts, feel calmer, boost our attention and concentration, and improve our relationships.
In practice, mindfulness can look like the following:
Eliminating distractions while eating a meal. Turn off the TV, step away from the computer, and put your phone away. Pay attention to what you’re eating, and the different sensations and feelings that arise.
Going for a walk and paying attention to your surroundings using all your senses.
Talking with a friend face-to-face without any distractions. Focus on the conversation and really listen without judgments or expectations.
Checking in with yourself at any time, such as between tasks at work, tidying up the kitchen, or preparing supper. What thoughts do you notice? How do they make you feel?
Listening to your favorite song, notice the different instruments, sounds, lyrics. How do these make you feel?
4. Social Connection
Our social connections include our friends, family, colleagues, and members of our community.
In today’s fast-paced society, trying to balance work, school, hobbies, self-care, etc. can be difficult, and our social connections tend to fall through the cracks. The reality is, human beings are social by nature and the connections we build with others are critical to our social, emotional, and physical health. For example, social connection has been linked to lower stress, anxiety, and depression, our ability to regulate emotions, higher self-esteem, and empathy, and gives one a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging.
It is truly ironic that we are living in a time of constant disconnection; while technological advances continue to provide us with endless ways to connect, the incresed screen-time disconnects us from nature, ourselves, and others. Wi-Fi alone is not enough to satisfy our social needs – we require face-to-face interaction to thrive.
Establishing a connection with those around you can look different for each person, and if you’re not sure where to start, that’s okay.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Join a new club or try out a group activity.
Schedule a date night with your significant other
Reach out to an old friend you’ve lost touch with.
Volunteer for a cause you care about.
Eat lunch in a communal space.
Introduce yourself to your neighbours.
Ask someone for help when you need it.
Do a random act of kindness.
Nutritional psychiatry is an evolving area of research that examines the relationship between nutrition and the development and treatment of mental health conditions.
There are several theories on how the foods we eat may influence our mental health. Some scientists believe that the inflammatory effects of certain dietary patterns might help explain the relationship between diet and mental health. Others are pointing towards the impact that food has on the bacteria in our gut, and how this influences the communication along the gut-brain axis.
Interestingly, the relationship between food and mental health has been explained as bi-directional. Just as the food we eat can impact on how we feel, how we feel can also influence our food choices. For example, when we feel depressed or anxious, our appetite is typically lowered, and our food consumption goes down. In this state, it is also common to feel fatigued and less motivated to prepare a meal, so when we do eat, we are likely to make poor food choices, such as gravitating towards convenience foods, take-out meals, and stimulants (such as sugar and caffeine). These poor food choices tend to be less nutrient dense and can make us feel less than optimal, and so the vicious cycle continues.
Although there is no single almighty brain food that can ensure optimal brain functioning, researchers are showing that focusing on healthy eating patterns, may slow cognitive decline and nurture good mental health.
These healthy eating patterns include:
Eating regularly throughout the day.
Eating the right balance of unsaturated fats.
Including more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, in your diet.
Adding protein to each meal.
Tending to your gut health.
Being mindful of caffeine and alcohol consumption.
7. Joyful Movement
Have you ever noticed that after going for a brisk walk or participating in your favorite exercise routine, you feel happier and more energized? Those positive feelings you are experiencing are all thanks to the feel-good endorphins that are released when you get your heart rate up.
Unfortunately, when you have depression or anxiety, exercise is often the last thing you want to do. However, once motivated, exercise can make a significant difference.
Among many other health benefits, research has shown that regular exercise can help you enhance your mood and energy levels, improve concentration and productivity, gain self-confidence, get more social interaction, get better-quality sleep, and make you more resilient to life’s stressors.
Beginning and maintaining an exercise routine can be challenging, but there are a few approaches that can really help. First and foremost, it is important to identify a form of movement that you enjoy doing. Think about out what type of activities you are most likely to do and when and how often you will be able to do them. For instance, would you rather garden in the evening, start your day with a jog, or go for a bike ride at lunch hour? Exercise should not feel like a chore or something that you “should” or “have” to do, rather it should be a form of movement that brings you joy and makes you feel alive.
It is also important to consider setting reasonable goals. Think realistically about what activity will work for you and your lifestyle and begin gradually. Modify your plan to your unique needs and abilities as you progress rather than setting unrealistic targets that you are unlikely to meet. In line with setting reasonable goals, it is also necessary to consider potential barriers. Think about what is preventing you from being physically active or exercising and seek an alternative solution. For instance, if you feel self-conscious you may want to start your new routine at home. If finances are tight, do something that's cost-free, such as regular walking, or body-weight exercises.
Remember to give yourself credit and celebrate every milestone, no matter how small. If you skip exercise one day, that doesn't mean you can't maintain an exercise routine or that you have failed; it means you are human. Accept it for what is and try again tomorrow.
Perhaps fitting activity into your already hectic schedule might seem impossible, but there are little actions you can take everyday that can make a big difference, such as:
Taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
Getting off the bus a stop or two earlier and walking to your destination.
Accompanying a friend who is walking their dog.
Bringing sneakers to work and going for a walk during your lunch break.
Going swimming or playing in the snow with the kids.
Starting to cycle to work.
Attending an exercise class.
Signing-up for dance class.
In summary, mental health is much more than the absence of illness, rather, it is a broad concept that. It is helpful think of mental health as a continuum ranging from excellent mental health to severe symptoms This continuum is in constant flux and is influenced by internal and external factors. Achieving excellent mental health is not just a definite outcome; it is a process that requires regular maintenance and depends on several key ingredients. These key ingredients include restorative sleep, self-care, mindfulness, social connection, nourishment, and joyful movement.
At The Daily Grind Nutrition, these 6 ingredients are woven into the approach I take to guide clients on their journey towards mental wellness. To learn more about my philosophy of care and my customized care plans for women living with anxiety and depression, send me an email or book a free 20-minute discovery session.