5 ways to improve your mental health
Depression? Anxiety? Stress? Try these 5 ways to improve your mental health with neuropsychologist Nawal Mustafa.
Every week, the Heights team invites the world's leading scientists and experts on brain health, wellness, and psychology onto our Braincare podcast. In a recent episode, we chatted with neuropsychologist Nawal Mustafa, M.A..
You might recognise Mustafa from her popular Instagram account @thebraincoach, where the Canadian-Pakistani scientist raises awareness about the importance of mental health to her nearly 600,000 followers. It’s a topic that’s never been more timely, with one in six British people experiencing some sort of common mental health problem (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.) every week.
Today, Mustafa shares five affordable and practical ways to improve your mental health.
Redefining the term “therapy”
When you think about therapy and mental health, you likely envision psychotherapy where you schedule time with a counsellor, social worker, psychologist, or similar professional to talk through your problems. All forms of psychotherapy are highly effective, and you should always discuss your concerns with a professional when facing serious mental health worries.
However, for the everyday person struggling with occasional bouts of high stress, anxiety, and other mood disturbances, Mustafa encourages us all to rethink our daily routine and consider ways to weave daily self-therapy into our habits.
Therapy means doing anything that allows you to get more clarity and understanding of your own mental health.
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Self-therapy: 5 ways to improve your mental health
Throughout Mustafa’s episode on the Braincare podcast, the mental health educator outlines ten actionable ideas. We’ve outlined five highlights below, and invite you to listen to the full Braincare podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else you stream your favourite podcasts.
1. Seek social connection
Social isolation and loneliness is a worldwide epidemic, with countries like Greece, Italy and Australia leading the way. A recent study published in the International Psychogeriatrics shows that our loneliness problem was considerably exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet social connection is a core psychological need for us as a species, and lack of it is associated with deteriorating mental health. “Connection is very, very important… and research shows it helps with our mental wellness,” says Mustafa.
She admits that it’s been tough for people to stay connected with others during the pandemic, but she encourages everyone to get creative:
If you live in an area where there are still restrictions on events and gatherings, you can still go beyond phone calls and try virtual game nights or remotely watching a movie or TV show together (for example, browser plug-ins like Teleparty let people watch the same Netflix show together in their own private chat room).
Send an old-fashioned written letter or postcard.
Fire off a text, even if it’s a simple, “I’m thinking of you right now.”
2. Get more sleep
Just one night of poor sleep can sabotage your mental health and lead to moodiness and irritability, warns the NHS, and several nights of short sleep can cause long-term mood disorders like anxiety.
"When people with anxiety or depression were surveyed to calculate their sleeping habits, it turned out that most of them slept for less than 6 hours a night," adds the British health authority.
Mustafa agrees. “Sleep is important for a number of reasons, especially when it comes to our brain function,” she explains. “It allows our nerve cells to communicate with each other. It [also] plays a… housekeeping role for us, so it removes toxins in our brain and allows us to… recuperate overnight.”
Both the NHS and Mustafa suggest striving for approximately eight hours of shut-eye a night. If you have trouble sleeping, try:
Keeping your room cool and dark.
Lowering the temperature.
Running a sound machine or a fan, or wearing earplugs.
Keeping bright lights, including the light from your smartphone, out of the bedroom in the evening.
3. Eat a healthy diet
At Heights, we’ve seen the significant impact that nutrition has on the brain. That’s why we developed the Smart Supplement, which provides all of the vitamins, minerals and nutritional support you need for a healthy brain and better mental health.
“Our brain functions best when it gets nutrient-dense foods, so eating high-quality foods that contain a lot of vitamins, minerals, [and] antioxidants… nourish the brain… and protect from oxidative stress,” says Mustafa.
Mustafa recommends the Mediterranean diet for optimal braincare (or the MIND Diet), but a nutritional survey at Heights found that many of our everyday diets don’t meet the nutritional needs of our brains.
4. Move your body more, and sweat a little more
“Another thing that helps improve mental wellness is exercise,” says Mustafa. For example, one study found that regular physical activity had significant antidepressant effects on the brain.
“Exercise is something that stimulates the brain’s plasticity,” says Mustafa. “It allows us to grow new connections between cells. It's really important for the cortical areas of our brain. Also, it boosts your mood.”
The mental health-enhancing effects of exercise happen quickly. In fact, the American Psychological Association reports that many people feel happier and more balanced within just five minutes of working out.
5. Get more sunshine
“[Sunshine exposure is] definitely also very helpful in our mental well-being,” explains Mustafa. “Sunlight triggers the release of serotonin in the brain. And this is a hormone that's associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused. Without enough sun exposure, serotonin levels can dip. And if that happens, you might notice a significant change in your mood.”
Sunlight also carries additional mental health benefits. For example, your body converts the sun’s ultraviolet rays into vitamin D, and higher vitamin D levels are associated with lower risks of depression. The sun also helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, potentially enhancing your sleep quality and sleep duration over time (boosting your mental health even further).
Five more ways to improve mental health
In summary, Mustafa recommends that we:
Invest in our social connections and relationships
Get more sleep
Eat a healthy diet
Enjoy the sunshine
Each of the above strategies is affordable and easy to incorporate into your day. But they aren’t the only tips that Mustafa has for improving your mental health. In all, Mustafa outlines a total of 10 easy tips and tricks to support your mental wellness.