Best mental health activities with Nawal Mustafa
These daily mental health activities set a foundation for better mental health, both today and for the future.
Neuropsychologist and social media influencer Nawal Mustafa, M.A., who you might recognize from her popular Instagram account @thebraincoach, regularly shares strategies and activities for mental health to her nearly 600,000 followers.
We recently invited Mustafa onto the Braincare podcast. In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, Mustafa shared brain games and activities to improve mental health that can help turn the tide if you notice anxiety and stress rising.
Mental health decline: symptoms that tell you it’s time for mental health activities and braincare games
The goal of mental health activities is twofold: to strengthen your mental health so that you’re more resilient to the worries and stressors of life, and to boost your mental health when it’s beginning to decline.
Mental health is basically how we perceive the world [and] how we perceive ourselves, and that shows up in literally everything that we do,
explains Mustafa. “Focusing on our mental health [and] checking in on ourselves allows us to function at our best.”
Unfortunately, many of us move through our day and our lives without checking in on ourselves and being self-aware of our mental state. But if you want to show up and bring your best self to life, to work, and to your relationships, you need to be aware of when your mental health is under pressure or in a downward spiral.
“There are a few things that we can notice,” says Mustafa. Examples include:
Your self-talk: are you constantly belittling yourself or criticizing yourself?
Your energy levels: are you giving yourself space to rest, or are you constantly overworking yourself?
Your social connections: are you feeling well-connected to those around you, and supported by your peers? Or are you feeling alone and increasingly isolated?
Your mood: feeling highly emotional or irritable is often a sign that you need to practice more self-care.
Your routine: changes in sleep patterns and appetite are clues that something is wrong.
If any of the above feels familiar to you, or if you want to optimize your mental health and proactively avoid declining mental wellness, Mustafa suggests several specific approaches.
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5 mental health activities for enhanced mental health
1. Daily physical exercise
“First and foremost is moving our bodies,” says Mustafa. So, what physical activities are good for mental health? You don’t need to be a gym rat though, try these ideas instead:
Go for a walk around the block
Enjoy a jog in the park
Do stretches at home
Try chair yoga in the office
Watch a video tutorial for a home workout
Have your own dance party in the kitchen
To improve poor mental health or protect against deteriorating mental health, the Anxiety & Depression Association of America suggests 30 minutes of exercise five times a week. But even a little is better than nothing. "About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects," reports the association.
Journalling your thoughts is “very valuable,” according to Mustafa, because it creates opportunities for you to process your emotions and feelings and practice a bit of introspection and self-awareness.
Sometimes, we get in autopilot mode and we just keep going on in our lives without really checking in on ourselves, and journalling allows us the space to do exactly that.
“[Try] guided journalling prompts and reiterate the answers out loud to yourself,” Mustafa suggests. “You can ask yourself, ‘How have I been feeling lately?’ Or, ‘What about my life or circumstances is making me feel this way? What are some changes I can make in my life to minimize this feeling?’”
Write down, or simply contemplate, three things that you’re grateful for. Mustafa points out that she likes to do this at the end of her day, to reflect on the things in her life that brought her a sense of gratitude.
“I've done that consistently for about four years now, every single day, and it makes such a difference,” says Mustafa. ”The practice of gratitude is so important. It makes us see the world in a different light.”
According to the University of California's Greater Good Science Center, gratitude literally changes your brain for the better. In one study, the centre divided study participants into three groups. All three groups received counselling from a therapist, but there were also additional changes for each group:
One group wrote a letter of gratitude every week
One group did nothing extra
One group wrote about their thoughts and feelings about a negative experience
“Compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counselling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended,” concluded the centre. “This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns.”
4. Brain games
Brain activities that encourage you to think hard, and explore a situation critically, enhance your cognitive capacity and strengthen your brain's resilience to stressful situations that may sabotage your mental health.
Mustafa suggests finding mental health games and activities that require a lot of thinking and creativity, and that you find pleasurable.
“It’s called behavioural activation, which is an effective treatment for depression,” explains Mustafa. “It relies on the interplay between activation and environmental reward. [...] When people start to intentionally engage in activities that they enjoy, they start to notice the connection between what they do and how they feel. And that was important for our brains more than anything else, to enhance cognitive functioning.”
5. Changing your diet
They say you are what you eat, so one of the best activities for mental health is checking in on your diet!
What foods are good for mental health?
Good foods for mental health are those that include omega 3 fatty acids. Try oily foods such as salmon, or nuts, seeds and legumes (beans).
What foods help anxiety and depression?
Foods that help anxiety and depression are rich in natural minerals such as magnesium and zinc. Add more green vegetables to your diet such as spinach, and consider whole grains. You can also find zinc in many meats such as beef and liver, or cashew nuts.
What foods should be avoided for mental health?
You should avoid processed foods if you’re looking for ways to improve your mental health. Turn away from sweets, refined cereals, pastries and high-fat dairy. Instead, have a diet rich in fibre and green vegetables.
Listen to Mustafa’s complete interview on brain games and mental health activities
The above are quick excerpts from Mustafa’s eye-opening interview on the Braincare podcast.
Listen to Mustafa’s full explanation about proactive mental health care and self-awareness in her complete Braincare podcast episode, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else you stream your favourite podcasts.