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Monday, 5 September 2022

Tips to improve your mental health

Mental health is at the centre of everything – our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing.

If it’s so important, why is it that mental health often takes a backseat in our daily lives? This question goes far beyond what can be covered in one blog post, but a key reason is that mental illness still has a stigma attached to it, which makes it a taboo topic in many cultures. Another reason is that unlike a physical illness, which separates a person from the illness, mental illness involves the mind – which we inherently link with someone's direct character.

What is mental health?

Beyond Blue defines mental health as a state of wellbeing where individuals can cope with the normal stresses of life and contribute to their community.

Each year, 20% of Australians aged 16 to 85 experience a mental health illness. To put that in perspective, count five people around you – one of them will experience a mental illness. This can include anxiety, depression and substance use disorder. 1

Today, we’ll look at simple steps that you can incorporate into your daily routine to increase your overall wellbeing.

Get moving

Exercise has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. This is due to the increase in blood circulation to the brain, which influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls our response to stress. 2

Above all else, daily exercise can provide us with a sense of achievement and increase our self-esteem. Have you heard of runner’s high? It refers to endorphins, the chemicals released during exercise. Endorphins directly affect our pain management by blocking pain receptors. 3

Spend time in nature

It’s common for our mood to improve throughout spring and summer. Why? A 2010 study5 revealed that both light therapy and vitamin D can decrease depression, so it’s no wonder that we feel happier when we’re outside in the sunshine (just remember to slip, slop, slap).

Moving from sunshine to nature, a 2015 study revealed that when shown images of open green spaces compared to images of buildings, our brain reacts in a positive way leading to a stronger recovery4. Now, what if instead of just looking at open green spaces we went one step further and ‘bathed’ in them? Turns out, there’s a term for that! Shinrin-yoku, which literally translates to ‘forest bath’, is a Japanese practice of immersing oneself in nature to take in its therapeutic benefits. Shinrin-yoku can relax the mind by reducing salivary cortisol, which helps the body manage stress.

Now, we may not always have time to bathe in a green forest or go on a coastal hike. If this is the case, why not try a spot of gardening? Gardening is believed to have a positive effect on our mental wellbeing as it combines all of the above – exercising, being in nature and exposure to sunlight.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing can work as a preventative tool and a coping mechanism during stressful times. Otherwise known as belly-breathing, it’s a deeper kind of breath where you pull your diaphragm down with each inward breath. There are studies that prove diaphragmatic breathing can help lower cortisol levels, which relaxes the body and mind. 7

This sounds simple enough, but sometimes the simple things are fast forgotten. Introducing a new practice, such as diaphragmatic breathing, into your existing routine is the easiest way to turn it into a habit. Before brushing your teeth, as you’re styling your hair, while you’re fixing your morning cup of coffee.

Breathing techniques are just one way of the many ways to reduce stress and improve your overall wellbeing.

Eat well

Did you know that gut health is directly linked to our brain, which affects our mental health? This is called the gut-brain axis, with gut inflammation being linked to an increase in anxiety and depression. Having balanced gut health can help to restore our gut microbiota which in turn helps to prevent anxiety and depression.8

For prime gut and brain health, Sophie Scott, Nutritionist and Digital Learning Specialist at Endeavour, recommends cutting back on processed/sugary foods and incorporating probiotics and prebiotics into your diet.

Probiotics are live bacteria that increase good bacteria in your digestive system. You can find probiotics in fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, yoghurt, and certain drinks like kombucha and kefir.

Prebiotics are plant fibres that feed good bacteria (probiotics). Prebiotics can be found in fibre-rich foods including legumes, fruits and vegetables.

“Good gut health has been linked to improved immunity and a lower risk of obesity and depression. Add these mood-boosting foods to your day: salmon, sardines, spinach, walnuts, olive oil, wholegrain crackers (I like Dr Karg’s). Research indicates that eating a diet closer to the Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of developing depression,” said Sophie.

If you have a diagnosed gut condition, such as IBS or Ulcerative Colitis, a low FODMAP diet might be worth looking into. For this and all other health concerns, always consult a professional before making significant changes to your diet.

Get your eight hours

Good quality sleep is important for cognitive function and mental wellbeing. It’s something that many of us don’t get enough of, but never fear! There are triggers that can disrupt our sleep cycle, take a look at some of them below and try to identify which ones might apply to you.

  • Screens: Avoid staring at screens before bed, because the blue light they emit can shift circadian rhythm and disrupt our sleep. 9
  • Caffeine: Some people can drink coffee at night and still fall fast asleep, others aren’t so lucky. If you’re in the latter group, make your lunchtime cup your last.
  • Winding down: Give yourself proper time to relax and unwind before going to sleep. Heading to bed an hour or two earlier than usual will give your mind time to slow down from the day's thoughts and activities.

Taking care of your mental health is so important, but something that’s just as important is knowing that you’re not alone. If you’re feeling down or struggling with your mental health, don’t bottle it up! There are people who want to listen to you and try to help. Take a look at just some of the resources available below and connect via online chat, email, or phone.

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Headspace: 1800 650 890

Mensline: 1300 78 99 78

References

  1. Facts & figures about mental health. Black Dog Institute [online], accessed 1 October 2020

https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/1-facts_figures.pdf

  1. Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health.

Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106. [online], accessed 1 October 2020

https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a

  1. Chaudhry SR, Gossman W. Biochemistry, Endorphin. [Updated 2020 Aug 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. [online], accessed 1 October 2020 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470306/
  2. Penckofer, S., Kouba, J., Byrn, M., & Estwing Ferrans, C. (2010). Vitamin D and depression: where is all the sunshine?. Issues in mental health nursing, 31(6), 385–393. [online], accessed 1 October 2020

https://doi.org/10.3109/01612840903437657

  1. Rowe, K (2019). Ease occasional anxiety and improve your mood with vitamin D. Brain MD [online], accessed 1 October 2020

https://brainmd.com/blog/ease-anxiety-with-vitamin-d/#:~:text=When%20it%20comes%20to%20mood,as%20compared%20to%20other%20options.

  1. Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Hirano, H., Kagawa, T., Sato, M., & Miyazaki, Y. (2007). Physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the atmosphere of the forest)–using salivary cortisol and cerebral activity as indicators. Journal of physiological anthropology, 26(2), 123–128. [online], accessed 1 October 2020

https://doi.org/10.2114/jpa2.26.123

  1. Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874. [online], accessed 1 October 2020
    https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
  2. Clapp, M., Aurora, N., Herrera, L., Bhatia, M., Wilen, E., & Wakefield, S. (2017). Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clinics and practice, 7(4), 987.[online] accessed 1 October 2020

https://doi.org/10.4081/cp.2017.987

  1. Author unknown (2012). Blue light has a dark side – Harvard health publishing [online], accessed 1 October 2020

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side

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