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Lifestyle factors such as exercise, diet, and self-care can play an important role in the development or prevention of mental illness. Therefore, it is important to understand how these things can affect and improve mental health.

Sports Equipment on white background

Sports and Mental Health

The following developments relate to regular exercise:

  • Better cardiovascular health
  • Stronger muscles and bones
  • Improved mood
  • Improved brain function
  • Decreased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Lower risk of mental illness

These results are due to the fact that exercise can increase the brain’s receptivity to positive mood hormones. These hormones include serotonin, which can increase happiness and reduce stress, and endorphins, which reduce pain and increase happiness.

Exercise can include walking, running, cycling, or swimming. It is recommended to exercise for about 30 minutes a day. Busy people may be helped by doing this exercise in their daily routine, such as walking to public transport or cycling to school. If you’re feeling too nervous or embarrassed to exercise, inviting a family member or close friend to exercise together can help you feel more comfortable and supported through the process.

Diet and Mental Health

The link between diet and mental health may not seem surprising, but there is a growing body of scientific literature discussing the network between the gut and brain, and finding important links between our diet, gut health, and our brains.

The benefits of healthy eating include:

  • Energy boost
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Reduced risk of depression
  • Reduce symptoms of depression

Eating unhealthy foods can be a coping strategy that people use to relieve stress. Foods high in saturated fat and sugar interact with dopamine in a similar way to other addictive substances, meaning these bad habits can be difficult to break. The negative effects of an unhealthy diet can add to existing mental health problems or can play a role in developing mental health illnesses. It is usually recommended that you regularly consume a mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes to reduce your intake of processed foods and red meat.

Self-care and Mental Health

Self care is something that is important and unique for everyone. In general, self-care refers to the act of taking care of and maintaining one’s physical and mental health.

There are many different ways you can practice self-care, depending on the individual’s needs and interests. Whatever the activity, it is important to practice self-care as it can build the ability to manage stress and increase endurance.

Examples of self-care include:

  • Sports
  • Enough sleep
  • Nurturing and maintaining personal relationships
  • Train concentration
  • Spend time doing fun activities, such as reading a book in bed, listening to music, or cooking.

What is Stress?

Stress refers to the disruption of the body’s natural rhythm. This usually occurs in response to positive or negative environmental changes that a person feels is beyond their control.

Everyone will experience stress throughout their life, but at a certain level stress can be dangerous if not handled properly.

How does stress work?

Physiological changes occur when a person is faced with a stressors, namely feeling a challenge or a dangerous situation. In particular, our ‘fight or flight instinct’ is activated, preparing us for the threat. These changes may include:

  • Changes in blood flow
  • Increased heart rate
  • Breathe faster
  • Muscles tighten
  • Increased blood pressure

Although in short-term stress these changes can help us cope with stress, long-term stress can negatively affect the body and mind.

Types of stress

Acute stress

This is the most common form of stress. This stress arises from the pressure that is felt or has just been experienced. This stress is usually relatively short-lived and has limited long-term effects on mental and physical health. Common examples include being late for work, being in a car accident, or speaking in public.

Episodic acute stress

Episodic acute stress occurs when a person experiences acute stress frequently. Individuals who are prone to this type of stress can be categorized into two groups, namely:

  • Individuals with a stressful lifestyle
  • Individuals experiencing anxiety

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is caused by stressful situations that occur continuously or from the perception that certain environments pose a threat. Chronic stress can be internalized, which means a person can learn how to live in it and may slowly forget that this stress exists.

The result of stress

The consequences of long-term stress include:

Increased symptoms of depression, major depressive disorder, drug abuse, and alcohol dependence.
Health problems such as:
• Headache
• Heart disease
• High blood pressure
• Muscle ache
• Stomach ache
• Digestive problems
• Disturbed sleep

Remember that stress in the short term can sometimes be beneficial and useful to some extent. However, it will be dangerous for health if not managed properly.

How to Manage Stress

Learning to manage stress is important so that stress doesn’t become overwhelming and debilitating. This management takes practice.

Here are a few things you can do to get started.

  • Relaxation techniques
  • Identify the causes of stress in your life
  • Lifestyle changes:
    • Enough sleep
    • Sports
    • Avoid or reduce consumption of caffeine, sugar, alcohol, drugs, and nicotine
    Time management

Occasional sleep deprivation may be unavoidable due to busy lifestyles, but getting enough sleep should still be a priority as it can make a huge difference to our overall mental health.

Why is sleep important for your mental health?

Good sleep depends not only on the number of hours of sleep you get but also on the quality. There are two basic types of sleep, both important for mental and physical health:

  • Sleeping with non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) or chicken sleep: improves immune system function.
  • Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep: when dreaming, influences on learning and memory consolidation also contribute to emotional health.

Lack of sleep and its consequences on the psychological state

Lack of quality sleep can directly affect our mood and body. For example, it can cause negative psychological effects such as poor concentration and irritability, making us feel sad, angry, or stressed out more than usual.

Long-term sleep problems can also worsen mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety—it was found to outweigh depression 69% of the time and anxiety 27% of the time. Because sleep deprivation increases the chances of individuals experiencing intense negative thoughts or feelings of emotional vulnerability.

Long-term sleep deprivation can also exacerbate ADHD, mania, and psychosis and increase feelings of guilt, aggressive behavior, and engaging in harmful activities—all of which are detrimental to an individual’s mental health.

How much sleep is enough?

The recommended amount of sleep for most adults is 7 to 9 hours per day, while children and teens under 18 need between 10 and 13 hours per day. However, it can sometimes vary depending on genetics and medical conditions. Too much sleep should also be avoided as it can produce a feeling of sleepiness the next day.

Tips for healthy sleep

  • Maintain a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Listen to relaxing music or meditate before bed. Apps like Headspace and Smiling Mind provide relaxing music and guided meditation sessions.
  • Creates a comfortable environment with ideal conditions for sleeping – a quiet, cool (18-21 degrees Celsius) and dark bedroom.
  • Avoid or minimize the use of stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine after 4pm.
  • Avoid using electronic devices one hour before bedtime.
  • Avoid sleeping during the day.
  • Exercise can also increase the likelihood of falling asleep faster at night, if done an hour or more before bedtime.

When to seek professional help regarding sleep patterns?

If you’ve tried all of the tips above and are still having trouble sleeping, you may be having a more serious problem. In such cases, it would be beneficial to consult a medical expert.

Some signs of sleep problems include insomnia, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep that lasts for at least a month, not feeling well rested despite getting a full night’s sleep, and/or impaired ability to perform certain tasks throughout the day.