Zones of Mental Health
*As featured in the British Naturopathic Association e-zine NATURA Autumn/ Winter 2020
The challenges of 2020 have thrust in the importance of mental health into our collective awareness. While we all face obstacles in life that we cannot control or change, there are countless things that you can do to protect and improve the state of your mental health. Over decades, researchers have allowed us to learn a lot about the components of human resilience, happiness, personal empowerment, and longevity.
To simplify the many complex approaches, I divide the mental health therapies into three zones with consideration for people’s varying access to resources: tools you already have, external support within reach, and treatment that you invest in.
INTERNAL TOOLS: Just by being human, we are born with powerful internal mechanisms for healing and balance that often just need some focused attention. Working on these things alone can improve or eliminate symptoms.
Get adequate rest. Give yourself recovery time after stressful activity. Set a consistent sleep and wake time. Soak up some light in the morning and darken your home after dinner. Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bed and plan 1-2 hours of screen-free time before bed. Make sure your sleep environment is dark, quiet, and cool.
Move your body. There is overwhelming evidence on the connection between movement and mental health. Traditional forms of exercise, like playing sports, running, cycling, weight lifting are fine but you can also walk more, do yoga, take the stairs, clean your home, garden, or dance. Get your blood moving and heart rate up any way you can to boost your endorphins, happy neurotransmitters, and ability to focus.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is available to everyone everywhere. Mindfulness is not meditation; it is an attitude, a way of living. It is a foundation for meditation. Focusing your attention will take practice, but it is rewarding. You are less likely to become overwhelmed by your task and your environment. You'll self-regulate better. You'll feel less stressed, less detached, and more steady.Notice when distractions arise and return your attention to the present moment. Try not to rush and let thing happen in their own time. Check out the many free mindfulness, mediation, and breathing exercise apps to help you learn.
Cultivate joy. Make intentional efforts to create joy. Watch comedies, listen to your favorite music, cook, bake, spend time on a hobby, clean or organize your home if that’s your thing. The hormones associated with feeling happy have a positive effect on our other hormones, our immune systems, even our digestive systems! Whatever they are, the things that make you happy matter. Do more of them.
Tap into meaning. Happiness and joy are important but momentary. A sense of meaning and purpose lives within you as part of who you are and what you think is worth doing. Ask yourself what things are important to you, what motivates, inspires you, lights that internal spark. Ask yourself how much you are involved with these things and why. Really knowing these things helps you make choices and gives you a sense of direction. The sense of internal meaning helps balance and protect us from toxic stress.
EXTERNAL SUPPORT: Outside your door, there are tools and supports that can transform your life with their presence.
Diet and nutrition. The materials we give our body to work with are a key foundation of physical and mental health. In this department, what we do is just as important as what we don’t do. Get as close to a Mediterranean style diet as you can- one where meals are built around plant-based food, with small amounts of lean meat/fish, whole grains, and healthy fats from nuts and olive oil. It is strongly associated with several measures of physical health, mental health, mental clarity, and memory. Artificial food coloring, processed sugar, and food preservatives can actively disrupt your mental health and clarity and should be kept to a minimum. Choose foods that could be found in nature whenever possible.
Relationships. Healthy, supportive relationships help protect us from stress. This includes your choice of friends, intimate partners, and family and community ties. Humans are happier, healthier, and live longer when they have valued connections with others. We need to interact and feel seen. If you don’t feel close to friends or family, consider joining a club, church or other spiritual group, or volunteering.
Education. Learning more about ourselves and our interests is empowering. If you are struggling with a mental health condition, read up on it, check out support groups, or listen to podcasts. Follow therapists for free on social media. Understanding your own situation is key to addressing it and not feeling powerless against it. Additionally, furthering your education in an area you are interested in has also been shown to assist mental health by feeding your sense of meaning.
Return to nature. Time spent outdoors in nature is healing to our minds, our nervous systems, and our hormones, so take the time to go to a park, mountain, or body of water. Both “green spaces” with plants, trees, and grass and “blue spaces” like lakes and oceans have been shown to have benefits. Even just looking at pictures can help, so watch a nature documentary or choose some favorite nature photographs to access when you’re feeling stressed.
TREATMENT INVESTMENTS: If you have the ability to spend money on mental health treatments, then make these things a priority.
See a mental health professional. Anyone can benefit from therapy and if you’re struggling with mental health, you can benefit even more. There are several well-researched therapeutic techniques like EMDR, cognitive behavioral therapy, and interpersonal therapy to help people address anxiety, depression, trauma, and eating disorders among other things.
Get some bodywork. Acupuncture and various types of massage can help strengthen our calming neurotransmitter pathways to help people with depression and anxiety. Sometimes this approach is challenging for folks with trauma, so don’t force it if it doesn’t appeal to you. The human touch and connection that comes with getting your hair done or a manicure/pedicure can be enough to have a therapeutic effect.
See an Integrative/Naturopathic practitioner. Our uniqueness is that our therapies often address both the physiological and emotional aspects of mental health concerns. While it is ideal to have a professional custom design your treatment, there are many things available over-the-counter that you can implement on your own.
Both Kava kava and Passiflora are powerful herbs to calm the mind, assist with sleep, and decrease anxiety. Lemon balm, rhodiola, and ginseng can be helpful for lifting the spirits and helping fatigue. Omega-3 oils from fish or flax seed will feed and nourish your nervous system while magnesium is the best nutrient all around for stress, tension, sleep, and energy.