Things you can do to improve your mental health
Mind your diet
2020 was a hell of a year for a lot of people. It was a year that will be remembered in history as the year that turned the world upside down. Not surprising, the lack of socializing, the daily uncertainty about the future, topped by the risk of getting sick with a little known and potentially deadly disease caused a rise in depression and anxiety all over the globe. I was one of the people whose mental health was not impacted negatively, so I thought I’d share some of the mechanisms I put in place during the years to help me deal with stressful situations.
I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. When I was younger, depression was worse than anxiety, but as time passed, anxiety got more serious, and now I’m dealing with mild anxiety every once in a while (especially if I drink too much coffee). I never sought professional help, because I could never afford it, as therapy was never covered by my medical insurance. So I was left to find ways to deal with these conditions on my own*.
This is a list of coping mechanisms that I put in place in the past 10 years to help me keep my mental health in check.
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This was the first thing I discovered that worked on improving my depression. Any form of exercise will do, from walking, to jogging, doing yoga, etc. Why I think it works is because exercise forces you to be present in the moment. It shifts your focus from your mind to your body, so your mind gets a break. When I was running, I was too busy looking at my stats and trying to improve them to think about anything else. In time, I learnt that “when the body aches, the mind is free”, so I now take healthy doses of muscle ache every other day to keep my mind free from worry.
I recently read a book called “Reasons to Stay Alive”, by Matt Haig. It’s a good book for when you want to feel less alone in dealing with depression and anxiety. The author says about anxiety: “Anxiety runs your mind at fast forward rather than normal play speed, so addressing that issue of mental pace might not be easy. But it works. Anxiety takes away all the commas and full stops we need to make sense of ourselves.”
How you can do that:
- Reduce time spent on social-media. Social media platforms are places where information of any kind is pushed to us. This can have a detrimental effect especially on anxiety symptoms, as your brain is bombarded with information that it wants to process but doesn’t necessarily need to.
- Read. Replace social media with reading. Not only will you learn something new, but it will relax you. If you do this in the evening, it can improve your sleep and actually make you smarter.
- Find some hobbies. Doing something that you like can boost your morale and improve your well-being. I love to bake. Some people like to draw, 3D print, write, sew, garden, paint and so on. The list is long. Just try new things until something clicks with you. And no, you don’t have to spend $100 on supplies to discover if you like something.
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What do you think mediation, yoga and exercise have in common?
At their core, they are all about breathing. If you want to exercise effectively, you need to make sure you “open up your lungs” and breathe rhythmically. Yoga postures are all about expanding and contracting your muscles while inhaling and exhaling. Mediation makes you focus on your breathing before anything else.
So it turns out we can use only breathing to reduce stress and anxiety. The most famous breathing method that took the Western world by storm is the Wim Hof Method (WHM). The WHM uses a combination of breathing exercises and exposure to cold to strengthen your immune system and act on your nervous system’s response to pain.
The WHM practitioners all boast an improvement of a long list of ailments, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, stress, IBS, insomnia, and many other chronic afflictions.
Scott Carney was among the skeptics when it came to Wim Hof and his unusual practice, so he enrolled in one of his programs to out him as a con, but ended up climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 3 days in What Doesn’t Kill Us.
Mind your diet
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You may not be aware of this, but your diet can have a huge impact on your mood and on a bigger scale, on your mental health. Actually, there is a whole field that aims to study the effects of diet on our mental health, called nutritional psychiatry.
The core idea behind it is that certain bacteria in our gastro-intestinal tract influence neurotransmitter production. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that carry messages from your gut to your brain, like dopamine and serotonin. There are studies that have found that certain diet changes had a sustained positive impact on patients’ mental health.
I am vegetarian and try to eat as wholesome as I can, so this means cooking my own meals. I like cooking because I can make my food taste exactly as I want, plus I always find take out to be too rich for me. I think that once you start doing it, cooking at home can become easy, and it can be a lot of fun.
Go in nature
Nature is known to reduce stress, and now we have scientific evidence that proves it. This goes hand in hand with walking, but it’s more than that. Seeing natural scenery has an even bigger boost on your well-being than a walk in a park. If you can take a one-day hike somewhere, it will help you a great deal. Immersing one self in nature brings out the sense of wonder and exploration that we all have inside us, but we rarely use in our day to day lives. The sensory stimulation we get from nature (seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing) has a beneficial effect of getting us out of our minds and into our bodies.
Needless to say, don’t go hiking alone (if you can) and make sure you take safety precautions, like dressing in appropriate clothes, packing essential survival tools and making sure you take a path suitable for your hiking experience.
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Helping others forces us to get out of our minds and makes us feel good. For example, did you know that there is an initiative called “Share Ami” that connects isolated elderly French people with French learners? There is also an initiative in the UK, Age UK that offers a series of services for the elderly, among which connecting them to a “phone friend”, who is a volunteer available to have a phone conversation every week (or when the need arises).
There are such initiatives in every community, from working at animal shelters to delivering food to elderly people, working at a soup kitchen, and so on.
If you can afford it, try a psylocibin retreat
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Psylocibin, the active substance in “magic (mu)shrooms ” is at the focus of promising clinical trials to treat anxiety, depression and addiction (among other mental afflictions). Michael Pollan documented the history of this controversial substance (and other “mind-altering” chemicals) and even tried it for himself in his book How to Change Your Mind.
Unfortunately, even if clinical results are promising, there is little chance that it will be legalized in most countries in the near future, although some US states have taken steps in this direction. The places where it’s legal now are the Netherlands** and Jamaica. There are a number of retreats in these countries that provide assistance to people who want to have a psychedelic experience in a safe environment.
Why I’m not suggesting travelling to these countries and simply trying some magic mushrooms (also known as “self-medication”) is because such an experience is complex and difficult and should not be taken lightly, especially if you already have mental health issues. There are many things that can go wrong and set and setting are vital for having a beneficial trip. That’s why I strongly advise doing this under trained supervision rather than on your own.
If done right, this is something that has the potential to quite literally change your mind. A study has shown that psylcibin works to rewire the brain and create new neuron networks, so you will see everything from a different perspective.