How to Improve Your Mental Health

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

What can you do every day to maintain good mental health?  Are there exercises or practices you can adopt to be sure you’re in great mental shape?  Actually, there are a number of things you can do, but let’s start by discussing what we mean by mental health!

To define anything well, you need to describe it in concrete terms.   The term mental health is no exception.  I’m a firm believer it’s difficult to separate mental health, physical health, relationship health, etc. from one another, but for the purposes of the article we can say a mentally healthy person exercises solid cognitive functions as well as solid emotional expression.  That means if you’re going to do something on a daily basis to maintain mental health you need to focus on habits that keep your cognitive abilities at their maximum and facilitate positive emotional experiences throughout life’s ups and downs.  Here are some suggestions based on my work as a psychotherapist and pastoral minister:

Cognitive exercises:

  • Maintain a daily exercise program – Physical exercise keeps blood flowing to your brain allowing it to work at its optimal performance level.  In particular, cognition requires the use of memory and physical exercise keeps blood flowing to the hippocampus, an essential physical component of the memory process.  To keep that system working well be sure you exercise everyday.
  • Learn something new everyday – By reading challenging material or watching educational programs you’re constantly stimulating your cognitive abilities.  A number of daily activities you can engage in to create a regiment of active learning includes starting a new hobby, working on puzzles like sudoku or other tests of mental acuity, learning a new language, visiting historical sites and museums, or if you’re really ambitious, become a student.  The key is to engage in daily activities that create an “aha” moment for you because these experiences continue to develop your brain and challenge your mind.  If you start any of these activities make sure every day you’re learning something new and stretching your current knowledge base as far as you can.  Don’t get comfortable with what you know, always explore what you don’t know and learn something new everyday.
  • Reduce stress in natural ways – Start some form of a daily contemplative practice.  I practice an ancient Christian form of prayer called lexio divina.  That works for me but might not work for you so find something you can do every day.  Other things that naturally reduce stress might include taking long walks, a soothing bath every night, or listening to your favorite type of music.  You need to find natural ways to reduce stress in your life.   Don’t rely on medication because medication only address the symptoms of stress not the core stressful condition.  Engaging in natural stress reducing activities lowers the amount of cortisol in your system.  Cortisol is a stress hormone which keeps the body running at a maximum fight or flight capacity and negatively impacts your ability to think well.  You want to avoid medication because the side effects keep you from thinking well and interrupt your cognitive strengths.  Do your best to engage in daily natural stress relieving activities and avoid taking medication if at all possible.

Emotional Exercises:

An emotionally healthy person is a person who develops the virtue of resilience.  Psychologists define resilience as the ability to bounce back from trauma, adversity, and stress.  Resilient people cope with difficult situations and maintain a positive outlook by being flexible, creative, and productive in both positive and negative situations.  Here are some things you can do every day to develop an emotionally healthy and resilient life:

  • Do things for others – By serving others we develop a sense of value for who we are which develops our self-esteem.  A big part of being emotionally healthy is feeling a sense of purpose and meaning in your life.  In fact, Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who lived through the holocaust wrote a famous book called, Man’s Search for Meaning illustrating when human beings find meaning and purpose in life they can survive some of the most horrific situations ever imagined.  Helping others provides concrete experiences of meaning and purpose solidifying our self-worth and sense of personal value.  Volunteering at local food banks, hospitals, etc. on a daily basis are the types of activities that foster meaningful emotional experiences and contribute to our ability to be resilient people.
  • Practice self-control on a daily basis – Perhaps you’re on a diet or trying to overcome some unhealthy habit.  By practicing daily acts of self-control you develop the emotional sense of hopefulness which allows you to overcome negative feelings and emotions.  Yes, it’s difficult at first, but self-control is like a muscle you develop by using it over and over again.  The better you are at mastering yourself the more sense of control you have over your life and the more you develop a sense of hope for the future.  Self-control provides the experience of self-mastery and a sense that you can control a world that sometimes feels completely out of control.  Practice self control regularly.
  • Enjoy beauty and art – Take daily walks in a pleasing environment like a park or a garden or spend time attending a concert or listening to soothing music.  Studies indicate art and the enjoyment of beautiful things aren’t just good for your mind, they improve your physical health as well. By inducing a low stress levels your body, mind, and emotions experience a greater sense of well-being.  Aesthetic pleasure is good for the soul and allows you to discover among the very hard and cold aspects of life there remains warm and beautiful things as well.  Daily appreciation of beauty is important for emotional well-being.
  • Maintain supportive healthy relationships –  Make lunch dates with good friends or plan to have coffee with someone who affirms you and the work you do.  Make time with people who stand by you when things are tough and applaud you when you’re doing well.  You should invest yourself into these relationships because they help you maintain a healthy sense of who you are, what you can do, and what to avoid.  These relationships include people who cry with you, laugh with you, and walk with you when the world seems dark and lonely.  In the late 1980’s Joyce Landorf Heatherley wrote a book called, Balcony People that perfectly describes individuals who provide this sort of support in your life.  They’re the people who cheer you on when you’re succeeding but also help you through difficult times.  Perhaps one of the first things you can do is get the book and read it every day.  Then, go find these people and make a point to interact with them every day of your life.  Often these relationships are the lifeline you need when you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of self-pity.
  • Spend time savoring life and being grateful everyday –  Psychologists have found  gratitude is exceptionally beneficial for an individual’s emotional life.  People who make the time to be grateful and express gratitude are generally happier and not prone to negative emotions.  Something that can help you maintain a sense of gratitude include  keeping a gratitude journal in which you write down the things you’re grateful for and reflect on them with sincerity and depth.  This is something everyone can do on a daily basis.    Additionally, tell those good to you and supportive of you that you’re grateful for how they’ve invest themselves in your life.  Find daily ways to show gratitude and reflect on the good things in life.  When you do that you build a solid foundation of positive emotion to help maintain a disposition of resilience.  Practice daily acts of gratitude.

I hope these suggestions help you improve your mental health but also your overall health as well.  I believe we’re created as physical, emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual creatures.  By developing healthier minds and emotions we also improve our relationships, bodies, and spiritual lives.  So now you know my little secret.  By improving your mental health you also   improve other aspects of your life.  Live holistically and love radically, that should be every human beings motto!  God created us that way so we really need to live that way.

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