I’ll be honest—when I was in college, I really didn’t take very good care of myself.
I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning. I skipped meals. I never exercised. I smoked cigarettes, drank too much, and wore myself ragged when what I needed was to rest. I didn’t respect my body or my mind. I didn’t know how to cope with stress in healthy ways.
It’s not surprising that I spiraled into a black hole of depression and anxiety. My physical health wasn’t a priority for me. Not taking care of myself only worsened the vicious cycle of struggling with my mental health. The state of my mental health influenced my physical health, and vice versa.
It took me years to get to a better place. But now, I understand myself much better than I did back then. Now I know that taking care of my physical health empowers me to live life to the fullest. My mind sees things more clearly when I am mindful and take care of myself.
There’s no doubt that self-care is very important for anyone. Perhaps even more so amidst the global pandemic. Not only do you want to maintain a strong immune system and healthy body—you want a healthy mind to be able to handle whatever life throws at you.
Having good mental health can mean that you are more resilient, have a greater sense of wellbeing, and are better able to handle stress. Taking care of both your body and your mind are pivotal to living a happy life. If you tend to your physical health, it will ultimately help you maintain good mental health as well.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to stay as healthy as possible.
How does physical health affect mental health?
Lifestyle factors and physical health play a huge role in your mental health. When it comes to the body and the mind, there’s no doubt they have a profound effect on each other.
For example, a German study published in 2014 showed that several lifestyle factors were interwoven with a person’s psychological wellbeing. Higher amounts of physical and mental activity, moderate alcohol use (rather than high alcohol use), non-smoking, and healthy weight were all linked to better mental health.
Mental health can likewise affect your physical wellbeing. There’s evidence that positive feelings can be beneficial for heart health. On the other side of the coin, one study showed that stress can actually weaken a person’s immune system. Studies have also shown that repeated environmental stress can cause neural inflammation and behaviors related to depression and anxiety.
People who deal with chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, lupus, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease are very susceptible to depression. It’s certainly understandable that dealing with these difficult illnesses could lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
Clearly, there is lots of evidence that physical and mental health can go hand in hand. How can you use this to your advantage?
How Can You Improve Your Physical Health to Help Maintain Mental Health?
The body and mind are a complex holistic system. Supporting one aspect of your health will benefit many other parts of the whole.
There are a few key areas you can focus on to improve your physical health. This can cascade into your mental health, too!
Of course, if you’re dealing with depression or other mental health issues, please talk to your doctor about your unique situation. This article isn’t meant to diagnose or treat or replace medical advice in any way. Especially when it comes to clinical mental health and healing. The following are only general healthy living tips for maintaining good mental and physical health.
Eat a healthy diet.
There are volumes of evidence that a healthy diet is essential for overall well-being. A well-balanced diet provides vital nutrients and maintains a healthy immune system. It protects against chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Studies have found a lower incidence of depression in those who consume diets high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and modest amounts of meat and dairy. Diets high in refined sugars can have a negative impact on brain function and mood, as well as messing with the body’s insulin regulation.
The Mediterranean diet is just one example of a diet with known positive effects on health. It’s mainly a plant-based diet, with the focus on eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. Red meat consumption is very limited, and the diet includes moderate intakes of fish, dairy, and poultry.
The bottom line: Cutting out or minimizing red meat, processed foods, and refined sugars is ideal. If your diet consists of as much plant-based, unprocessed food as possible, your physical and mental health could improve. And don’t skip meals—your body needs good nutrition to fuel all the amazing things it can do!
Get regular exercise.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), exercise can have a significant impact on mood, improve anxiety, and help lessen the effects of depression. Not to mention that it can lower your risk of diabetes and help you maintain a healthy weight. Exercise can also boost serotonin and lead to better sleep.
How much exercise do you need? Recommended amounts of exercise can vary from person to person. But according to the CDC, adults aged 18-64 should get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking). They should also aim to do muscle strengthening activity at least two days a week.
Our bodies were made to move! Even so, it can be hard to start exercising if it’s not part of your routine. But it’s worth putting in the effort to make it part of your new normal.
Avoid heavy substance use.
This includes alcohol and tobacco smoking. Excessive alcohol use can be very bad news for brain function. It can adversely affect the liver and even cause cardiac arrhythmias over time. Alcohol is also a depressant, so it can actually bring you down.
If you drink alcohol, moderation is the best choice.
It’s no secret that tobacco smoking is also detrimental. Smoking greatly increases your risk of heart and lung disease and cancer. Right after smoking a cigarette, it may feel like you have increased concentration and calm. But nicotine actually leads to greater feelings of anxiety, as the body becomes used to the stimulant, then goes through cravings and withdrawal when it stops receiving it.
When it comes to both physical and mental health, staying away from smoking is the best call. Talk to your doctor about help with quitting smoking if you need it. There are resources that can support you with this. I know that quitting smoking is hard, but without a doubt, it’s one of the best things you can do for your health.
Have a healthy sleep routine.
Have you had days where you felt crabby, bedraggled, and like you could barely keep up, all because you didn’t get enough sleep? I know I have! And it’s no wonder. Sleep is a vital part of functioning your best.
Good sleep is how our bodies rest and heal. Insomnia has actually been linked to some mental health issues, so good sleep is also necessary for your mental health. When I don’t sleep well, I can’t think as clearly. It’s so much harder to get through your day when you’re exhausted from lack of sleep.
Some ways to get better sleep:
- go to bed at the same time every night.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evenings
- Create a bedtime ritual. Reading a book, using essential oils, or listening to sleep sounds could be great ways to create a safe space for bedtime.
- Only use your bed for sleep—not work.
If you’re waking frequently at night or don’t feel rested after a full night’s sleep, you may want to talk to your doctor. Sleep apnea can be a common cause of impaired sleep, and it’s definitely something that needs to be addressed if you have it.
Stress can affect many areas of your body. Needless to say, it’s not good for your mental health, either. Stress can lead to headaches, fatigue, tension, and sleep problems. It can make you irritable and depressed. It can make you anxious. It can make your stomach upset.
Stress is just no good for the body or the mind. But how can you get rid of it? It can be hard to completely avoid stress. However, you can take steps to lessen its effects.
Meditation practice benefits your brain function and improves your focus. It can lessen stress and bring a sense of balance even during difficult times. Mindfulness meditation could be a wonderful way to improve depression, anxiety, and even pain. The research on meditation is vast and amazing. It’s worth looking into especially if you’re under a lot of stress.
Yoga can also be a great tool for stress reduction, besides being good for your physical health. If yoga isn’t your thing, the good news is that any type of exercise will be good for you!
Journaling, reading, or singing could also help reduce stress. It’s also important to carve out time for activities you love, whatever they may be. This can help you feel renewed and fulfilled, giving your mind a break from its day-to-day stresses.
Take Care of Your Body, Take Care of Your Mind
When it comes down to it, the human body is endlessly complex and amazing. Every cell interacts with the next.
It’s been said that where the mind goes, the body follows. I love this statement because I’ve found it to be so accurate in my own life. Yet, the opposite also holds true. Taking care of your physical health is essential to maintain your mental health.
But it’s not always easy to take care of yourself. You’ve got a career, kids to feed, bills to pay, appointments to keep. Where do you find the time?
The thing is, you don’t have to make every change at once, and in fact, they might not stick if you try. A mountain can be climbed with one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.
So maybe this week, you add more fruits and vegetables to your diet. Maybe next week, you add in Meatless Monday. Then the next, you cut out refined sugar such as pop or candy. Maybe you start doing yoga, just three times a week or whatever works for you. Maybe on the other days, you do some outdoor walking meditation for any amount of time that’s accessible for you. The next month, you add in cardio, and after that, you decrease your alcohol intake.
The small steps you take towards better health may not seem like a lot at first. But in the words of Jeff Olson in The Slight Edge, “Any time you see what looks like a breakthrough, it is always the end result of a long series of little things, done consistently over time.”
Choose to prioritize self-care, in whatever way you can. Choose to spend your time on things that lift you up. Reach out to people you trust if you’re struggling. If you fall back on your goals, choose to get back up and keep fighting for them. Turn off the TV, and go for a walk instead. Choose joy.
Take care of your body, so you can best take care of your mind.
Please note that this article is not meant to replace any medical advice or treatment. If you’re suffering from depression or other mental or physical health issues, please talk to your doctor.
This was a special guest post by Johanna Geary. Johanna is a mental health and wellness freelance writer. She takes pride in writing about what she loves and does it amazingly too.
You can read more of her blogs or check out more about her services on her writers’ website, https://johannagwrites.com/