While there is no substitute for therapy and treatment for mental health conditions, there are lifestyle changes, happiness habits and attitudes that all of us can adopt to lead a more balanced and centred life. Scientists have long studied patterns and lifestyles that contribute to emotional, social and mental well-being. Often by taking a few simple steps and making mental health a priority, we can come out of a tough spell and boost our emotional and mental resilience. Here are some science-based ways to optimize your mental health in the long term.

Being physically active

There is a close tie between exercise and mental health. Exercising regularly not only does wonders for your physical health but also raises the body’s endorphin levels which elevate your mood and make you feel happier. Regular exercise may also help ease symptoms of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder by releasing happy hormones and other natural brain chemicals that improve your sense of well-being. The other benefit of exercise is that it forces you to focus on the present and breaks the vicious cycle of thoughts that feed negative or anxious feelings.

You can start small by taking a walk around the block or doing a few simple floor exercises. However, aerobic exercises and resistance training seem to have the best impact on emotional and mental health. The most important factor is sticking to a routine for at least 10-12 weeks to see the results.

Eat well

Food is not just nourishment for the body but also fuel for your brain. Some foods are scientifically proven to benefit mental health. For example, one study has linked eating a modified Mediterranean diet to a decrease in depressive symptoms. This comprises eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, fats like extra virgin olive oil, and high-quality protein like fish and whole grains.

Research has shown that cutting back on processed food, sugars and refined foods is also linked to better mental health and acuity. Sugar and processed foods in particular can cause inflammation in the body and brain that lead to mood swings, anxiety and depression. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes are nourishing for the body and brain.

Limit your device usage

Mindless scrolling is easy, and addictive and could potentially be feeding your feelings of anxiety, inadequacy and isolation. Today, the use of devices and social media has become a virtual vortex that draws you in and keeps you distracted. However, you may find yourself feeling dissatisfied, anxious or envious when you compare your life to the ‘airbrushed’ lives of others on social media platforms. Excessive use of social media also causes fear of missing out or FOMO, subsequently harbouring a host of unhealthy habits. Distraction can soon lead to procrastination, loss of focus and a feeling of restlessness.

This is why experts recommend limiting your device and social media usage.

Practising mindfulness

Experts who have studied brain imaging of individuals who practise mindfulness and meditation have noticed remarkable improvements in brain activity that helps people manage stress, anxiety, addiction and depression. Mindfulness is highly effective in people with conditions such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, hypertension and heart failure.

The main benefit of mindfulness is that it helps you become more aware of what is happening in the present moment and decode the mind’s thought patterns. As a result, an individual can step out of their mind and observe these patterns. Mindfulness-based meditation practices can teach you how to manage emotions in a way that positively influences your behaviour. Guided meditations, breath awareness and progressive muscular relaxation are also known to improve cognitive functions and prevent memory loss.

Maintain a social life

In today’s lives inundated with virtual meetings and video calls, there is nothing that beats the joy of simple, interpersonal interaction. Having a healthy social life is key to staying positive, getting out of your head and fostering bonds that go a long way in nurturing your emotional health. Psychologists believe that direct, in-person contact triggers a part of our nervous system that releases a ‘cocktail’ of neurotransmitters that regulates our response to stress and anxiety. In simple words, when we communicate with friends and family in person, it can potentially make us more resilient to stress factors in the long run.  Moreover, social motivation and contact can also boost memory formation, and recall and protect the brain from neurodegenerative diseases.

Last but not least

Mental health does not get its due and most people have a reactive rather than a proactive approach to their emotional and mental well-being. It is important to take a sustainable approach to one’s overall well-being and that includes seeking help when required. If you are feeling overwhelmed or weighed down, it might be worth getting an expert opinion. Psychologists and psychiatrists can identify the root cause of your ailment and design the appropriate line of treatment in addition to these lifestyle changes and mental health habits.