When discussing treatment for mental health conditions, the conversation often addresses various medications and treatment options. But far too often it does not address lifestyle changes as important factors for keeping mental health on track, managing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improving overall well-being. In one study, patients with symptoms of mental illness were not counseled by healthcare professionals to incorporate exercise or diet at all.[i]
Eating a healthier diet, exercising more frequently, sleeping better, and other lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on an individual experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. These changes can also minimize the risk of developing other conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension.
If you are currently experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, read this article to learn about the changes you can make to daily life to improve your mental health.
Why Does a Healthy Lifestyle Help with Mental Health?
Mental health consists of an individual’s social, emotional, and psychological well-being, and lifestyles in each of these categories can have a significant impact on mental states. You might not know it, but these categories are intertwined. For example, many people use a healthy diet and daily exercise routine for physical benefits, but these lifestyle factors are beneficial for the mind as well. Diet, sleep, physical activity, and substance use cessation are lifestyle factors recognized as treatment targets for common mental disorders.[ii]
By practicing a healthy lifestyle, you can prevent the onset or worsening of depression and anxiety symptoms. A healthy lifestyle combines lifestyle changes directed towards physical, social, and psychological factors, including a healthy diet, consistent exercise, maintaining a strong support network, attending consistent therapy, and many other changes.
11 Lifestyles Changes to Make for Better Mental Health
Each of the principles laid out in this article are important to living a mentally healthy life. They are like puzzle pieces that when connected can lead to better habits, thought patterns, and overall mental health.
We encourage you to challenge yourself with as many changes as you can each week, but not so many that you are overwhelmed. Even if you do not feel different at first, that doesn’t mean your body and mind aren’t making important changes. Over time, these changes will become habits the more frequently you engage in them.
1. Eat a Healthy Diet
The brain is constantly at work, which means it requires a fuel supply that comes directly from the food we eat. The type of food that you eat contributes to your brain’s function. The more high-quality the food, the more optimally your brain operates. Choosing foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants can help prevent depression.
Our brains rely on several key neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine for positive mental health. Although medications and supplements can help alter how these neurotransmitters are used by the brain, proper nutrition is the only true avenue for improving the brain’s natural supply. Tiny dietary proteins known as amino acids that come from food cross the blood-brain barrier in order to serve as building blocks for these neurotransmitters so that the brain can naturally produce more of these important brain chemicals.
2. Stay Hydrated
Our bodies and brains need adequate water intake to function optimally. When we are dehydrated, our blood loses volume and becomes thicker, making it harder for the heart to supply blood to the muscles and brain. Proper hydration helps your heart pump blood more easily and allows oxygen to reach your muscles and brain, helping your body and brain work more efficiently.
A good rule of thumb is to drink half your body weight in ounces. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, drink at least 75 ounces of water each day. If you’re exercising consistently, you’ll need to drink even more water to replenish water lost through sweat. We recommend having a water bottle on hand!
3. Have a Consistent Exercise Routine
The benefits of exercise are often associated with the body, but not as many people know about the emotional perks we gain from being active, including improvement in anxiety and depression, better emotional stability, diminished tension, and better self-control.
One key factor in optimal brain health is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF repairs neurons, promotes new neuron formation, and enhances learning and memory. One of the best ways to continue producing BDNF is through exercise.[iii]
4. Incorporate Techniques to Reduce Stress
When stress puts a strain on daily activities, it can take a toll on the mind and body. You can relieve yourself of stress by incorporating a few relaxation techniques, including:
- Deep breathing: Stress causes heart rate and breathing to quicken. Deep breathing is the act of inhaling deeply through your nose for five seconds and then slowly exhaling through your mouth for five seconds. By performing 4-6 deep breaths per minute, you will lower your heart rate and slow your breathing.
- Massage: A massage can reduce the stress hormone cortisol in your body. You won’t always have access to a massage therapist, but you can give yourself a massage by identifying areas of tension and putting pressure on the muscles. If tension is in your shoulders, sit in a relaxed position and press your fingers firmly as you move from your shoulder up to ear level. Do this for both shoulders several times a day.
- Fixing posture: Poor posture can also influence stress levels. To correct a forward-leaning, stooped posture, sit with a straight back. A straighter posture increases the size of the rib cage so that lung capacity increases and more air can enter. This increases the amount of oxygen that is carried by the vessels to the brain, thus enhancing frontal lobe function.
5. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is critical to both our physical and mental health, and poor or insufficient sleep has been found to increase stressors, increase negative emotional responses, and decrease positive emotions.[iv]
If you are struggling with falling asleep, a number of techniques can help—including boosting circadian rhythm chemicals, taking natural sleep aids, and exercising consistently, among others.
6. Become Educated on Mental Health
One of the best ways to manage symptoms of depression and anxiety is by understanding why you are experiencing them. Books can help break down complicated topics and the science behind mental health to make suggestions easier to understand, provide a sense of comfort, and create additional support in times of need.
7. Start a Journaling Practice
Journaling is the practice of writing down thoughts and feelings to understand them more clearly. Keeping a journal can help you gain control of your emotions and improve your mental health by prioritizing problems, tracking symptoms, and creating a space for positive self-talk. A journal is also a great place to keep track of the things that you’re grateful for. Gratitude has a number of emotional benefits, including increased happiness, better well-being, more self-esteem, improved friendships, and social support.
8. Attend Therapy
By working together with a therapist, you can better understand the root causes of depression and anxiety as well as the solutions for managing those symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of therapy. CBT helps you develop an awareness of automatic thoughts, triggers, self-talk, emotions, and behaviors. With that awareness, you then develop problem-solving skills, positive coping skills, positive thinking, and other ways to manage depression and anxiety.
9. Build and Maintain a Strong Support System
People thrive on socializing and suffer in isolation. By spending time with friends and family, you can feel happier, balanced, and more content. In isolation, symptoms of depression and anxiety can become aggravated and even affect your physical health over time.
10. Find Your Purpose
Finding your purpose—or re-finding a lost purpose—can bring an immense amount of satisfaction to your life. Many people experience a sense of purpose by creating and accomplishing a set of goals.
If you’re struggling to accomplish your goals, start by:
- Identifying the obstacles that are keeping you from reaching your goals.
- Completing small goals and celebrating small successes.
- Creating basic goals and an action plan.
- Understanding that not all goals need to be “meaningful.”
11. Limit Technology Use
Technology is threaded into every area of our lives; yet too much of it can lead to negative consequences, such as symptoms of anxiety and depression, insomnia, and others.
Setting boundaries around personal device use and replacing screen time with other activities can have a positive impact on mental health. Taking time away from personal devices gives you time to reflect, think, and plan for your future. When you take time for introspection, you can become more self-aware and resilient.
Mental Health Solutions From Nedley Health
The symptoms of depression and anxiety can be overcome by making lifestyle changes directed towards physical, social, and psychological factors—including a healthy diet, consistent exercise, maintaining a strong support network, attending consistent therapy, and other changes.
If you’re ready to overcome your depression and anxiety, a mental health education program could provide the support you need in order to make lifestyle changes long-term. To learn more about our community, online, and residential programs, talk to one of our experts to see which program is right for you.
[i] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2015). Patients with mental illness less likely to receive diet, exercise advice. ScienceDaily.
[ii] Opie RS, Jacka FN, Marx W, Rocks T, Young C, O'Neil A. (2021). Designing Lifestyle Interventions for Common Mental Disorders: What Can We Learn from Diabetes Prevention Programs? Nutrients.
[iii] Sleiman, S. F., Henry, J., Al-Haddad, R., El Hayek, L., Abou Haidar, E., Stringer, T., Ulja, D., Karuppagounder, S. S., Holson, E. B., Ratan, R. R., Ninan, I., & Chao, M. V. (2016). Exercise promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate. eLife.
[iv] How sleep deprivation impacts mental health (2022). Columbia University Department of Psychiatry.