Where Do I Begin in Trying to Improve My Mental Health?

Man sleeping under striped comforter in silk pajamasAmong the MANY things I’m interested in learning about a person visiting my therapy room for the first time, there are three things I make sure to ask about: their sleep habits, their basic nutrition, and whether they exercise. While it goes without saying these three factors are key to physical well-being, they are also of paramount importance to our mental health. Finding out about them can serve as a helpful place to begin in trying to set a course for healing. These are things people can often talk about with relative ease. They serve as a great baseline to make note of and provide me with a launch pad for discussing and evaluating a person’s level of self-care.

Sleep, nutrition, and exercise are our foundation for wellness. Recognizing you feel “off,” or not optimal, is a signal to check in with how you’re doing in each of these areas. If just one of them is “out of whack,” chances are there is something within your power to improve it, and thus positively affect how you feel both physically and psychologically.

1. Sleep

There is a concept called “sleep hygiene” which encompasses having a regular, soothing routine around sleep. It incorporates going to bed and rising at roughly the same time every day of the week and falling asleep without electronic devices beeping and flashing nearby.

Some people report having trouble falling asleep. Those who do can experiment with strategies such as using a white noise machine, practicing meditation or relaxation exercises before bedtime, journaling, praying, reading, applying a scented lotion such as lavender, using blackout shades, or thinking thoughts of gratitude.

Those who struggle with waking during the night and having trouble going back to sleep can try leaving a pen and notepad on their nightstand on which to deposit any persistent, intrusive thoughts (don’t even bother turning on the light). This helps to externalize those thoughts so you can address them during waking hours, and essentially gives you permission to return to sleep. Breathing exercises and, again, perhaps flipping on a white noise machine with a timer might also be the trick to sending you back to dreamland.

It goes without saying if our sleep is disturbed or we don’t get enough, we may feel sluggish, are less able to focus and perform tasks efficiently, and have a lower threshold for stress. Improving our sleep habits can be the first step in improving our mental health.

2. Nutrition

When we don’t eat in line with what our bodies need, or when we consume things we know are inflammatory or irritating to our systems, we often don’t feel well. We find ourselves bloated and gassy, overly full or with an upset stomach, lacking energy, or subject to the roller-coaster ride that too many simple carbohydrates and sugars can subject us to.

Exercise is key to building confidence, gaining clarity, and fighting stress.

The key is to pay attention to your body. Do you eat when you’re hungry? What are the foods that impact you negatively? For example, do you get a stomachache every time you eat ice cream or potato chips? If so, it makes sense to honor that knowledge and refrain from inflicting that discomfort on your body again and again. When you don’t listen to the signals your body gives you, you are doing your system a disservice and taxing it in unnecessary ways, hindering its ability to handle stress and cope effectively, and potentially contributing to the development or exacerbation of symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other issues.

Eating regularly and choosing what your body needs in order to be healthy ensures that your tank is full with the “right” fuel, enabling you to run more smoothly, effectively, and comfortably.

3. Exercise

Moving our bodies is a way for us to feel powerful, strong, and capable, and can improve our mood. It’s a great way to expend nervous or excess energy. It can be a means of getting fresh air or engaging with others.

Exercise is also a way to challenge ourselves and note progress. Feeling a sense of accomplishment can improve feelings of efficacy. You don’t have to join a gym or train for a marathon for it to mean something. Do something that’s different or “more” for you, and give yourself that opportunity to experience a personal success and triumph when you achieve it.

Exercise is key to building confidence, gaining clarity, and fighting stress.

How It All Comes Together

Sleep, nutrition, and exercise are linked like fingers interlaced. We sleep better when we move our bodies and when we aren’t hopped up on caffeine or sugar. We exercise more effectively when we’ve had ample rest and we’re fueling our bodies with what we need to perform well. We have the wherewithal to make healthy food choices when we are rested and we recognize the importance of well-being and fitness.

When we begin to get these three things in check, both our physical and mental states may begin to improve, or, at the very least, we have a foundation on which to build the process of healing ourselves at a deeper level.

So as not to overwhelm, it may be best to start with ONE thing you can do to improve just ONE of these three areas and then let that serve as your first step in improving your mental health—and, with it, your awareness around the power you have within yourself.

Note: If you are planning on making big changes to your diet or exercise regimens, it’s always advisable to check with your doctor first.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Laurie Leinwand, MA, LPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Rory

    May 11th, 2016 at 9:09 AM

    A lot of it boils down to taking care of yourself physically and you will be amazed at how much better emotionally and mentally you will then feel. Of course that is not always the overall answer, but you know, it can go a long way toward helping with improving those issues. You might still need a little bit of help, but any little bit helps.

  • Walt

    May 11th, 2016 at 11:02 AM

    The first thing I think that I would do is start the search for a good counselor. There could be something that is going on with you that being able to talk it through with another person could very much help you out. There might be things that you can do to soothe yourself or there could also be medication that you could take that could help out with some of your symptoms. No matter which choice you decide to go with the worst thing that you can do is to ignore what is going on. Most of the time things will only get worse, not better, if you try to pretend that they are not happening.

  • cade m

    May 11th, 2016 at 3:47 PM

    The very first step that you will want to take is admitting that there is a problem and that you need some additional help to get through this.

  • Ibe T

    May 11th, 2016 at 6:03 PM

    okay…now i get it; thanks for sharing this article, i think these are the best method of improving our mental health. Exercise is one of the master to build self esteem and confidence.

  • Candi

    May 12th, 2016 at 9:03 AM

    I took myself a little vacation, and oh man, the clarity that I got with actually giving myself some time alone and time to think has worked wonders for me. It gave me time without distractions to understand everything that was going on in my life and what I needed to do to clean up some of those messes. I would highly recommend that if you can just take that little vacation time to get away from it all.

  • karolina

    May 12th, 2016 at 10:24 AM

    Usually if I can have a little time for myself each day then I am alright. If I add to this a little bit of fitness and exercise then generally I am even better. Not sure what working up a little sweat does but it helps me work out the stresses from the day and even if I have to make myself do it, I always feel better afterwards than I did before.

  • melli

    May 12th, 2016 at 6:51 PM

    Meditaion is wonderful. Prayer is great. Exercise is a must. I’m sleeping more too. And letting go of past mistakes whether or not they are my fault. This is bc I cannot control others. I am not controlling but think there is a way to explain and change others. Now I know better.

  • Anette

    May 13th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    I am just glad to see that finally there is something that advocates things that we can all do on our own to improve our own mental health, not always being reliant on something pharmaceutical in nature.

  • shonda T

    May 14th, 2016 at 10:06 AM

    There are so many great websites out there including this one where you can always be assured of getting some quite valuable info no matter what your specific problems may be. It might not be a sub for therapy but it is at least a great starting point for anyone out there looking for a way to either improve themselves or to find treatment with a professional.

  • Jacob

    May 16th, 2016 at 2:42 PM

    I have always been of the mindset that if you do right by your mind and body then they will do right by you.
    Do you get enough sleep, exercise?
    Do you feed the body the right things?
    These are the things that are going to make such a huge difference in how you both act and feel, no lie.
    Those things are probably the easiest fixes that you could ever get started on on your own.

  • Hollis

    May 17th, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    lol how about I start with sleep? That’s the one I do the best.

  • Trent

    May 18th, 2016 at 10:35 AM

    I am a personal trainer and these are all of the things that I always stress to my clients, and it has nothing to do with whether they are facing a mental health challenge or not.
    These are the things that are all about wellness and progression, moving forward when you don’t believe that you can.
    These are the basics for all of us to live healthier and longer lives, and truthfully more productive lives as well.

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