6 simple steps to take today for better mental health

Mental Health

by Jasmine Kim, MD

Aug 17, 2022

Most of us are pretty good at taking care of our physical bodies. We brush our teeth every morning. We feed ourselves so we don’t starve. We try not to overdo it on the coffee and alcohol. We get at least some (but probably not enough) sleep. We go to the doctor when we’re sick.

But in the beautiful chaos that is life, it’s easy to let our mental health fall by the wayside. So, this is your reminder to take a minute, sit down and check in with yourself. How are you doing—really?

If your answer is anything less than “fantastic,” here are six easy things to do today to improve your mental health, mood and happiness.

1. Recognize the moments of overwhelm

Our human bodies are designed to turn on survivor mode at times of stress. This is called fight or flight response. Under stress, you may notice your heart rate going up suddenly, you feel sweaty, you’re out of breath, and you may also experience dizziness and other physical symptoms.

When this fight or flight response kicks in, it automatically shuts off your thinking brain. You may get trapped in an anxious bubble. Once you start feeling anxious about a subject, you fall into a spiral of worries and endless thoughts that make you more and more anxious.

It’s important to note that this is not a sign of weakness. This doesn’t mean that your mind is not strong enough. We are designed in a way that makes it impossible to logically think during the times we are overwhelmed.  

2. Learn how to ground yourself

But we can get out of this bubble by taking a few measures. These measures can help slow down and turn off the fight or flight response and start to turn on your thinking brain again.

  • Make fists with both hands and tighten.
  • Concentrate on deep slow breaths to feel grounded. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, then exhale for 4 counts.
  • Deeply plant your feet on the ground.
  • Push against the ground to bring your attention to physical sensation.

3. Move your body in a way that feels good

Mental health and physical health are not separate entities. This means if you are not physically healthy, your mental health can suffer—and vice versa.

Bottom line? You have to exercise (if you’re physically able to do so). Unfortunately, when we feel depressed, we may not feel like doing anything, and we definitely do not feel like exercising.

However, movement is not an option. This has to be part of our daily routines such as washing our hair, brushing our teeth, eating a meal and sleeping. Studies have already confirmed numerous benefits of exercise in preventing heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and arthritis. Exercising can also reduce your pain level, increase energy, and prevent and help treat depression and anxiety.

The movement-mood connection is strong. To see the most benefits, here are a few tips:

  • Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
  • Sit down with your calendar and carve out a 30-minute block of time five times a week to start making it a habit.
  • Pick an activity that may be more interesting to you that can elevate your heart rate and that is appropriate for your fitness level. Walking slowly around the block is good if you’re new to exercise—any activity is better than no activity, but walking at a slow pace doesn’t count as moderate-intensity exercise.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment! You can try an incline walk at a fast speed on the treadmill or the step master at the gym. At home, do squats, pushups or yoga. Or try pilates, kickboxing, Zumba, whatever sounds the most fun to you. There are many options for classes and free workout videos online.

4. Consider a Vitamin D supplement

Low vitamin D3 levels have been linked to depression. With vitamin D3, it’s difficult to get enough from diet alone, so it is important to supplement. You can also absorb vitamin D3 from sunlight (in small doses), so make sure to get some time outside.

Keep in mind, vitamin D3 supplementation may not prevent depression in those who do not have a history of depression, but vitamin D deficiency is correlated with depressive disease.

Although most people could likely benefit from a vitamin D3 supplement, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor or registered dietitian before starting any new supplements. Ask your provider what dose of vitamin D3 is right for you, but usually around 2,000 units daily is adequate.

5. Nourish your mind and your gut

You may not realize this—80% of your total nervous system is in your gut. This is called the enteric nervous system. Your brain and spinal cord only account for 20%.

Therefore, it is crucial to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet that supports strong gut health. Probiotics can help strengthen your gut health and potentially boost your mental health as well. There are many options for probiotic foods and supplements. Ask your doctor or dietitian for recommendations.

  • Try probiotics daily. Foods like yogurt, fermented veggies, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir are good options.
  • Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. These should fill half your plate at every meal.
  • Eat less meat, sugar and processed food. These inflammatory foods can harm your gut and as a result, impact your overall physical and mental health.

6. Ask for help when you need it

Feeling tired all the time lately? Or losing interest in your work, relationships and hobbies? If you are experiencing the following, you may be experiencing major depressive disorder:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Weight changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation to do anything, even things you used to enjoy

Depression often co-exists with anxiety. Generalized anxiety can present with symptoms of:

  • Not being able to stop or control worrying
  • Worrying too much about different things
  • Trouble relaxing
  • Feeling restless
  • Easily annoyed or irritable
  • Feeling afraid, as if something awful might happen

We can also suffer from physical symptoms when our depression and or anxiety is not well controlled. Chronic exposure to stress could cause similar symptoms. You may experience fatigue, insomnia, indigestion, abdominal discomfort, weight gain, constipation, diarrhea, shortness of breath, chest pain, lightheadedness, headache, joint pain, muscle aches or other vague symptoms. If you experience any ongoing physical symptoms, don’t hesitate to consult with your doctor to rule out possible underlying conditions and figure out the best next steps to get you feeling well—physically and mentally.

While seeking support for any mental health concerns is always a good idea, it’s especially important to recognize when you can’t tackle this on your own. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, you don’t have to go it alone, and you shouldn’t—because there are people who can help.

Talk to your primary care physician or a mental health provider about your mental health concerns. If you begin to have any thoughts of self-harm, please call 988 for help.

More mental health tips

About the Author

Jasmine Kim, MD, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Cedar Park.

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