The truth is anxiety and various mood disorders don’t always stem from a difficult (or even traumatic) situation – the brain responds to much more than that. What we don’t realise is that when you don’t give your body what it needs, the mind will suffer.
Movement, good food, rest and hydration are just a few examples of the foundation upon which good mental health rests. These are your absolute basics. Any therapist will first ask you about them to ensure they’re being covered, before moving on to attempting to remedy the problem with another treatment like counselling.
Take care of your body first to help your mind – because if you don’t get the basics right, you’re not even giving yourself a fighting chance.
So let’s give a little extra attention to the things that often slip our minds when it comes to self-care. For many of us, simply getting the basics right will be enough to alleviate most anxiety symptoms; however, it requires discipline, and you have to be determined to consistently put the recommended actions below into practice.
What we eat makes a huge difference in terms of the neurochemicals we produce. More of the right foods will allow us to synthesise more dopamine and other important chemicals that are vital for mental wellness. Research has found associations between mood and healthy whole foods – nuts, legumes, leafy greens, fish, vegetables, seeds and other products associated with the typical Mediterranean diet. Things that are rich in antioxidants like berries, citrus fruits and green tea also protect the brain, and contain the building blocks for important neurotransmitters which reduce anxiety. For those with existing anxiety disorders, studies have discovered an inverse relationship between the severity of the symptoms and consumption of foods high in omega-3s. Last but not least, it’s important that we support a healthy gut microbiome – across a multitude of studies this has been found to improve a number of psychiatric illnesses. To achieve this, it is advisable to consume probiotics and prebiotics found in yogurt and fermented foods like natto, kimchi, miso, and so on. Although this may seem like a lot, even small consistent tweaks to your diet will help you move in the right direction.
Approximately 75% of our brain is composed of water – so is it surprising that it won’t function at its best when we’re dehydrated? As little as 2% water loss can impair our minds. Research has investigated the consequences of restricting daily water intake to 1.2 litres, and the results were clear: anxiety, tension, confusion and fatigue ensued. But if you give your brain the recommended daily dose (or even go beyond that) in as little as three days you can expect to feel more positive emotions, calmness and contentedness. In the case of the latter, participants drank between two and four litres per day. So, ensure that you not only hit the recommended daily amount of 2 litres – but also account for factors like activity levels, illness or hot weather (all of which can lead to greater water loss throughout your day), and adjust accordingly.
Sleep loss and inadequate sleep inflict devastating effects on the brain and are often linked to multiple psychiatric conditions, of which anxiety is no exception. At a neuronal level, MRI studies have shown that activity in the amygdala (a brain structure that plays a crucial role in triggering strong emotions like fear and panic) amplifies by over 60% after just one night of no sleep. The same results were found if sleep is restricted to 5 hours per night for 5 nights. If you are taking sleep from the brain – be it suddenly for one night, or chronically over several nights in a row – the consequences on your mental health are the same. If you already have anxious traits, the effects are likely to be even worse. It’s worth noting that people who are sleep-deprived systematically underestimate quite how sleep deprived they are and how much of an impact this is having on them, as they become habituated to the low-level exhaustion and anxiety. To ensure optimal functioning, research evidence suggests it’s important that you get your 7-9 hours of sleep consistently. Ideally, and if your schedule allows, try to go to sleep earlier (i.e. before midnight). You may have heard the phrase “an hour before midnight is worth two after”; following this philosophy can help regulate your Internal biological clock, and in turn, all other systems in your body.
Many anxiety-related disorders have been linked to sunlight exposure (or lack thereof). As the light hits your retina it triggers a chain reaction which leads to the release of serotonin – an important neurochemical for good mental health. When serotonin levels get too low, this puts us at considerably higher risk for anxiety and depression. You don’t need to be outside for hours on end but getting some fresh air and sunlight will certainly help clear your head and recentre. Consider what you can do on a daily basis – have your lunch outside? Use your breaks to take a walk? Go for a stroll in the park? Keep in mind that being outdoors also influences our activity levels as it means being less sedentary – and that in itself is another important factor in mental wellness.
Taking stock of the above, it’s time to consider putting it into practice. Give yourself a week and try to implement as many of these things as you can on a daily basis. You could also make a note at the end of each day of the things you have achieved.
Think about how you felt at the start of the week. Were there any anxiety related symptoms that stand out? Has that changed? Did you manage to consistently achieve any of the above steps on a daily basis, and have you noticed any improvements? How do you feel at the end of the week? Try to make these steps a part of your routine and don’t just stop after one week – continue for another 2. Maybe even 3. And remember: mental health starts with how we take care of our bodies!