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Here’s Why You Should Make Mental Health a Priority

Over the course of a day, adults must juggle an avalanche of competing priorities clamoring for our attention. Amidst all the demands on our time, mental health often gets pushed to the back

As a result, one in four Americans has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder—the highest rate in the world. Mental health problems comprise four of the nation’s 10 leading causes of disability.

The good news is that with conscious effort, reducing your risk of mental health issues can be as simple as implementing a few basic wellness practices. Research on the prevention of mental disorders has advanced over the past 20 years thanks to a new understanding of how the brain functions under stress and develops over time, says the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Including these four practices into your daily routine can help keep you mentally healthy and strong. Your Portland primary care provider can help you get started.

  1. Eat well.

A healthy diet boosts your energy level and keeps your body feeling healthy. This in turn can have a profound impact on mental health. Studies have linked a quality diet to better mental health outcomes and a habitually poor one—containing a lot of processed foods, for example—with increased risk of depression and anxiety. Researchers define a healthy diet as one with:

  • Enough nutrients
  • Not too many calories
  • A variety of foods from all of the basic food groups
  • Only limited amounts of fat, sugar salt or alcohol

“Notably, essential vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the general population in America and other developed countries; and are exceptionally deficient in patients suffering from mental disorders,” said a report in Nutrition Journal. “Studies have shown that daily supplements of vital nutrients often effectively reduce patients’ symptoms.”

  1. Reduce stress.

Like diet, stress affects more than just your physical health. More than six in 10 Americans report that stress—whether stemming from daily responsibilities, a sudden life change or trauma—significantly impacts their mental health.

In 67 percent of Americans, stress spawns a host of symptoms that can throw your mental health off balance, including:

  • Irritability or anger—37 percent
  • Fatigue—37 percent
  • Feeling overwhelmed—35 percent
  • Changes in sleeping habits—30 percent
  • Poor diet or overeating—42 percent

If you feel the effects of stress creeping up on you, try out some new techniques for managing it. Meditate. Exercise. Take a bubble bath. Try to spend at least 15 minutes a day doing something for yourself.

  1. Exercise regularly.

The endorphins that flood your brain during and after exercise mimic the effects of antidepressants and help calm anxiety. Just 25 minutes of working out immediately lifts your mood, relieves stress and fuels your energy.

“Individuals who exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of stress and anger,” researchers report. “This isn’t about working out five times a week for the next year. It’s about exercising for 20 or 30 minutes and feeling better today.”

After obtaining an overall health assessment, ask your primary care provider to help you develop a plan for working your way up to 150 minutes a week of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.

  1. Get enough sleep.

Sleep problems disproportionately plague patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—afflicting 50 to 80 percent of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10 to 18 percent of the general adult population. Lack of sleep impairs the ability to think and regulate emotions, amplifying the effects of mental health issues.

“The brain basis of a mutual relationship between sleep and mental health is not yet completely understood,” says Harvard Medical School. “But neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.”

Treating sleep disorders can simultaneously treat co-occurring mental health problems. Primary care providers also recommend:

  • Lifestyle changes such as avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine before bed.
  • Physical activity, which helps you fall asleep faster and spend more time in deep sleep.
  • Good “sleep hygiene,” such as keeping a regular sleep schedule and eliminating distractions in the bedroom.
  • Relaxation techniques, from meditation to deep breathing exercises.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to change negative expectations around sleep.

These four basic practices can help improve your mental as well as physical health. To learn more about maintaining your mental well-being, consult a primary care provider.