5 Ways to Improve Your Mental Health and Increase Happiness

March 12, 2015 • Contributed by Chantal Marie Gagnon, PhD, LMHC

Young woman enjoying the airYour mental health affects your overall health more than you may realize. When you are stressed out, angry, or sad, your body suffers, too—whether it be in the form of digestive issues, headaches, back pain, or any number of other physical symptoms.

Most people I meet in my practice want to improve their well-being and increase their daily happiness, but they often feel powerless to make it happen. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our problems are entirely outside our control or caused by other people. Simply by changing our own actions and establishing new habits, many things may begin to improve. When you are happy and at peace, your body feels better and you’re able to respond to challenging situations in more effective ways.

Unfortunately, many people turn to pills to achieve that outcome. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011), about 35 million adults in the United States take antidepressant medication. Medication alone generally won’t make a person feel better, but there is a great deal of research to support the effectiveness of psychotherapy and lifestyle changes, and medication in combination with those things has been shown to be helpful for some people.

Here are five things you can do to start feeling better without the aid of pharmaceuticals:

1. EXERCISE

I love my workout videos. In one of my favorites, fitness trainer Jillian Michaels says, “When you feel strong in your body, you feel strong in your mind.” I agree, and so does mental health research! Numerous studies have linked regular exercise to improvements in mood and decreased anxiety (e.g., Childs and de Wit, 2014; Aguedelo et. al., 2014; and Shoenfeld et. al., 2013).

In essence, exercising helps your brain chemicals to work correctly. When they do, many things about your health and well-being improve. Exercise is so good for mental health that, in many studies, it has been shown to be as effective as antidepressant medication (e.g., Blumenthal et. al., 1999). I frequently recommend at least 45 minutes of vigorous exercise—think workout class or a run/jog in the park—about five times a week. Making this part of your routine can help lift your mood, decrease anxiety, boost self-confidence, reduce negative thinking and worries, and improve sleep. Plus, it’s one of the best anti-aging secrets! When you exercise, your body is more effectively oxygenated, which helps prevent signs of aging.

2. EAT ‘HAPPY’ FOODS

“Happy” foods—foods that either improve mood or help to make you feel calmer—can be a bit of a catch-22 because some of these foods help in the moment but make things worse in the long run. These foods are what we often call “comfort foods,” such as macaroni and cheese, pie, and fries. They do work to make you feel better quickly, so they’re an easy trap to fall into.

Researchers believe that comfort foods may be comforting because they alter the brain’s response to sadness. A better strategy, however, is to make a habit of eating foods that build up the brain’s “good chemicals” over time and keep them at healthy levels. These are the foods we often call “super foods,” such as wild salmon (or other fish high in omega-3s but low in mercury), berries (especially blueberries), whole grains, green vegetables (kale is the king of them all), avocado, nuts, and seeds.

3. VOLUNTEER OR MAKE A NEW FRIEND

Social support is one of the best predictors of health and longevity. Volunteering is a great way to both get out of your own head (spending too much time in your head may lead to excessive worrying) and to make new friends. Resolve to make at least one new friend this year, and volunteer at least a few hours a month.

4. UNDERSTAND YOUR THINKING STYLE

One of the reasons we sometimes get into a funk—and we all do from time to time—is that we make “thinking errors.” To eliminate these errors, familiarize yourself with what they are and begin to notice when you do them. Thinking errors (sometimes called “unhelpful thinking styles”) can lead to anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration, and low self-esteem.

Below are a few examples:

Taking things personally: Most people’s reactions to you are about them, not you. For example, if your boss is short-tempered and demanding, it’s more likely related to his or her personality style than to your work performance. If you take it personally, you are likely to begin feeling angry, nervous, or depressed. If instead you can see it for what it is—a particular personality and communication style—you can focus on learning effective ways to work with this type of person.

Catastrophizing: That’s the fancy name for “making a mountain out of a molehill.” If someone dies, that’s catastrophic, but almost anything short of that is simply a problem to be solved, a challenge to overcome, or something to be understood. When you notice yourself using language like “terrible,” “awful,” and “horrible,” you are probably catastrophizing. Time to shift your words! Instead of saying, “This is horrible! How will I get to work if they can’t fix my car today?” you can say, “Darn, this is really inconvenient, so I need to find a way to solve this problem. Let me start thinking of possible solutions. Maybe my friend Martha can give me a ride.” Here’s another example: Instead of thinking, “It’s terrible that Sophie is so rude to us at meetings,” think to yourself, “Sophie’s rudeness is unpleasant, but maybe she’s not very good at dealing with pressure. I’ll just be kind to her and try to get to know her better. Maybe eventually that will help improve things.”

Making assumptions and jumping to conclusions: I don’t have any data on this, but I’m pretty sure this leads to many divorces. Partners (on both sides) are very good at making assumptions about the other partners’ thinking, behavior, and intent, and often jump to conclusions. One of my favorite questions in marital therapy is, “Did you ever ask him/her if that’s what he/she was thinking, intended, meant, etc.?” People generally do not check their assumptions, and most of the time their assumptions are wrong.

5. GET SOME SLEEP

We’re back to the brain chemicals! Your brain needs to sleep because that’s how it regenerates and keeps itself filled with happy brain chemicals. If you are not sleeping well, it can contribute to developing mental health issues or exacerbating existing ones.

Working with a therapist can help you learn effective techniques to calm your mind and relax your body after a busy day.

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