Mental Health Basics

Everyone can benefit from taking good care of themselves by eating right, sleeping enough, getting enough exercise, connecting with others, having structure and routine, and making time for reflection and relaxation. Maintaining or establishing these habits is especially important when recovering from acute mental health issues like grief, anxiety disorders, depression, or addiction, and when living with chronic mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Of course, it is precisely in those circumstances it is the most difficult to engage in these stabilizing behaviors and takes extra effort. That effort is worth it, though, because of how much more quickly one is able to recover from acute distress or manage chronic issues.

  • Physical health
    • See your primary care and dental provider regularly
    • Treat any physical illness or condition

Generally you should see your primary care provider annually if you have no medical conditions and follow her or his recommendations for screening tests. If you don’t have a primary care provider, you should find one, even if you already see specialists or if you’re completely healthy. Most people should see their dentist every six months or even more frequently.

  • Sleep
    • Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night
    • Keep a regular sleep routine
    • Follow sleep hygiene principles to promote restorative, restful sleep
    • Use a sleep diary to track sleep patterns
    • Seek CBT or ACT therapy if you find yourself worrying about your sleep

Contrary to popular belief, insomnia is not mainly about not getting enough sleep. Most mental health disorders may affect sleep and even people who have no mental health issues currently may find themselves unable to sleep well at times. Insomnia involves worrying about not sleeping, and taking measures like long-term use of sleeping medications, extending the time in bed, and excessive napping, that end up worsening sleep problems.

  • Diet and nutrition
    • Eat balanced, health meals, regularly, 3 times per day
    • Do not use nicotine or street drugs
    • Avoid excessive use of alcohol and caffeine

Most people know what is a good diet and what is not but underestimate the impact that a good or a poor diet can make in their overall well-being. Making changes in diet is most successful if the changes are small and gradual, like decreasing salt intake, increasing water, or taking smaller portions.

  • Medications
    • Take all medications as prescribed, even if you are feeling better
    • Discuss with your provider all over-the-counter medications, herbs, and other supplements you take
    • Consult your provider about how to go off medications safely

Many people who take medication for long periods of time begin to feel so accustomed to it that they start making adjustments on their own rather than taking medications as they are prescribed. This practice is extremely unsafe and detrimental, especially for psychiatric medications. If you think a medication is not good for you, consult your provider before going off of it as many medications have negative side effects, like seizures or symptom rebound, if terminated too quickly.

  • Exercise
    • Exercise regularly, within your ability
    • Balance cardiovascular, stretch, and strengthening activities

Like diet, exercise is best begun with small changes. If you don’t exercise at all, start with a five-minute walk, working slowly up to your exercise goals. If you already exercise, increase gradually, like adding another exercise session to your week, a few more minutes to your workout, or one new exercise to your routine.

  • Social contact
    • Maintain regular social interactions and connections with others
    • Avoid isolation

The best predictor of mental health, happiness, and longevity is the amount of contact you have with others. If you already have people in your life, make sure you spend enough time focusing on these relationships and do not isolate yourself, especially if you are struggling with a mental health issue. You don’t have to talk about your issues if you don’t want to; just spending time with others talking about other things or sharing activities will reduce your symptoms. If you don’t have enough people in your life, seek out organized activities that will bring you into contact with others and work with your therapist on developing more relationships with others.

  • Routine and Structure

A surprising finding in research studies on work and leisure time suggests that people are actually happier when they are at work than when they are at leisure. Human beings function best with routine and structure. Even a positive disruption to routine, like vacation or holidays, is stressful. Those with mental health challenges are even more affected by lack of structure and routine. If you are off work on disability or for any other reason, it is especially important to get up at the same time every day, eat regular meals, work at something, and do something you enjoy (or used to enjoy) every day.

  • Reflection, recreation, and relaxation
    • Engage in some form of mindfulness practice, like meditation, prayer, journaling, yoga, music, or art
    • Spend time every day doing something you enjoy outside of your work or household duties
    • Make time for relaxation and recreation on a daily, weekly, and annual basis

Spending time with yourself is as important as spending time with others. Even five minutes a day of meditation has been shown to have a measurable effect on depression and anxiety. Similarly, taking time off to enjoy life on a regular basis helps to alleviate mental health symptoms and improves quality of life. Taking breaks during the workday and relaxing at home for some time every day, taking a day off from home and work responsibilities every week, and taking time off regularly for vacation and holidays has a big effect on how you feel about your life.

Following these basic mental health guidelines will not eliminate your mental health symptoms on their own but they will give you a framework in which you can make the changes that will improve and heal them.

Submitted by Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D.