5 Tips for Better Mental Health

5 Tips for Better Mental Health
a brain cartoon lifting weights signifying working on your mental health

5 Simple Things That Can Improve Your Mental Health That Don’t Include Therapy or Medication

May 2023 | Issue #39

As we slowly begin to identify the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our mental health, it is undeniable that mental health awareness and support should be top priorities on school campuses nationwide, not only for our students, but all school staff as well. According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 youth ages 6-17 experience a mental illness each year. During this Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s look at five simple things anyone can do to improve their mental health that do not include therapy or medication.

  1. Diet and Nutrition
    While it is widely known that what we eat impacts our physical health, many people do not consider the impact on our mental health. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates the link between food and mood, much of it examining the role of inflammation in our gut, AKA “our second brain.” Simply stated, the food we eat impacts the growth of “good” or “bad” bacteria in our gut that are responsible for carrying chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin (“happy hormones”) to our brains. Sugar in particular causes inflammation in our gut and leads to production of the “bad” bacteria, altering the production of our happy hormones and ultimately negatively affecting our mood, ability to focus and energy level. Eating a nutrient-dense diet has been shown to help decrease symptoms of depression, anxiety and ADHD by stimulating the growth of “good” gut bacteria. What is included in a nutrient-dense diet you ask? Think things like leafy greens, berries, salmon, whole grains, beans, nuts and citrus fruits.
  2. Sleep
    A restful night of sleep is something we all strive for, but with busy schedules and countless responsibilities, we often find ourselves going to bed later and waking up earlier. Just as we charge our cell phones each night, we need to recharge our bodies through adequate sleep as well. When we don’t get restful sleep, our mood, ability to focus and concentrate and manage stress decreases. Although these things may seem minor, there is a direct link between sleep deprivation and mental health disorders. Sleep deprivation studies have shown that healthy people can experience increased distress levels following poor sleep, while individuals with existing mental health disorders may experience an exacerbation of symptoms and increased risk for suicide. So whether you have a diagnosed mental health disorder or not, your sleep can have a significant impact on your overall functioning and possibly protect you from developing new or worsening symptoms. Per the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adults should get at least 7 hours of sleep on a regular basis for optimal health and functioning.
  3. Exercise
    Exercise is perhaps one of the more challenging habits to incorporate into our daily routines, but one that can have the most significant impact on our mental health. The benefits of exercise are numerous and robust, including reduction in anxiety, depression, and negative mood, increased self-esteem, cognitive function and social connection, improved sleep, and increased energy. Exercise can be especially beneficial for trauma survivors who have increased cortisol in their systems, as exercise is proven to decrease this stress hormone, thereby reducing their “fight, flight, or freeze” response. No need to work out five to seven days per week to reap these benefits; even a brisk walk for thirty minutes three times per week will do the trick.
  4. Sun Exposure
    Most of us are probably familiar with the term “winter blues,” a condition in which some people begin to feel down or sad during the winter months when there are less daylight hours. In some cases, individuals can develop Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression associated with lower levels of vitamin D. In addition to consuming vitamin D in our diets, our bodies produce vitamin D through sunlight exposure on the skin. Why is this so important? Because vitamin D promotes serotonin production, and as previously mentioned, serotonin is one of the “happy hormones” that greatly impacts our mood. Sunlight is also tied to restful sleep. Early sunlight exposure helps set our circadian rhythms, making it easier to fall asleep at night. So, take some time to get outside, it will help your mood and your sleep!
  5. Scheduling Joy
    The term “self-care” has always been a focus of mental health, for both clients and therapists. In recent years, this concept has infiltrated mainstream society, much in part due to the extreme stress we all experienced during the pandemic. While taking care of ourselves is vital to our well-being, the term “self-care” has become somewhat of a cliché that evokes images of often idealistic habits like massages and bubble baths. Instead, “scheduling joy” can feel much more attainable and realistic. It can mean scheduling a massage, but it can also mean listening to your favorite song on the way to work. It simply means being intentional about incorporating something that brings you joy or happiness into your routine, every single day. From having coffee with your partner in the morning, a walk outside during your lunch break (get that vitamin D and serotonin!) or watching your favorite TV series before bed, when we make these habits a priority, we are better equipped to handle life’s stressors, we improve our interpersonal relationships, we increase our distress tolerance skills and achieve a more balanced life overall. Anyone who has ever flown on an airplane knows that the flight attendants tell you to put your oxygen mask on first in case of emergency. If you don’t, you’ll be of no use to anyone around you. The same goes for taking care of ourselves. When we aren’t engaging in activities that bring us joy, we are less likely to bring joy to others.

Millions of adults and children experience mental illness each year. Just as with many other health conditions, prevention and early intervention can have a significant impact on recovery outcomes. The more proactive we are in taking care of ourselves on a daily basis, the healthier and happier our communities can be.


National Alliance on Mental Illness

Food Affects Mental Health

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Exercise for Mental Health

How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Mental Health