If you are suffering from low mood, stress, or anxiety, have experienced a recent trauma or simply not feeling as well mentally as you feel you could be – there are a number of avenues you can pursue to help improve your mental wellbeing. Building resilience ideally needs to take a multi-pronged approach. There isn't just one factor that contributes to mental illness, feeling stressed or mental wellbeing - and likewise, the best forms of treatment use a number of modalities to support recovery.
It's empowering to understand that you can do something to support your mental health and build mental resilience alongside conventional medical treatments (antidepressant and talk therapy). Below are some practical factors to consider as part of your healing process to getting and staying well.
GET CHECKED OUT
The first thing to do if you are struggling with feeling low is to get a full assessment from your general practitioner or family doctor. There are medical factors which can cause changes in mood or mental state and it's important to have these ruled out.
Issues to look for include:
Anaemia (caused by low iron levels) can affect mood, energy and sleep and present like mild depression.
Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) can present as feeling low in energy, fatigue, wanting to sleep all the time as well as increased weight gain despite a reduced appetite.
Low B12 & Folate can affect energy levels, mood and iron levels.
Borderline test results can still signify problems in the intake, absorption or use of minerals and vitamins in the body, so check your results and if you are suspicious of a deficiency consider supplementation (NB your doctor may just say that your results are 'normal' – check them yourself to make sure they are not borderline range).
Talking helps. Seek out a psychologist, counsellor or therapist that you trust. Talking therapies (specifically ones such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)) have been proven to assist in the recovery of depression and anxiety and can help you build better coping skills. The most important component of therapy however is the rapport you have with the therapist/person giving you the therapy, so find someone you can relate to and that you are comfortable communicating with.
Finding someone you connect with is important when it comes to talk therapy.
STAYING IN THE MOMENT Our mind is constantly looking out for danger trying to predict what might go wrong in the future. It’s designed to do this to keep us safe. Noticing when you mind is stuck on past memories, unhelpful predictions and catastrophising - is one way of reducing stress created by negative thinking. As soon as you notice your mind wandering away, bring it back to the present by focusing on something you can see, hear, touch - or simply bringing your attention back to your breath (again and again).
About 11% of New Zealand women have low iron stores or iron deficiency.
Low iron can cause poor sleep, extreme fatigue and poor cellular function resulting in low mood. Folate (vitamin B9) deficiency has been shown in research to be common in those suffering from depression. In fact, people who have low folate levels are shown to have a poorer response to SSRI (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors – a type of antidepressant medication). Magnesium and Zinc deficiencies has also been shown to contribute to a low mood.
In New Zealand we have issues around soil deficiencies of selenium, boron and iodine. These nutrients can have an impact on your mental health. Two of these (selenium and iodine) are imperative to a well functioning thyroid, so deficiencies in these minerals can impact thyroid function.
Eating well can have a significant impact on your mood as shown by numerous studies. Both too much of the wrong food and not enough of the right food can affect your mental state. A wide and varied diet is the best way to prevent a deficiency, however if you are diagnosed as being low in iron, B12 or other nutrients – you may need supplementation. If your appetite is low and or you have difficulty consuming foods high in nutrients – a supplement may also be necessary for a period of time.
Poor nutrient foods such as processed refined carbohydrates can cause unsteady blood sugar levels – surges and dips which can also affect mood states, causing irritability and anxiety. Not eating any food at all can also cause low blood sugar levels. Try a food diary for a few days – and see if you notice any correlation between what you eat (or what you don't eat) and how you feel. Many people notice a significant difference by excluding certain foods (the most noticeable being sugar, alcohol, caffeine, gluten (or more simply wheat) and highly processed foods ie fast foods, baked goods etc).
There is increasing evidence that the bacteria in our gut can impact our mood. The best thing for promoting good gut bacteria is fermented foods and fibre from vegetables. Changing your diet from a standard western diet to a Mediterranean style diet has shown to actually put depression into remission in over 30% of people with depression, so your food really can impact your mood!
Good food can make a big difference to your mental health and wellbeing.
SUPPLEMENTS Research done by Professor Julia Rucklidge (see a summary of her work here) suggests that micronutrients can have a significant impact when it comes to recovery from a traumatic event. In her research, she found that those on high-dose multivitamins during and following the Christchurch earthquakes reported “reported greater improvement in mood, anxiety, and energy” than those on low-dose vitamins. With this information - we can suggest that supplementation or a high-dose multivitamin may actually help you cope and recover from a traumatic event. (You can view Julia’s Ted Talk here)
EXERCISE Exercise has been shown to be as effective as an antidepressant in some studies. Phone a friend, ask for support, tell them you want to get an exercise regime 3-4 times per week. It's doesn't need to be strenuous and you don't need to join a gym. Walking, preferably outside, in nature, is cheap, easy and requires no equipment. Do whatever you think you will enjoy. Even a five minute walk, swim, dance, stretch or yoga routine is going to be helpful.
Many studies show that being in 'green' spaces has a positive effect on well-being. Try to get outside daily, minimal 20 minutes and if all possible expose yourself to direct sunlight. This stimulates melatonin production to help you sleep at night and stimulates vitamin D production which has been shown to have a positive effect on mood.
Mind-body practices like Tai Chi, Chi Quong and other martial arts can be helpful as they also involve correct breathing techniques, which can help reduce stress and inflammation all on their own.
SLEEP Sleep is incredibly important for recovery and healing – and this includes recovery from a mental illness such as depression. It's the time the mind and brain are 'swept clean'. You don't want to oversleep (no more than 10 hours) nor under-sleep – ideally you should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night. If lack of sleep is a problem, you can try a supplement to assist with this (herbal or magnesium supplement can help) and start a good bedtime routine. Bed by 10pm, up around eight. Bring in relaxation exercises to help or try an app such as the CALM app which has sleep stories and relaxation techniques to try.
EXCLUDE There are also things in our every day lives that contribute to stress and can cause us to feel less resilient – and these things are to be avoided. For example caffeine can cause us to feel agitated and affect sleep, alcohol although may feel calming to us initially – can also cause poor sleep patterns. It is also, in its own right, a depressant. Building resilience and wellbeing requires a many pronged approach. Lifestyle changes will support your body, soul and mind in the healing process. The more areas of mental health you can work on, the more tools in the wellness toolbox and the greater the chances of recovery and staying well.
Helen Duyvestyn, Mental Health Nurse, (RcN, MHSc)
Helen is a registered nurse, specialising in mental health from a holistic perspective. She is passionate about supporting people to have optimal mental health and well-being.
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