Simple ideas for improving mental health

Photo Credit: Toomas Tartes | Unsplash

Today there plenty of expensive supplements, products, and trends to improve mental health, but what simple, free, and effective things can we do?

Any kind of mental health issue can be complex and usually, it requires that we tackle it from a variety of angles. However, sometimes the simplest things are the most powerful for our health.

These tips are easy to implement, which doesn’t mean they will change you in a day. They require a bit of patience and perseverance for them to work. It’s as if you were introducing these subtle but deep changes in your body, and over time, the benefits add up. These habits engage the digestive, respiratory, and nervous systems in a simple and caring way, and they will help almost anybody who wants to work on their well-being.

Drink your food, chew your water

For years I was told by people “You eat so fast!”, or “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone eat that fast!”. I used to gulp my food down like some kind of prehistoric bird. Chew your food until it melts away in your mouth. The enzymes in your saliva will start breaking down food, and your digestive system will have a much easier time absorbing the nutrients that will be carried to the cells in your body.

When you chew your food slowly, your body relaxes, and when you relax, your parasympathetic nervous system turns on, which among other things, takes care of digestion.

The nervous system in your body is divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” response; when it gets activated, it drives blood to the extremities so you can put up a good fight or run really fast. It doesn’t really care about digestion at all, and its purpose is to keep you alive in a dangerous situation. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system takes care of the rest and repair of the body. It slows down the heart rate and increases digestion.

The problem when we are constantly anxious or stressed is that we sit at the table to eat and we are not relaxed, so our stomach is not “turning on”, and the digestive juices are not flowing properly.

Chewing your food is one of the simplest things you can do to improve digestion, which is so essential that an improvement there will have an effect on overall health.

Spend time in nature

This one might seem plain common sense to you, and if it doesn’t, there is growing scientific research that a walk in nature can do wonders for your body and mind. It relaxes you, you produce some vitamin D thanks to the sun, intake much needed fresh air, and walking is a very healthy form of exercise. Think about when you were a kid, didn’t you love running around in the green grass or playing hide and seek in a forest with your friends? When we are children, we intuitively love playing in nature.

One example of the influence of nature on the brain is its effect on children with ADHD. A 2004 study by Frances E. Kuo, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, found out playing and doing activities in nature helps reduce the symptoms of kids with ADHD. Her study tracked 452 kids from ages 5 to 18 across different income and geographical backgrounds, as well as across severity of diagnosis.

A much wider study with adults from 2020, conducted by Matthew White of the European Center for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, found out that people who spent 2 hours a week in green spaces (parks or natural environments) were more likely to enjoy good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. This study tracked 20.000 people, and it was done across different occupations, ethnic groups, income backgrounds and health conditions.

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Try to make it a habit to spend time in natural environments almost every day. Do whatever you can, if you can only spend 15 minutes at a city park, then that’s better than nothing. If near your house there is a small hill or mountain, use it as a way of getting fresh and clean air, in addition to a bit of exercise. If you start including nature as part of your routine, you will notice the benefits pretty soon.

Natural Breathing

We need to breathe to live, right? It’s probably the most important body activity but we pay little attention to it. Most people breathe using the muscles in their chest and shoulders. This is actually not a very effective way to breathe.

The way the natural breath works is from the diaphragm. The diaphragm expands, slightly making the belly rise. The air comes in, filling the lower part of the lungs first and then the rest. According to the Vietnamese Zen monk Thic Nhat Hanh, in ancient times, people spoke of the breath starting at the navel and finishing at the nostrils.

To see what kind of breather you are, put a hand on your chest and the other one on your belly or close below the diaphragm. The diaphragm is right under your rib cage. It is actually connected to the bottom of your lungs. Now breathe naturally. What part of your body moves more? Does your chest move or does your belly move? Don’t try to force it, breathe naturally to see what muscles you are using. If you use the chest and shoulders, you could improve the way you breathe.

This breathing is so good for your mental health because it relaxes the whole body and nervous system. It creates a kind of wave and subtle movement in your body, massaging your internal organs. If you develop a habit of breathing in a relaxed, deep way, you will also bring in much more oxygen, making a big difference in how you feel.

Please don’t get discouraged. It’s not easy to change the way we breathe because our chest muscles have become used to our current way of breathing.. In many cases, shallow breathing has gone on for so long that the chest and lungs have become smaller. The body will get used to using less air, adapting to just getting by. If you practice deep breathing exercises, you should ease into it without forcing your body. The body is flexible and with time, it will adjust to a new kind of movement.

Try to practice natural breathing for 5 or 10 minutes every day. Simply sit with your back straight or lie down on a mat. Notice how your body and breath feel. Breathe deeply and notice how focusing on your breath slowly relaxes you. Put a hand on the belly and notice how it rises and falls. Try to breathe in a way that your belly is moving a bit, pushed by the movement of the diaphragm.

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Practice relaxation

Making time for practicing relaxation can help with all kinds of problems. Today we think we know how to relax but we really don’t. Whenever we have some free time, we anxiously reach for our phones or turn on the TV. We are slowly losing the ability to do nothing. Try making time for just being with yourself and actually relaxing completely, without distractions. You can do this wherever you want, but a quiet room at home will make it easier at first.

You can lie down on a mat or couch and make yourself comfortable in anyway that you prefer. Breathe easily and gently. Focus gently on your breath going in and out and you will start relaxing. Slowly start by relaxing the arms and legs, then relax the chest and stomach, then shoulders, the neck and the head. This is very simple but very effective, and the more you practice, the more you will be able to relax. You will also develop more awareness of your body and you will learn to identify what is going on, what areas are tense or feel strange.

Relaxing is not being lazy. It’s taking the time to take care of yourself. In fact, try it, after working hard for a couple of hours, lie down and relax for just five minutes. You fill find that you feel more energized and can accomplish more later.

There is one technique that is very useful in creating relaxation. It’s called progressive relaxation. It was developed by a man called Edmund Jacobson in the 1920’s. You tense muscles in your body and then relax them. This moves blood out and brings it in. It energizes the area and awakens the nerves. Here’s an example you can try at home.

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