If you’re needing mental health assistance please call BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636. Or if social anxiety has got you good, you can always message for help at lifeline.org.au/get-help/onlineservices/crisischat/ or text White Wreath at 0410 526 562
“Exercise? I thought you said extra fries!” When feeling depressed or anxious it is all too easy to reach for the fast food and spend all day in bed. Sometimes just the walk to the local greasy spoon cafe can seem like too much effort. Others might find they lose their appetite and can’t bear the thought of food at all.
One of the most fundamental routes to good mental health is by keeping yourself physically fit through exercise and healthy eating. Now I hear you exclaim: “exercise? I thought you said extra fries!” But don’t protest! When feeling depressed or anxious it is all too easy to reach for the fast food and spend all day in bed. Sometimes just the walk to the local greasy spoon cafe can seem like too much effort. Others might find they lose their appetite and can’t bear the thought of food at all. But the benefits of healthy food and exercise are indisputable. So it is important to try and overcome any aversions to it.
Eating your way to happiness
You’re probably already aware that fruit and vegetables are good for physical health. But you’re less likely to know how they can improve your mental wellbeing. If you eat fresh fruit and vegetables on a daily basis you are less likely to experience long-term mental health problems, according to a study by the UK-based mental health research body, The Mental Health Foundation. The quality of food you eat can affect your mood, controlling the amount of serotonin released by the brain. It can also impact how you deal with stress if you are deprived of certain nutrients for a prolonged period of time. While fried foods can exacerbate irritable bowel syndrome, a stress-related illness, others will serve to reinforce your body against it.
A healthy diet always requires a balance and it is important to eat foods from each of the main food groups: carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and calcium. Here are some of the foods that are particularly powerful for good mental health.
Our brains, being largely made up of fats, require that we eat fats in order to function well. Oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or sardines, can provide a healthy source of omega 3 fats that are especially important for our brains. It can also be found in seaweed and walnuts, which also help maintain healthy brain functioning.
Spinach, kale and broccoli are all good sources of folic acids important for ensuring you get a good night’s sleep and avoiding mental health conditions like depression.
The brain’s primary energy source is glucose but that’s not any reason to grab a sugar-coated bun. Glucose can be found in healthy sources such as bulgur wheat, quinoa and sweet potatoes. These feed your brain without the dangerous sugar rush and low from processed snacks.
Although it can taste too bitter for some, after you start eating dark chocolate you quickly join the cocoa snobs and never want to touch milk chocolate again. Dark chocolate also has some benefits for mental health, improving blood flow to the brain to aid its healthy functioning. It also contains high levels of iron and magnesium which has some proven use as a natural antidepressant.
Eating healthily doesn’t mean eating less either. There are plenty of healthy options and combinations out there, such as these recipes designed especially for good mental health. Also, my good friend Gabby over at Kitch'n Thyme has some truly incredible recipes. As a qualified chef, and with her husband Toby as a naturopath, they're not just beautiful recipes, but wholesome and comforting.
Exercise away the blues to a new healthy you
When you’re low, stressed or anxious, exercise is probably one of the last things you feel like doing. But sometimes it’s your best chance at a quick, if temporary, fix. A long period of gentle exercise can rid you of any unwanted negative energy. You may also have heard that exercise can help release serotonin and improve your mood. This is true. It also helps relieve stress, improves focus and helps to calm you down. You don’t have to limit yourself to intensive gym sessions either. Gym’s can be dismal places, especially when you are on a machine, staring at a blank wall, peddling for your life but going nowhere. If the weather is nice, try getting outside for the added benefit of vitamin D, a natural mood enhancer from the sun. Here are some suggestions for different sorts of exercise and how you could use them to improve your mental health.
Yoga for stress and anxiety
This slow sport, focused around your breath will help to recentre and calm you if you suffer from any form of anxiety. Deep breathing helps to convince your body it doesn’t need to enter ‘fight or flight’ mode. It can also do wonders for your flexibility and core strength. If you don't like the idea of group a session, you can also follow a video lesson at home in the comfort of your own bedroom.
Dance for depression
There is nothing better than a good boogie with a bunch of friends for lifting your spirits. Salsa bars often provide lessons but if freestyle is your thing you have plenty of options too. Maybe book tickets for a live concert that you know you’d love, or look for a night in local bars or clubs. It will also help having something to look forward to if you’re going through a difficult time. This is another sport that is easy to do by yourself at home and who doesn’t love letting themselves go wild in a bit of bedroom dancing.
Swimming for general health
If you have access to a local pool, doing lengths with the water sliding over you can be a very relaxing way to get fit. It also helps with focus, to calm your nerves and relieve stress.
Running or walking to release negative energy
Find a good route, through a local park or bit of countryside. Seeing nature can be healing; green is a calming colour and apparently contact with plants and earth is another good way to release seretonin.