Just as there are no magic fixes for broken bones or common illnesses, it can take time and patience to restore and improve mental health. Even the leading experts in mental health support willingly acknowledge that good mental health pivots on individuals taking responsibility for – and self-managing – many of the steps.
The fact that mental health is in the hands of patients makes self-care crucial.
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What does self-care mean?
This expression means something different to everyone, depending on what they feel gives their mental health a boost.
It can be as simple as creating daily ‘me time,’ which involves activities that make the individual relax, unwind, and enjoy the moment. For instance, it could be a walk in the park, a bubble bath, or curling up in a chair with a book.
On the other end of the spectrum, self-care can involve some major life decisions. For example, someone may need to begin distancing from toxic people who threaten their mental well-being. Or, as another example, someone may decide to change jobs to avoid being overwhelmed or overly stressed.
What self-care is required?
Journaling is often a great starting point in answering this question. It is something that mental health counselors often advise their patients to do, as it can prove beneficial on the road to better resilience and a stable mood.
It could involve writing down worries, triggers, and negative feelings, but it can be especially beneficial for patients to jot down things they plan to do to make positive changes. Patients can explore any steps they can take to protect and improve their mental health and the longer-term plans that will get them where they need to be.
Sometimes, finding what self-care methods work involves some experimentation. Patients could find that what helps someone else may add to anxiety or a low mood, for example.
Things that patients can try – beyond putting simple pleasures into their days – could include meditation and mindfulness. Yoga also creates good mental and physical harmony for many people. Learning breathing techniques for calmness can be invaluable, or patients could engage with things like art and music therapy. For some people, the best mental health boost is buying a dog as a loyal and loving companion! Others need to ‘get out of their head’ by traveling.
If an individual is not sure what would work for them, they could also ask for some professional insights and guidance.
The role of mental health services
Though self-care to protect and improve mental health is vital, there comes a time in many people’s lives when they need some extra help.
For this reason, there is a high demand for Mental Health Counselors. Walsh University delivers online programs to help individuals launch a career in this field and reports that career counseling, school counseling, and clinical mental health counseling are the top three niches with a lot of vacancies in the US.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2021 and 2031, there will be a 10% growth in job vacancies for career counselors and advisors and a 22% growth in substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors over the same period.
The role of a mental health counselor is not to ‘fix’ people, however. They create a safe, non-judgmental environment to help their patients through a process of self-discovery and self-exploration. They also support and validate thoughts and feelings, guiding patients purposefully and reassuringly.
Ultimately, the best counselors enhance feelings of self-worth and resilience, directing patients towards ways to self-manage mental health more effectively.
Learning to say ‘no’
Sometimes, protecting and improving mental health – or helping someone else to feel mentally and emotionally stronger – is not about actions. Instead, self-care can be about what someone doesn’t do.
For example, tackling depression can involve setting boundaries to avoid things that would make a patient feel worse. The patient needs to learn that they can’t necessarily put the needs and requests of others above their own coping strategies.
In other words, some patients may need to learn to say ‘no’ and stick to it. This is particularly true for individuals who can feel stress levels rising or their mood falling. Walking away from a situation or person can aid stressed individuals by allowing them space to compose, relax, clear their heads, or simply take deep breaths.
Establishing small, significant milestones
One of the ways a counselor can help someone to repair, improve, or protect their mental health is to set a series of achievable goals. Sustained recovery from some mental health issues – such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder – can take time. Rather than seeing it as a mountain to climb, it can be helpful for patients to focus on taking individual steps in the right direction.
These recovery steps could involve a wide range of things to improve mental health, including physical, emotional, environmental, spiritual, social, or recreational activities. For instance, a first milestone could be attending a social gathering for an hour and talking to someone familiar. The second could be going to a social gathering for two hours and chatting with a stranger.
Sleep, nutrition, and exercise
No article exploring the connection between self-care and good mental health would be complete without mentioning these three things. Mental, emotional, and physical health are inextricably linked. Just as poor mental health can bring physical symptoms, not investing in physical health has a substantial impact on mental strength.
Good self-care can certainly start via a healthy sleep pattern. According to The Sleep Foundation, most adults need at least seven hours of sleep every 24 hours. That doesn’t mean dozing, snoozing, or wrestling with bed clothes, however. Quality of sleep is vital, as humans need to pass through several REM cycles each night, where they achieve low muscle tone and experience rapid eye movements.
Unfortunately, low mood can make it hard to get to sleep – or stay asleep. Which in turn makes poor mental health worse.
What is eaten can improve both the ability to sleep and mental health in general.
The UK Mental Health Foundation makes clear that eating improves mood. This includes eating regularly to balance blood sugar levels, staying properly hydrated, and being purposeful in nutrition. Getting a good range of vitamins and minerals will give individuals more energy and will support their cardiovascular, brain, and immunity health alongside mental health.
For instance, a diet with sufficient zinc and magnesium is believed to be a good way of regulating the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, it helps individuals to relax, stay calmer, and sleep better. There are studies to suggest they play a role in managing anxiety, too.
Self-care does not necessarily involve expensive gym memberships or going on long runs each day. Self-managing mental health is also not a ‘one size fits all’ recommendation.
There are a lot of reasons why moving around can have a positive impact on mood, not to mention how it can help individuals develop an appetite for healthy food intake. One is that exercise can make individuals feel physically tired, which can help improve sleep patterns.
Secondly, regular physical activity triggers the release of certain hormones. This includes dopamine – often referred to as the ‘feel-good’ hormone – and serotonin, which regulates mood and sleep. Individuals can also stimulate more endorphins, which are nature’s own pain and anxiety relief system. Exercise is not the only way to release endorphins to elevate mental health. They can also be triggered by enjoyable activities and by having sex.
Another reason exercise can be a good self-care option to improve mental health is that it can give individuals something purposeful to do each day and a set of low-pressure goals. It becomes especially beneficial when individuals combine exercise with fresh air and green or blue space.
The outdoors and mental health self-care
Simply making time to get fresh air every day can be an easy way for some individuals to boost their mental health.
Exposure to natural light stimulates some of the hormones mentioned above and provides more vitamin D, which brings a whole range of important benefits, including more energy. Fresh air removes toxins from the respiratory system, lowers the heart rate, and increases the amount of oxygen traveling through the bloodstream. Many people often sleep better because of plenty of fresh air, too.
Taking big gulps of fresh air in green or blue spaces is also beneficial for self-care. There is a lot of scientific research to support the theory that being near bodies of water or open fields and forests is good for mental health. Being around nature has a soothing and calming effect, which can make meditation and mindfulness easier.
Whatever individuals choose to do for self-care – from a new career to a walk in a forest – it’s a wise investment of time and will support good mental health.
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