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Improve mental health in the New Year
January 6, 2015, 4:17 pm

Many people setting New Year resolutions will probably incorporate improvements in physical health - such as hitting the gym and losing weight – but how about giving some thought to improving your mental health in the year ahead?

Before we get carried away, let us first define mental health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) mental health is a "state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community." WHO adds that mental health is an integral part of overall health and indeed, there is no health without mental health.

This is a statement that is supported by numerous studies that found that individuals with poor mental health are at increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, as well as have higher risk of heart disease and stroke. What is more, studies have associated poor mental health with gender discrimination, social exclusion, increased risk of violence and crime and an unhealthy lifestyle.

Here are a few ways in which you could improve your mental health and well-being in the year ahead.

Healthy diet: Your brain needs a mix of nutrients to stay healthy and function well, just like the other organs in your body. One of the healthiest diets is considered to be the Mediterranean diet, which incorporates high consumption of beans, nuts, cereals, seeds, plant-based foods and fruits. The diet is also low in saturated fat, includes moderate consumption of fish, poultry and dairy, and low consumption of meats and sugary foods.

A research team at the University of Warwick Medical School in the UK found that of 14,000 adults, 35.5 percent of participants who ate five or more portions of fruits and vegetables a day had good mental well-being, compared with 6.8 percent of participants who ate less than one portion a day.

There are also a number of foods and drinks that are associated with poor mental health, these include foods and drinks containing sugar, artificial additives (E numbers) and caffeine, as spikes in our intake in these can be detrimental to our mental health. High alcohol consumption has also been linked to increased risk of anxiety and depression, therefore mental health experts recommend limiting alcohol intake to promote good mental well-being.

Regular exercise: Physical activity is important for all aspects of health, including mental well-being. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise.


But you do not have to engage in long, dull sessions on the treadmill to reap the mental health benefits of exercise. Recently, a study by researchers from the University of Michigan found that group nature walks could promote good mental well-being.

These findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone's daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression.

Being cooped up indoors or living a largely sedentary lifestyle both at the office and on the sofa at home can have a knock-on effect on mental health

Sufficient sleep: It is common knowledge that sleep problems can affect our mental well-being; too little sleep over a sustained period can leave you vulnerable to developing mental health problems.

But there are lots of things that you can do to improve your chances of getting a good night's sleep. The Mayo Clinic recommend going to bed and getting up at the same time every day - even at the weekends and during holidays - as a routine can boost the body's sleep-wake cycle, promoting a better night's sleep.

A bedtime ritual - such as a warm bath or reading a book - may also encourage better sleep; as such rituals tell the body it is time to wind down. The sleep environment is important for a good night's sleep; most people tend to sleep better in a cool, dark and quiet room. Electrical screens, TVs, computers and phones all stimulate your brain, making it hard to relax, so it is best to switch them off in advance, to help you switch off.

A high intake of alcohol, caffeine and sugary foods in the evening can disrupt sleep patterns, so experts recommend limiting their use for a better night's sleep.

Manage stress: Researchers from the University of California-Berkeley found stress can make the brain more susceptible to mental illness. But there are ways in which we can reduce or manage stress to promote better mental well-being.

Numerous studies have reported the stress-reducing benefits of yoga and mindfulness-based meditation. Any activity that puts the body into a state of rest by changing its gene response to stress can reduce the risk of anxiety and depression.

Staying positive during difficult times may also reduce stress. Something as simple as smiling during stressful periods could lower the body's stress response, regardless of whether a person is feeling happy or sad.

Adopting the lifestyle changes mentioned previously - such as a healthy diet, regular exercise and quality sleep - can also help combat stress. Other useful techniques for managing ongoing stress include making lists to help put things into perspective, taking regular breaks and being assertive about not taking on too much.

Developing good relationships with colleagues so you can build up a network of support and confiding in someone you trust, at work or outside, about what upsets you or makes you feel stressed can also help you feel on top of workplace stress.

Voluntary work and hobbies: Concentrating on a hobby can help you forget your worries for a while and change your mood say experts in mental health.

Doing voluntary work is also found to be beneficial to one’s mental health. Caring for others is often an important part of keeping up relationships with people close to you. It can even bring you closer together.  

Having positive interaction with friends and family is also important for good mental health. Being sociable and connecting with other people is rewarding in its own right and can help significantly improve mental well-being. Perhaps even more importantly, building up a support network can also be vital for when you are not feeling so good."


New Year Resolutions — how to maintain them

Set your goals ahead of New Year's Day; do not wait until the last minute

Talk to friends, family and work colleagues about your resolutions and tell them how they can help you stick to them

Keep a weekly record of how far you have come; this can help you stay motivated

When you achieve a goal, celebrate by treating yourself

If you slip up - for example, you break your diet one day - treat it as a minor setback. You can always get back on track the following day

It will take time to get used to any changes you have made, but if you are finding it difficult, do not give up.

Also remember you do not need a new year to make healthy changes; you can make them at any time of the year. Just set realistic goals, develop an action plan and set it in motion."

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