Did you know that October is Mental Health Awareness Month? It seems appropriate to have an entire month dedicated to mental health, considering its importance in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, which can include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors. The recent pandemic has not made things easier, and many Americans feel that their mental health has been harmed as a result of the stress, worry, and isolation brought on by recent events. Mental health disorders can range from mild to severe. Besides always seeking the help of a professional who can advise treatment, engaging in proper self-care can greatly help in making us feel stronger, more resilient, and able to handle whatever the day throws at us. Below are 5 self-care habits I incorporate daily for stronger mental health and well-being, and to ensure I’m operating at my best. I call them My 5 Pillars of Sanity.
1. Morning Meditation
The benefits of meditation on emotional health and well-being have long been known. For years I attempted to get into a consistent meditation practice, but I was sporadic at best. More recently, I decided to attempt just 10 minutes of meditation as soon as I wake up and after I brush my teeth (attaching a new habit to one that is already established, like brushing teeth, greatly increases the chances of the new habit sticking). A behavior done first thing in the morning doesn’t risk not getting done because the day has slipped away. As a fairly inexperienced meditator, I chose a guided morning meditation. You can find so many on the app store and YouTube that are completely free. The result? I stuck with it – and I start every day in a positive state of mind. The positivity and focus continues throughout the day. Even bad days are better.
If 10 minutes feels too long, try just 2-5 minutes to start, and stay consistent.
2. Protein At Every Meal
If anything can send you on an emotional rollercoaster, it’s blood sugar fluctuating and dipping too low. Low blood sugar can cause bad mood and irritability, not to mention cravings for more foods that cause unstable blood sugar. It’s a vicious cycle. Foods that contain processed simple carbohydrates, such as chips, cookies, white bread and pasta, pizza, ice cream, and sweetened beverages flood your blood with sugar. To move that sugar into your cells where it can be used for energy, your body releases a hormone called insulin. But it’s not an exact science, and you often release more insulin than you need, which removes too much sugar from your bloodstream – what we call low blood sugar. See the problem?
To prevent low blood sugar from causing you to crash and burn, center your meals around protein, and swap simple carbohydrates for complex sources, such as sprouted bread, quinoa, sweet potatoes, oats, and whole grain crackers. Focusing on protein and complex carbs can become one of your self-care habits that will contribute to stronger mental health and well-being.
For some of my favorite protein and complex carbohydrate choices, check out this post!
3. Take Vitamins (if you need them)
I debated sharing this self-care behavior with you. As you may know, the supplement industry is infamously unregulated. Ads for supplements tout magical health benefits, but you don’t really know what you’re getting. My stance? Find out what you’re deficient in and only supplement with those vitamins and minerals.
In my case, I take vitamin D, and there’s a good chance you may need to as well, as it’s not readily found in food. Unless you spend plenty of time in the sunshine, your vitamin D levels are likely too low. I also take an iron supplement. Iron-deficiency is the most common deficiency among women of child-bearing age. Menstrual cycles and childbirth both increase iron requirements, but many women, including myself, aren’t that fond of red meat and other natural sources of iron. Low iron can cause fatigue and crankiness – no thanks! That’s why I place great importance on getting enough of it. However, ingesting too much iron is toxic, so please get your levels checked and consult with a doctor before supplementing.
Exercise is one of the greatest known mood enhancers. In fact, regular aerobic exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Huzzah! That’s right. Get moving. Can’t do 30 minutes? Break it up into 3 ten minute chunks throughout the day. The main thing is to move, and if possible, break a sweat and get those endorphins going. It doesn’t even have to be on a fancy cardio machine. I’ve been known to host my own (very-embarrassing-if-anyone-saw-me) dance parties during quick breaks in my day.
A little sweat plus getting your blood flowing can transform your day in minutes. Daily movement is one of my favorite (and one of the most effective for my life) self-care habits for stronger mental health and well-being.
5. At Least 7 Hours of Sleep
If this wasn’t on everyone’s to-do list, I’m not sure what is. It’s way easier said than done to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. The health benefits are countless: less stress, better mood, fewer cravings, sharper focus, stronger immune system – the list goes on and on. Of course, in reality you’ve given up on wishing that there were more hours in the day, and instead have been trying to cram in everything on your to-do list before collapsing face first on your bed. Or maybe it’s just me. (I doubt it.) We lead busy, hectic lives. But the consequence of not getting enough sleep affects more than just the circles under our eyes – it can have a disastrous effect on our patience and ability to control our emotions.
Have an early morning schedule but want to get more sleep? Start by committing to a slightly earlier bedtime each night (even by just 10-15 minutes), until you’re in a consistent 7-or-more hours of sleep per night routine. Sleep is an absolutely essential self-care habit for strong mental health, well-being, and for anything that life throws our way.
There’s a difference between staying up to do work that pays your bills, or taking care of sick kids that need comforting, and staying up binge-watching The Office. Don’t sacrifice your state of mind for Netflix. It’s not worth it.
Self-care habits are important to incorporate into our daily routines for stronger mental health and optimal well-being. Being consistent with self-care is especially important considering what we’ve been through collectively over the past few months. And it’s not over.
What I need to stay as sane as possible (my Pillars of Sanity) may differ from what you require. Figure out what self-care habits make you feel your strongest, and prioritize these, because no one else will do it for you.
Looking to sleep better, eat a bit healthier, build a practice of self-care, or just want to feel more energetic each day? Let Shapa be your virtual coach. Shapa focuses your program based on YOUR lifestyle and YOUR goals so you can build healthy habits and achieve lasting results. Learn more about the Shapa difference.
About the author:
Sharone completed her Masters of Science in Nutrition and Education at Columbia University. Having overcome her own not-so-great relationship with food, she is passionate about helping others achieve their health and weight loss goals while finding balance. She enjoys hanging out with her two daughters, husband, giant dog, and cat, especially all together when shenanigans are involved. To learn more about scheduling a nutrition counseling session with Sharone, click here. For more tips and tricks for nutritious living, check out Sharone’s Instagram and Twitter.
Check out more of Sharone’s articles on the Shapa Blog here.