More people are suffering from stress or depression today than before. According to Statista, a leading provider of consumer and market data, approximately 11 percent of American adults reported symptoms of depression or anxiety in June 2019. As of April 2023, 21 percent are reporting symptoms of depressive disorder and 28.1 percent are reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder– around twice the previous amount reported.REF#1642
As we mark Mental Health Awareness Month, it is more important than ever to take account of your mental wellness and, if necessary, take steps to improve your overall health. In this article, we suggest seven ways to cope with mental health problems naturally and provide resources you can turn to for low or no-cost mental health support.
If you’re struggling to cope with depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorder, it’s important to note that while these natural techniques can be a helpful supplement to traditional mental health care, they are not a replacement for professional mental health treatment. If you are experiencing severe or persistent mental health symptoms, it's important to seek the guidance of a licensed mental health professional.
7 Essential Tools for Mental Wellness
Research has shown that past physical and mental health indirectly but strongly affects current physical and mental health. REF#1643
Chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and chronic pain have been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety. Conversely, poor mental health makes it harder to engage in the healthy behaviors that help you maintain good physical health, like eating a healthy diet, exercising, sleeping well, and avoiding tobacco, drugs, and alcohol.
The following seven techniques may help support both your physical and mental health and achieve overall well-being.
1. Exercise Regularly
Plan on developing a regular exercise routine, which might include walking, running, swimming, biking, tennis, weight training, yoga, or tai chi. When you’re feeling low, getting out and exercising can often elevate your mood and make you feel more energetic. It also provides an opportunity for social interaction, which can be good for your mood.
Exercise increases the production of endorphins, which are natural chemicals that promote feelings of well-being and reduce pain. It has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress and enhance cognitive function.
Generally, any form of physical activity you find enjoyable and sustainable is good for you. It's important to be consistent since regular exercise is typically more effective than sporadic workouts.
Research has shown that the foods you eat can have a significant impact on the millions of neurons that line the walls of your intestines. These neurons are part of the enteric nervous system (ENS), also known as the "second brain," containing a complex network of neurons that can operate independently of the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord. The ENS regulates the function of the digestive system, including the movement of food through the digestive tract, the secretion of digestive enzymes and hormones, and the absorption of nutrients.
There is growing evidence that disruption to the ENS can affect mental health. Because the ENS is connected to the brain via the vagus nerve, disruptions in gut function can lead to changes in brain function and vice versa. This is known as the gut-brain axis. When the gut is not functioning properly, it can lead to chronic inflammation and cause changes in the brain that affect mood and behavior. Additionally, disruptions to the balance of gut bacteria, which the ENS regulates, have also been linked to mental health issues. REF#1644
Thus, maintaining a healthy ENS through proper diet and lifestyle habits may support both digestive and mental health.
If you aren’t already eating a healthy whole foods diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, it’s important to be more mindful of your dietary choices and work to incorporate the following:
- Increase intake of fruits and vegetables: These are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help support brain health.
- Include complex carbohydrates: Carbohydrates help to regulate the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter primarily secreted in your gut that impacts mood. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, provide a steady source of energy and help regulate blood sugar levels.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids: These have anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Good sources of omega-3s include fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
- Reduce intake of ultra-processed foods: Processed sugar, saturated fats, and synthetic chemicals can contribute to inflammation and may impact mood negatively.
- Stay hydrated: Dehydration can cause fatigue and impact mood. Drinking enough water is important for overall health and well-being.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Adequate sleep is essential for good mental health. It helps to support emotional regulation, cognitive function, and overall well-being. Poor sleep quality or chronic insomnia can contribute to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. REF#1645
Here are some tips for coping with occasional insomnia:
- Stick to a consistent sleep schedule: Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Create a bedtime routine: Engage in relaxing activities such as reading, taking a warm bath, or practicing relaxation techniques before bed.
- Create a sleep-friendly environment: Ensure that your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. Remove any distractions and make your bedroom technology-free.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol: Avoid consuming caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime, as they can disrupt sleep.
- Exercise regularly: Engage in regular physical activity, but avoid exercising too close to bedtime, as it can be stimulating.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Try deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or other relaxation techniques to help you fall asleep.
You can learn more ways to improve your sleep in our article, “How to Improve Your Sleep with Better Sleep Hygiene.”
If you continue to have difficulty sleeping, despite trying these tips, it's important to speak with a healthcare provider, as there may be an underlying medical condition or other factors contributing to your insomnia.
4. Practice mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness practices and meditation techniques can be helpful in managing stress and anxiety. They can help keep you focused on the present moment, reduce negative thinking patterns, and promote relaxation. Here are some mindfulness practices and meditation techniques that may be helpful:
- Mindful breathing: Focus on your breath and notice how it feels as it enters and leaves your body. This can help you stay present and calm.
- Body scan meditation: Focus on different parts of your body, starting at your feet and working your way up to the top of your head. This can help you become more aware of physical sensations and reduce tension.
- Loving-kindness meditation: This type of meditation involves sending loving thoughts to yourself and others. It can help increase feelings of compassion and reduce negative self-talk.
- Mindful movement: Engage in gentle movement practices such as yoga, tai chi, or qigong, which can help promote relaxation and reduce stress.
- Mindful eating: Pay attention to the flavors, textures, and sensations of the food you are eating. This can help you become more aware of your eating habits and reduce overeating or emotional eating.
It's important to note that mindfulness practices and meditation techniques may not work for everyone, and it's important to find what works best for you. Regular practice and consistency are key, and it's important to seek professional help if symptoms persist.
5. Spend Time in Nature
Spending time in nature may help reduce symptoms of anxiety and promote overall brain health. REF#1646
While empirical research has demonstrated a connection between spending time in natural environments and improved working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attention, no studies prove that it improves mood. However, there is a growing belief that the frequency of time spent in nature does correlate with mental well-being.
6. Connect with others
Social isolation can have a profound impact on mental health, creating feelings of loneliness, sadness, and disconnection. Studies have shown that individuals who experience social isolation are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. REF#1646
On the other hand, social connection and support have been shown to be a protective factor against developing mental health disorders. Whether it is through spending time with loved ones, joining a community group, volunteering, or engaging in social activities, social connection can help promote feelings of belonging and well-being.
7. Supplement Your Diet with Natural Herbs
There is evidence to suggest that certain natural supplements and herbal remedies may be beneficial in reducing symptoms of anxiety or depression. However, if you’re suffering from a mental health issue, supplements are not a substitute for professional treatment and should be used under the guidance of a healthcare provider.
Some supplements and herbal remedies that may be helpful include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fish oil, flaxseed oil, and other sources, these have been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.*
- St. John's Wort: This plant extract has been used to treat depression, though it can interact with other medications, so it's important to speak with a healthcare provider before taking it.*
- Kava: This relaxing nervine may support emotional well-being.* You can learn more about its benefits here.
- American Skullcap: This may promote a naturally calm and balanced mood and supports the uptake of nutrition to the nerves.*
- Ashwagandha: This adaptogenic herb may help nourish and restore optimal nervous and immune system health.*
- Valerian: This may be helpful with stress management and occasional sleeplessness.*
- Chamomile: This may have calming effects and help reduce anxiety symptoms.*
It's important to note that natural supplements and herbal remedies can have side effects and may interact with other medications, so it's important to speak with a healthcare provider before taking them. Additionally, natural remedies may not work for everyone, and it's important to seek professional help if symptoms persist.
Helpful Community and Online Resources to Support Mental Health
If you or someone you care about is seeking mental health care or suicide prevention support, there is help available. Please know that reaching out for support is a sign of strength and the first step toward giving you the health you deserve. These resources may prove helpful.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: This hotline provides free and confidential support to people in crisis, 24/7. They also offer an online chat service. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
- Crisis Text Line: This service offers free, 24/7 support to anyone in crisis. Simply text HOME to 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. Visit https://www.crisistextline.org for more information.
- Mental Health America: This organization provides a variety of resources for mental health, including online screenings, educational materials, and information about finding low-cost or free mental health care. Visit https://www.mhanational.org for more information.
- NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness): This organization offers a variety of resources for individuals and families affected by mental illness, including support groups, educational programs, and advocacy efforts. Visit https://www.nami.org for more information.
- Open Path Psychotherapy Collective: This organization offers low-cost, in-person, and online therapy sessions with licensed therapists. Visit https://openpathcollective.org for more information.
- BetterHelp: This online therapy platform offers affordable therapy sessions with licensed therapists, as well as online counseling and support groups. Visit https://www.betterhelp.com for more information.
- Talkspace: This online therapy platform offers therapy sessions with licensed therapists, as well as counseling and support groups. They also offer a free consultation to determine if Talkspace is a good fit for your needs. Visit https://www.talkspace.com for more information.
AI-based mental health online support programs are just in their infancy, offering a low-cost and anonymous way to get mental health support. They use artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to provide tools and guidance to users and may provide a first step toward meeting your mental health goals (though they likely are not going to ever replace accredited, experienced therapists and counselors):
- Woebot: Woebot is an AI-based chatbot that uses cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to provide mental health support to users. The chatbot is available 24/7 and may help users manage anxiety, depression, and stress. Visit https://woebothealth.com.
- Wysa: Wysa is an AI-based mental health app that provides users with AI conversational care guides and personalized support and guidance for managing their mental health. It is currently available through select workplaces. Visit https://www.wysa.com/.
As we celebrate National Mental Health Month, it’s important to remember that mental health is an integral part of overall well-being. By taking care of yourself and prioritizing your mental health, you can build resilience and enhance your ability to cope with life's challenges.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health care, we hope the natural approaches outlined in this article provide a starting point to support your overall well-being and help to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health care.
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