In my life I have battled with anxiety and OCD. At times these have seemed completely consuming and at others a more of a background noise. Since working with a psychologist and conquering major aspects of my mental health giants, I have noted that mental health can be approached from many angles.
In conjunction with retraining my mind - understanding how I am wired and rewriting thought narratives with the help of a psychologist - I have made a number of small yet impactful lifestyle changes. These mental maintenance tips are comprised of the latter and have been some of the most impactful for me.
1. Creating a stable community
Friendships, family relationships and romantic relationships are all some of the things we hold most dearly in life. Connecting with others adds meaning to our lives, it helps us to grow, learn and exercise compassion and empathy. In a time-poor and social-media oriented age we find ourselves substituting deep, authentic relational time for time spent working, scrolling and partying. This is a major contributor to loneliness and lack of fulfillment and is an element of our lives that must be nurtured.
An analysis of a data set pertaining to 60 000 50+ years old adults in 2004 & 2006 determined a relationship between the quality of an individual’s social support network and their experience of depressive moods (Gibney and McGovern, 2011). The study concluded that depressive moods were lessened in participants who were involved in strong social support networks.
When we feel isolated and lonely it can be difficult to step out and plug ourselves into an already existing one or even create our own. Joining a Bible study, small group or club can be a really great way to get connected. For me, introducing my friends to one another and really sewing into the developing relationships I was creating began to help me to forge a consistent and intentional social network.
2. Pursue long term goals
One of the most dramatic positive changes in my mental health happened when I started studying biomedical science at university. To a lot of people that seemed really strange! For many people university means deadlines and stress but for me it means goals and purpose.
Having spent 3 years working and travelling after high school I was beginning to feel lost. It was a sense of missing satisfaction that pushed me to finally enrol in my course and I was overwhelmingly surprised by how much that longing was fulfilled by doing so!
Research article ‘The Relationships Between First Year Students’ Sense of Purpose and Meaning in Life, Mental Health and Academic Performance’ investigates this subject. The study collected empirical data from 269 18–20-year-old first year students in higher education (van der Walt, 2019). The students completed a “Purpose in Life test” and also a “Mental Health Screening Questionnaire.” It was found that most of the students were still discovering their sense of purpose and meaning and those who scored higher in these categories also had superior mental health.
I have found that we often need multiple avenues of meaning and purpose in life to truly be satisfied. This can include the pursuit of career goals, spiritual deepening, fighting for social justice and important causes and of course relational goals. We need to maximise the use of our skills, explain life’s purpose, and know that we are growing and helping others to grow. Looking at our lives and identifying areas that are lacking is important as we make positive lifestyle changes.
3. Cleaning your room
Maintaining a clean room, and house, can improve our mental health. There is a strong correlation between our experience of our time spent at home and the way we perceive their cleanliness. A 2010 study by Darby E. Saxbe and Rena Repetti published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that of the 60 individuals studied, women who described their homes as being “cluttered” or with projects left unfinished experienced heightened depressed moods throughout a day than women with homes described as “restorative” (Saxbe and Repetti, 2010).
Utilising this knowledge can be a game changer in our days. Creating morning routines of tidying your desk for study or making your bed as the first thing you do in the morning can set you off on the right foot for the rest of your day. I personally find that the process of cleaning in and of itself is very cathartic and helps me to orient myself in the right mindset for the tasks ahead.
4. Getting enough sunlight
Our brains require enough lux of light to function properly. Most of the lux of sunlight we receive comes from the sun (it comes in lower doses from indoor lights etc.) and ensuring that we receive enough sunlight can have a big impact on our mood.
In a 2009 study (Kent et al.) the way that cognitive function was impacted by sunlight exposure was measured. 16,800 participants were studied using both a screener questionnaire and depression scale. Results showed that participants with lower exposure to sunlight had a higher likelihood of impaired cognitive function.
As a person I find my mood is very impacted by how much sunlight I receive per day. I find it important to go for a walk around my neighbourhood on days when I am couped at work or studying in the library. For people who study like me, spending a little time outside per day can be a good brain break as well as a natural mood booster.
Now you’ve got the evidence, these mental maintenance tips really do impact the way we feel. It’s time to go out and apply any that are lacking in your life. I don’t claim that these tips substitute or usurp receiving professional mental health care. They are rather important tools that improve the way we live. If we can live happier lives by taking these small steps, then today is a great a day as any to make the start!
Lucy Miles can often be found singing or dancing her way through any one particular moment. Such joyous expression is brought forth from her love of the Lord, learning and people. She currently lives in Switzerland and is enrolled in a Ministry and Leadership Development School with Youth with a Mission (YWAM) and is excited to step into a staff role in January of next year.