So far in this series, we’ve explored ways to improve mental health that are focused inward—your sleep and physical activity, your nutrition, and your mindfulness and stress management. But the last mental health factor concerns your interactions with the world around you. Social connectedness can boost happiness and decrease feelings of loneliness, ultimately improving your mental health and overall quality of life. Thus, feeling connected is just as important as all the other components.
The effects of loneliness
Quite often, we think loneliness means “being alone”. But it’s possible to surround yourself with people and still feel lonely. “Loneliness is defined as a feeling of…lacking social connectedness,” said Douglas Nemecek, M.D., a chief medical officer at Cigna, in a recent interview with CBS News. When we feel lonely, it means we don’t have enough meaningful relationships to meet our personal needs, and those needs are highly personal and could mean 1 close friend or 20 loose connections.
Loneliness can lead to serious health consequences. Research studies indicate the following physical effects:
But through meaningful, deep connections, we can stop these physical effects while also boosting mental health. We can feel connected to society, which helps us view life through a positive lens and feel happier. We can also live life at a higher level, making it easier to discover our purpose and meaning. “Social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being,” said Dr. Emma Seppala, in an interview with The New York Times. These outward connections can positively impact every area of our lives.
Ways to improve social connectedness
To reduce your feelings of loneliness, it’s important to identify the relationships you currently have and assess whether they are meeting your emotional needs. We typically need three distinct types of connections to feel fulfilled:
Meaningful, deep connections play a tremendous role in our well-being. Without them, we put our mental and physical health at risk. Take the time to cultivate each type of connection to reaffirm your purpose and increase your sense of belonging.
So far in this series, we’ve explored the ways mental health is directly impacted by physical and nutritional habits. However, our mental health is also affected by the ways we manage stress and anxiety coming from this; one way to do this is to promote mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a mental state in which you can be fully engaged in the present moment, and quite often, this is achieved through the practice of meditation. With a regular focus on mindfulness, we can handle any stress we encounter because we can think objectively about each situation and choose the appropriate course of action quickly. But without mindfulness, stress can linger and have an increasingly bigger impact on our lives. It can start as small as negative thoughts in the back of your mind and, if not addressed through a regular mindfulness practice, those thoughts can grow into something more detrimental like anxiety or depression. Thus, an ongoing focus on mindfulness gives us an effective way to not only manage stress but also maintain mental health and protect our general well-being.
The effects of mindfulness
A 2014 study about meditation programs effectively demonstrates the connection between mindfulness and mental health. In the study, researchers reviewed 41 different trials involving nearly 3,000 participants. In each trial, a mindful meditation practice reduced feelings of depression, anxiety, and physical pain. And this study is just one of an expanding body of research studies that have reached the same conclusion.
Just a few minutes of daily mindful meditation can produce notable mental health improvements:
Ways to be more mindful
Practicing mindfulness requires consistency—daily meditation sessions of at least 15 minutes. However, carving out space in your schedule, and protecting that space, can be difficult. To get started, there are a few steps you can take:
But most important, just get started. You can do it right now—sit up straight, set a gentle alarm for 5 minutes, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back. Now, stop reading and start meditating. You’re one step closer to a calmer state of being.
Background information: Mindfulness and your brain
Though the effects of mindfulness may seem more subjective, it has measurable effects on your brain.
A regular mindfulness practice can decrease anxiety by breaking the connection between two key areas: your Me Center and your Fear Center. Your Me Center, the medial prefrontal cortex, is where you process information in relation to your feelings and experiences. Your Fear Center, the amygdala, governs your body’s “fight or flight” response. Without mindfulness, your Me Center automatically interprets new bodily sensations as negative and decides whether to fight or flee. But through mindfulness, your Me Center stops connecting new sensations and experiences with fear, and gives you the opportunity to enjoy them.
Additionally, a regular mindfulness practice can improve your objectivity, by increasing the connection between your Assessment Center and insula. Your Assessment Center, the lateral prefrontal cortex, is what allows you to see things in a balanced way. Your insula controls your gut feelings and bodily sensations. Without mindfulness, you’re more inclined to view gut feelings and bodily sensations in a negative way. But with increased mindfulness, you can actually stop to think about what they mean before making a decision.
And lastly, mindfulness strengthens your sense of empathy. Your Me Center is split into two parts, one that processes information related to you and people like you and another that process info regarding people who are unlike you. Mindfulness builds the connection between the insula and the part of your Me Center that handles info about people unlike you. Without mindfulness, your brain would automatically associate fear and negativity with people who are different. But with mindfulness, this automatic response is suppressed, giving you the ability to consider others’ points of view.
Psychology Today’s Rebecca Gladding, M.D. covers these connections and brain functions in great detail in the 2013 piece, “This Is Your Brain on Meditation”.
Mental health is impacted by four factors—your physical, nutritional, emotional, and social well-being. In the previous installment of this series, we explored the many ways physical activity and sleep can affect mental health as well as best practices to improve both components. However, to reap the full benefits of those improvements, you must also examine your nutrition.
In recent years, an ever-growing body of research has linked nutrition to numerous mental health conditions. “We know there’s a link between food and mental health and mental status, especially depression,” said Mark Haub, a Kansas State University nutrition professor, in a 2018 article about nutritional psychiatry.
One such study observed 120 children and adolescents as they consumed sugar, soft drinks, and fast food. These subjects were diagnosed with ADHD more frequently than children who consumed a more balanced diet. In another study, 67 adults suffering from depression were assigned to a dietician. Their counseling sessions involved altering their diet patterns to consume less junk food and start eating more nutrient-rich foods. A third of this group relieved their depressive symptoms compared to only 8% of the control group.
There’s no question—what we eat has a tremendous impact on our well-being.
How sugar affects mental health
Though there are several harmful foods on the market, sugar is one of the most prevalent. It’s an active ingredient in fruit and soft drinks and packaged snacks, and many of us consume large amounts of it in our daily diets without even realizing. Our bodies use some of this sugar for energy, but excessive consumption is often dangerous for the following reasons:
These are just a handful of the ways sugar can impact our minds. Forbes takes a deep dive into these and other health impacts caused by the sweetener.
Digestion and mental health
As demonstrated by sugar, our mental health is significantly impacted by the foods we eat. But the way these foods are digested also impact our mental state. When we eat nutrient-dense foods, our serotonin levels remain normal, helping us keep our well-being intact. But once we consume sugar, processed foods, or foods high in unhealthy fats, our serotonin levels drop. And low serotonin levels have been linked to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, negative thoughts, and low self-esteem. So, a balanced, healthy diet isn’t just important for the nutritional value, but also for the health of our digestive system, which is ultimately linked to our mental health.
Ways to improve nutrition
Controlling your food and water intake takes dedication, but getting started is easier than you think:
We often focus on the many ways nutrition impacts our physical health, but its effects on our mental health cannot be overstated. The food we consume plays a significant role in our well-being, controlling everything from our perceived sense of self to our mental agility. Over time, poor nutrition can cause detrimental, and often irreversible, damage to our minds and bodies. But by incorporating healthy, nutrient-rich foods into our diets, we can improve our well-being today and safeguard it for the future.
Your mental health is your general well-being. It’s your ability to get through everyday life with a positive point of view and to bounce back when certain people or events challenge that point of view. Though mental health may seem like an internal process, it’s made up of four key categories—physical, nutritional, emotional, and social. While each component deserves your attention, it’s important to start with the physical, which is defined by your exercise level and the quality of your sleep. When the physical aspect of your well-being is off track, it’s difficult to focus on the other three.
Why Exercise and Sleep Are Important
Both exercise and sleep, or a lack thereof, can have significant impacts on your mental health.
Exercise is a useful tool in reducing stress and anxiety; it also combats the development of ADHD and depression. Physical activity, in any form, triggers the release of endorphins. These are hormones in your brain and your nervous system, and they work as your body’s natural painkillers. They help relieve physical pain, and they release feelings of pleasure. The more you exercise, the more often endorphins are released. This leads to a boost in your energy level, your mood, and general well-being.
The release of endorphins also helps relieve tension in the body, which directly affects your mind. Without regular exercise, it’s easy to slip into a pattern of negative thoughts, dark feelings, and physical pain or discomfort.
In addition to exercise, sleep is an important part of self-care. Those who suffer from disrupted sleep are at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety than those who get full nights of sleep. Initially, a lack of sleep can cause you to feel lethargic or irritable. But over time, it can cloud your thinking and prevent you from performing at your highest level. This can lead to feelings of frustration and sadness which, if not treated, can become more serious conditions.
Restful, regular sleep gives your mind and body a chance to recover and regenerate, so you can approach each day with a fresh perspective and high level of energy.
How to Improve Exercise and Sleep
To improve both your exercise level and sleep quality, the key is habit. It’s crucial to create a routine that’s realistic and manageable, to increase your chances of success.
To boost your physical activity:
To improve your sleep:
Improving mental health involves several components, with regular exercise and proper sleep you have set the foundation to have the energy for the others to follow.
To achieve success in any aspect of your life, it’s crucial to manage your mental health. But this is something that most people struggle with. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in every 4 people suffers from a mental health condition. Often, we suffer from these conditions because we don’t truly understand what mental health is or how our daily habits and behaviors affect it. By simply defining mental health and gaining a deeper understanding of the factors that impact it, we can preserve our well-being for the long-term.
Mental health—a definition
As defined by mentalhealth.gov, “mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act.” It also includes the ways we handle stress, relate to other people, and make decisions. You can break mental health down into four categories:
Though mental health concerns your internal processes, much of what influences it comes from external sources. By nurturing these four areas, you can assess and protect your mental health.
Exercise has been proven to reduce the impact of, or even eradicate, mental health conditions. Regular physical activity can:
Whether it’s lifting weights, kayaking, or running laps on a track, exercise is a powerful tool in fending off conditions like anxiety and depression. Just 30 minutes of daily intense movement can positively impact your well-being. Additionally, regular sleep is a crucial part of both physical and mental health. Sleep allows your body to recover from your physical activity, and it keeps your mind clear.
Without regular, restful sleep, the lack of rest can spiral into depression or sleep conditions. Plus, sleep deprivation and fatigue can impair your thinking, leading to poor decision making and even physical harm.
ProTipp: Moving actively for 30min each day while getting your heart rate up, it will change your body for good within only a few weeks.
What you feed your body can have a tremendous impact on your mental health. For example, studies have shown that excessive consumption of sugary drinks can lead to panic attacks or development of ADHD. Though it’s important to enjoy your meals, you need a well-balanced diet that encourages holistic health. This means reducing sugar and caffeine, ensuring you never skip breakfast, and avoiding heavily processed foods with low nutritional value.
This also includes drinking plenty of water. Regular, adequate water consumption cleanses your body of toxins, improves your mood, boosts your energy, and even prevents harmful disease.
ProTipp: Reduce the amount of sugar in food and especially drinks. Try water instead of juices or soft drinks consistently, it will change your life for real (just do a google search for “effect of sugar like cocain?” and you know what I mean)
When it comes to your mental health, not every answer is internal. Social connection is often a greater indication of your health than even physical measurements like weight or vital signs. Meaningful, deep connections, such as volunteerism, friendship, and family or romantic relationships, help us avoid loneliness. They also improve our quality of life and increase our feelings of self-worth and belonging. You can strengthen these connections by volunteering once a week or attending regular lunches with friends. Without these connections, it’s much harder to understand our purpose and push forward through tough times.
ProTipp: Spend extra time with people you truly love and care about and reduce the time with people you cant even remember why you are friends with.
Stress is likely unavoidable in your life, but the way you manage it can have a profound impact on your mental health. Simply setting aside 5 minutes for mindfulness each day can boost your emotional state. Also, coaching can help you keep your bearings when faced with tough obstacles. By understanding your purpose and strengths, and by employing a series of stress management techniques, you can stay present in the moment and ensure short-term problems don’t morph into long-term crises.
ProTipp: Find a fixed time in your day when you do breathing exercises or simply do nothing at all with closed eyes. 5minutes already have a huge effect on stress relieve.
In short, mental health is a reflection of how we care for our minds and bodies. By paying special attention to each piece (physical, nutritional, emotional, and social), we can boost our energy levels, and lead lives that are happier, and more passionate and fulfilling.
A primer on how coaching can add to your life and what to expect from your sessions
“If you wish your life were different…do your life differently.” These are powerful words from Terrence Houlihan, an educator, counselor, and coach. But this statement is easier said than done. Essentially, we all possess the power to change our lives, but often, we don’t have the roadmap to steer us in the right direction. This is where coaching comes in.
What is coaching?
Depending on the person, coaching may cover different categories (i.e. life coaching, career coaching, etc.), employ different strategies, or target different goals, but there’s only one objective—self-improvement. Coaching is all about empowering you with the tools to lead a better life. This empowerment can take many forms:
In a January 2018 piece for Quartzy, writer Rosie Spinks interviewed several life coaches to gain a better understanding of coaching’s ultimate purpose. She writes that coaching is about “creating proactive steps to live the life you want.” Indeed, you’ll work with me to identify and eliminate the obstacles blocking you from your dreams.
More concretely, those who need coaching have experienced one or all of the following thoughts or feelings:
If any of these statements describe your situation, life coaching or career coaching can provide support.
What happens in a coaching session?
Once you’ve taken the leap and booked your first coaching session, what can you expect? Some coaching candidates mistakenly think that a coach prescribes every element of the journey, but that’s not the case. Your input is a vital part of the process. Vice’s Hannah Evans writes, “Simply put, a life coach helps clients reach their goals by questioning their thinking and helping to signpost without judgment.”
As your coach, I play a significant role in your journey, and I’ll support you as you move forward, but our relationship is a partnership.
From the start, you’re in the driver’s seat. You’ll come to your first session prepared with a series of questions. What do you want to work on? Where are you having trouble? This is the point where you’ll talk about the major change you desire and the issues you’ve encountered trying to get there.
Based on your questions, we’ll explore what’s important to you, and we’ll create an overview of your life. Once we have your overview, we’ll start to flesh it out with your values. We’ll work together to identify the basic elements that shape your thoughts and inform your action patterns.
Then we move on to define your life’s purpose and outline your goals. We’ll align those goals with action steps (big and small), so you can start striving toward your future.
If you don’t have your entire life figured out just yet, that’s okay. Coaching can bring value to your life by supporting you as you find your purpose and solidify your goals. Ready to take action? Schedule your free introductory coaching call with me today.
So here I am, wanting to write about coaching, mental health and self care. And at that very moment a well known voice crops up saying: „who am I to teach the world anything about mental health?“
Well, I cant, and also I dont want to. And I DO want to start a conversation about mental health, how you feel, how you take care of yourself, about struggles, my own vulnerabilities, the things we are ashamed of and that hold us back. And I want to celebrate life for its beauty of allowing us to learn, struggle, shine and grow each day. I want to celebrate deep human connection.
Business graduate turned digital expert turned professional coach.