There are obvious things in life that will drag down your mental health: being in an abusive relationship, for instance, or dealing with the death of a loved one. Beyond that, however, there are factors that you may not realize play a role in keeping mental health on the up, and are letting slide in the belief that they don't matter. News flash: they do. You need to get enough sleep, get moving, stop smoking, and stop ignoring the seriously stressful parts of your life if you want to avoid heading for a mental health crash.
The mental health disorders I'm addressing here are predominantly the ones that are most affected by environmental factors: the mood disorders, anxiety, depression, and to a lesser extent, bipolar disorder. Others do pop up, though, so it's not just one size fits all. This isn't about blame, either: every mental illness is a cocktail of unique factors, and you can't in all honesty be thought to have "brought it on yourself". But if you do want to keep your head on the smooth and narrow, there are certain activities to avoid and behaviors to stop, as they're high-risk when it comes to mental health.
Here are seven things that may be wrecking your mental health, from the obvious to the slightly more subtle.
1. Not Getting Enough Sleep
This is a very basic correlation. Particularly for people with a predisposition to mood disorders, enough sleep is absolutely essential to keeping things on an even keel. The Mental Health Foundation has an entire report on the strong relationship between poor sleep and incidences of severe anxiety and depression, and the importance of sleep hygiene (a dark room, no electric devices before bed) in the maintenance of good mental health habits. If you're not getting your proper seven to eight hours a night, you're risking a lot of potential damage to your mental equilibrium as well as making yourself completely cranky before coffee.
2. Associating With People Who Put You Down
I'm not talking about blanket "negativity" here; I'm discussing associations with people who undercut you, challenge your beliefs, trample your self-esteem, and generally denigrate your worth as a person. This kind of exposure to constant, unceasing worth-crushing can entrench serious negativity in your thought patterns, which leads to cycles of self-condemnation, anxiety, and depression. If you've got that sort of toxic relationship in your life, you need to find a way to stem, control, or cut it off, because the demands it's making on you are harming your mind.
3. Not Doing Any Exercise Or Going Outside Enough
The tie between exercise and better mood in particular is well-established. In the immortal words of Elle Woods, "Endorphins make you happy. And happy people don't kill their husbands. They just don't." Obviously the chemical consequences of physical exertion are a bit more complicated than that, but it's clear to anybody who's ever had a "runner's high" that exposure to exercise is an excellent way to maintain good mental mood.
It's also been discovered in a series of studies that exposure to green spaces is excellent for depression and anxiety, so going for a long walk through the woods is genuinely beneficial for you.
4. Isolating Yourself Socially
We all need alone time, but loneliness and the solitary life have been linked to mental health problems when they occur in excess in somebody's life. Psychology Today names four disorders — depression, social anxiety, addiction and hoarding — that can be catastrophically triggered by social isolation and loneliness. (Incidentally, heavy isolation throughout life has been linked to a higher probability of developing schizo-affective disorders, though we're not sure what the relationship is.)
If you find yourself spending increasing time alone, make an effort to rejoin the social world, even if it's just having brief conversations with baristas or meeting up with friends for a drink after work. The social interaction is genuinely good for your brain.
5. Avoiding Help Because It's "For Weaklings" Or "You're Smarter Than Therapists"
You may well be smarter than your therapist, but that is not the point. It's like saying you're smarter than your plumber. Doesn't matter; they're still more qualified than you are to fix your broken bathroom. Therapists have a unique set of skills (and come in many different flavors, for you to pick the best one for you) that enable them to help you sort your way through your own difficulties; you may be exploring a sometimes-terrifying wilderness, and they can help you build a map. Your friends and family may love you intensely, but they can't be impartial skilled cartographers.
Therapy helps people even if they don't manifest distinct symptoms of mental illness. If you're worried about yourself in any mental capacity, whether it's your patterns of relationships, your moods, or your strange reactions to certain things, it's the best option to find somebody qualified to talk to. Otherwise you may risk things snowballing.
6. Self-Medicating With Substances
The relationship between substance abuse of any kind and mental health is actually a pretty complicated one. They're often referred to as "co-occurring disorders," as they may well pop up in the same person and obscure and overlap with one another. One definitely doesn't cause the other, but the mental health Help Guide points out three ways in which they interrelate: drug and alcohol use may be used to "cope with" poor mental health symptoms, they may trigger underlying genetic predispositions to certain mental conditions, and they can make the symptoms of a particular condition worse.
With these three relationships in mind, it becomes clear that substance abuse is a risky undertaking for more than just health reasons (though those are good motivations enough), and that mental health problems may, nastily, make it even harder to quit. But it's important to realise that your substance use can be a factor in your mental health, and isn't "irrelevant".
7. Not Addressing Stress Triggers
Chronic stress, when left unaddressed, is directly linked to incidences of anxiety and depression. It seems that serious stress actually messes with the grey matter levels in the brain, while also shrinking the brain in various regions associated with emotional regulation: not the greatest recipe for maintaining a healthy mental outlook. It's important to point out that we're talking about extreme, constant stress here: a little bit of stress, like the thing that motivates you to submit something to deadline, can be beneficial, but putting the body under prolonged pressure is widely accepted as a very bad idea for physical and mental health.
The answer to this is mandated stress-free time. If you're in an insanely demanding situation and find yourself losing sleep, getting sick more often, or becoming anxious and depressed, managing your stress needs to be mandatory. This can include mindfulness, meditation, swimming, reading, whatever — but ploughing on regardless in the belief that you're invincible will actually cause you more harm in the end.
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