On the final day of Mental Health Awareness Week, we thought we’d share some of the ways in which you can seriously hack your mental health for the better. We recruited the help of Sam Holston, a growth strategist and brain-hacker, who, in the next five minutes, is going to explain how to effectively deal with whatever life is throwing at you right now.
1. There are a huge number of factors that can positively influence our mental health. Can you go through some of them?
“This will sound like a broken record, but healthy sleep, diet and exercise are essential. In fact, they’re ‘brain essential’ non-negotiables, but here are three lesser considered factors that can positively transform how you feel.”
“We’re wired to socialise with other humans. Neuroscientists theorise that socialising may be the MOST pleasurable thing to our brain. Modern treatments for drug addiction even focus on integrating addicts into a community, to switch addiction with social connection… And it works. An easy way to positively influence mental health is increasing your feeling of social connection. Regularly calling/texting loved ones/friends can help to do this. Personally, I call my Nan a few times a week. I always feel better afterwards. Look at the frequency of how often you’re connecting with others and if you can, increase it.
“Practising gratitude physically rewires the brain. It gives you an optimism bias, changing the lens through which you see the world. Gratitude strengthens the neural pathways associated with feeling thankful and lucky. Basically, practising gratitude daily can rewire your brain for a higher happiness baseline. I try to write down three things I’m grateful for each morning.”
“Journalling is another handy tool that can help you transform mental health. The catharsis of journaling gives you a healthy release for bottled up emotions and thoughts. Journalling also leverages the psychology of ‘affect labelling’. Putting your thoughts and feelings into words actually reduces their effect on you. The more you journal, the clearer you may feel.”
2. What’s the one most important thing we can do for our mental health today?
“This is a tough question because there are a few BIG things we can do, but I would absolutely say sleep. Good quality sleep trumps almost everything else in terms of protecting mental health. It’s like a reboot button for your brain each night. It cleans the brain, consolidates memories and supports mood regulation.”
*If you’re struggling to sleep, check out our blog here for some handy tips.*
3. Why is it so important that we make our beds each day?
“It’s simple, your brain is motivated by rewards. Making your bed each day creates in-brain evidence that you accomplished something already. It feels good so your brain releases dopamine. This, in turn, actually makes you feel more motivated. Therefore making your bed is a great way to start each day, as it’s a motivation brain-booster. You’ve already achieved something without leaving your bedroom, too!”
4. How can exercise bring about positive changes to our mental state?
“Exercise is a well-known mood-regulator, and it does this through endorphins. When we workout, our body releases endorphins which give us a ‘brain rush’ and, in a way, ‘clear’ our head. It’s a hugely useful tool for stress management, too, as it gets us away from our phones and any other distractions. Just ten minutes of exercise a day can make a real difference.”
5. How does food influence how we feel and how can we use it to boost our mental health?
“This is a biggie. Overconsumption of calorically-rich foods, think soft drinks or greasy, fatty foods, saturate the brain. Sugar is particularly bad for this. Your brain naturally runs on glucose, but too much of it overexcites your dopamine neurons, like a little kid after six cups of cordial. So what happens? Eventually, you crash and so does your mood. On the positive side, the building blocks of a good, stable mood start in food. The neurotransmitters in your brain, which change how you feel, come from the nutrients you put in. Dopamine comes from the amino acid tyrosine (which you typically find in protein-rich foods) and serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan (which you can find in foods such as eggs and pumpkin seeds). You need omega-3 fats (such as those found in salmon), to build new neural pathways, too. The list goes on. Therefore, consistently eating right and getting the right nutrients is critical to mental health because, without them, your brain can’t support your mood and do its job. When you eat the right things, your brain is able to better support your mental health and stabilise your moods day-to-day. Now, I can’t tell you what you need, because everyone is different but it’s absolutely worth looking at your diet to see what might be missing (for me, it’s usually Vitamin b12), and supplementing it where you can.”
6. How can meditation support people on their journey back to wellness?
“This is a very important question. Meditation, like gratitude, literally rewires the brain as it changes the brain’s physical structure. There is significant evidence to support this, too. Meditators successfully grew their prefrontal cortex (for better decision making), shrunk their amygdala (where fear/stress happens in the brain), and thickened their hippocampus (the memory creation hub). In short, they reshaped their brain to think more clearly and be more stress-resilient. So meditation can help you start your wellness journey by positively reshaping your brain. Plus, the deep breathing of meditation ‘turns off’ your stress response by stimulating the vagus nerve. This means that meditation can also be used ‘in the moment’ as a tool to help you manage not just chronic, but acute stress and anxiety too. It’s one of the most versatile ways you can change your life and I’d encourage everyone to start practising, even for a few minutes a day.”
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