Written by: Marina Gross, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
There is no health without mental health, as previously stated by the World Health Organisation. And indeed, mental health plays a crucial role in our overall health and well-being. Connected through countless nerves our body and mind constantly communicate with each other, impacting each other’s functions and processes, which are tightly interconnected.
For example, the research shows that high amounts of cortisol and adrenaline (our stress hormones), released into the blood by an activated sympathetic nervous system as the result of the body’s reaction to stress, lead not only to mental over whelm, but also to somatic issues, such as weakened immune system and elevated blood pressure. Vice versa, the state of our physical well-being greatly impacts our mental health through the quality of our gut health, sleep, movement and nutrition, as these areas of well-being promote essential processes of releasing happiness hormones, restoring our nervous system and supporting our brain health. And there are countless other ways in which our mental health influences our physical well-being, making it a non-negotiable part of our daily priorities. But does it have to be a rocket science? Let’s explore 5 life hacks and daily practices that will help you improve your mental health instantly and long-term.
1. Mindful breathing
When our brain senses something stressful, it is like a switch is clicked. The nerves send the whole system into overdrive, triggering a flood of stress hormones into the blood streams. Our breathing speeds up, our heart starts racing, the whole body feels wired. Luckily, our breath is a powerful tool in soothing the stress response and activating the healing processes in our body and mind, because stress signals connecting our brain and body do not just go one way. The body can send signals back: the more stressed you are the faster you breathe, and the faster you breathe, the more stressed you become. But if you can breathe slowly and deeply, nerve fibres in the chest will detect the change in breath movement and tell the brain to relax, which will soothe the body’s stress responce. Throughout the body everything is dialed down: heart rate, stress hormones, and anxiety. In fact, the research shows that our breath, when done right, is a tool that builds a safety bridge between our body and mind, and helps to:
Improve our sleep
Reduce the amount of stress hormones in the body
Improve our ability to focus
Support our digestion
However, most of us are not always breathing right. Are you?
While we breathe on autopilot, thankfully, it is beneficial to check in on our breath a few times a day by practicing mindful breathing, intentionally focusing our attention on the breath. Because when consumed with to-dos, errands and work tasks throughout the day, many of us breathe rapidly, inhaling and exhaling through the mouth, taking shallow breaths from our chest. Try this exercise next time you have a few spare minutes:
Breathe in through the nose, from the lower abdomen and diaphragm, for 4 seconds
Hold for 4 seconds
Breathe out slowly for 4 seconds through the mouth
Hold empty for 4 seconds
Repeat a few times. Notice how you feel after completing this exercise: perhaps grounded, calm, centered or peaceful? Use this exercise as a tool to nourish and soothe your nervous system, whenever you feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, even if it is just for a minute.
2. Good quality sleep
In his book “Why We Sleep” MattewWalker, one of the leading sleep experts and researchers in the world, stated the following: “Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?” To tell the truth, good quality sleep is one of the most essential practices and life hacks for better mental and physical health and well-being. There is not one cell in our entire body and mind that does not benefit from good-quality sleep. However, we are the only species on the Earth that purposefully deprioritize sleep without an actual need. In fact, approximately 2/3 of the population in industrialized countries sleep too little. This modern sleep epidemics carry many unfortunate consequences, most of which come to the surface in the long run, but it does not make them any less crucial for our mental and physical health and well-being. Lack of sleep negatively impacts our ability to focus, learn and process information. Furthermore, inadequate sleep negatively influences our memory, hormonal balance (or rather imbalance), stress levels, mood, energy levels and, in fact, also our immune system. And that is because when we sleep our organs, muscles and tissues restore and rebuild themselves; our body releases hormones to
balance metabolism, stress and appetite; our brain literally cleanses itself from accumulated toxins, as well as our nervous system heals and restores. On the other hand, when we do get an adequate amount of good quality sleep, the benefits are endless, and here are some of them:
Increased energy and better mood
Reduced stress and anxiety
Improved cognitive function
Are you willing to do these 5 things to improve your sleep?
A rule of thumb for adults is to sleep 7-9 hours every night. However, it is not only the quantity ofour sleep that makes a difference, but non the less, the quality of our sleep. The following are top 5 scientifically proven habits to help you improve your sleep:
Wake up at approximately the same time every day (+/- 30 minutes)
Go to bed at approximately the same time every day (+/- 30 minutes)
Turn off all screens at least 1 hour before bed time including TV, computer, tablet and phone
Create a simple, relaxing evening routine to prepare your body and mind for sleep (ex. reading a few pages of a book or listening to relaxing music)
Limit your intake of caffeine, heavily processed food and alcohol(in general and prior to bedtime)
Adequate amount of good quality sleep every night might just be the most underrated life hack for improving our mental health, but it is non the less the most essential habit to prioritise in order to truly thrive.
3. Mindful living
Our minds hold an enormous power. In fact, everything in our lives starts in our minds. Our thoughts, our self-talk, our beliefs (be they positive or limiting beliefs)all create this lens that we see and perceive ourselves and the world around us through, shaping not only our internal, but also external environment, affecting the way we feel inside and out and also the way we show up in the world every day. Because our thoughts affect our feelings that affect our actions. However positive mindset is not a default setting for us as human beings. Biologically our minds are wired to survive, to avoid danger, to keep us in the safety of our comfort zone, which typically leads to skepticism and a negative outlook. This is why a major part of our thoughts tend to contain worries, comparisons and the voice of our inner critic – all a natural part of our thought patterns, initially designed to keep us safe. On the other hand, the fact is, with continuously increasing pace of our everyday lives, performance culture and social media era, it has never been easier to get caught up in stressful, energy-draining thought patterns that do not serve us.
However, there is huge power and potential in paying closer attention to our thoughts, becoming more aware of the quality of our thoughts and actively working on rewiring our relationship with our thoughts. We cannot always control what thoughts pop into our head. In fact, our mind automatically generates more than 70.000 thoughts every day. But we can always bring more mindfulness and awareness to our thoughts by:
Noticing a negative thought or belief
Noticing how it makes us feel
Getting curious about it: is there evidence of it, is it even true? (Spoiler alert: most times it is not)
Challenging the thought rationally
Rephasing it into a more positive thought or belief
Thinking about something else
Our thoughts only exist when we think them. And as stated above, it happens on autopilot all day. So next time you notice a negative thought pop into your head, try to bring mindfulness to that moment and see, if you can observe it from afar without attaching yourself to that particular thought, and let it pass just as smoothly as it appeared on your mental radar in the first place. Because, on the opposite side, the more you give a negative thought your time, attention and attachment, the more this kind of thought will take root in your mind and dominate your mental landscape. And this principle is both true for manifesting more of the negative and positive thoughts and beliefs, as well as our overall daily habits. The fact is, inside our brains there is a huge network of approximately 10 billion neurons that connect with each other in countless neural pathways in charge of our thoughts and behaviour. Until fairy recently, researchers thought that these neural pathways could not be altered after a certain age. However, according to the laws of neuroplasticity, the nervous system is able to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections. This means that our brain is capable of being shaped and formed throughout our life time, as well as we can alter current neural pathways or create new ones as we practice new thoughts, habits or behaviors. Imagine a river. In the beginning, it probably started out as a few drops of water. Later, the more water accumulated, the more the river began taking its current shape and form. With time, what started out as a little stream became a powerful force of water. The same goes for creating new neural pathways within our brain: the more we practice a desired behaviour or practice cultivating a more positive mindset by choosing more positive thoughts, the more we fuel this new river within our mind until the new behaviour or mindset becomes an integral part of our reality.
What is something you are grateful for in your life right now?
One of the tools to help cultivate a more positive mindset and rewire current negative thought patterns is gratitude. In fact, it has been scientifically proven that regular gratitude practice:
Increases personal joy, happiness and life satisfaction
Reduces stress and anxiety levels
Encourages to adopt healthier habits
Improves the overall mental and physical health
Start your day by noting 1-3 things you are grateful for in your life at the moment. Whether that is something big or small, get clear on what it is you are grateful for and why. Notice how you feel after expressing your gratitude, both instantly and as you move through your day.
Very few lifestyle choices are as impactful for our mental health and physical wellbeing as regular movement and it does not even require significant time commitment or intensity. Any time and space you can create for this habit – even if it is just 5 or 10 minutes a day – will benefit your body and mind in multiple ways. For instance, regular movement strengthens our immune system, boosts energy levels, reduce pain, improves the quality of our sleep and supports our gut health. Making movement a daily habit will also help you unlock your mental strength, as it is proven to:
Aid in coping with stress
Increase the release of our happiness hormones
Boost confidence and elevate our mood
Strengthen memory and improve our cognitive functioning
Aid in preventing development of dementia and other cognitive diseases
But as with anything else, to see the empowering results, we have to make movement a daily habit and an integral part of your daily schedule.
Do you move your body every day?
The World Health Organization defines physical activity as “any bodily movement produced by the skeletal muscles that requires expenditure.” In other words, any type of movement counts! In fact, a great strategy for making movement part of your life, is to think of it just like that – movement. Oftentimes, when we think of physical activity, we think of certain types of exercise or sports. And while varying and trying different things out to find your favourite is important, the intention can also be just adding more movement into you day: taking stairs, walking from A to B whenever you can, taking bike to work, parking your can a bit further away from work and walk the rest, going for a walk during lunch break. With the modern, sedentary lifestyle nowadays, the goal is simply to move more – however, whenever you can.
Self-care goes beyond the occasional mani-pedi or massage. While these are great examples of taking time for yourself in order to reap the substantial benefits of self-care, you must make a consistent commitment and expand your routine of caring for yourself to nourish all levels of your being. If we look into the dictionary, it has the following definition of self-care which means "practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own wellbeing and happiness in a healthy and self-compassionate manner, in particular during periods of stress". Self-care is activity that nurtures and refuels you at a deep level. Taking time for self-care rituals every month, week and day can for instance help to:
Lower the risk of illness
Build stronger relationships with yourself and others
Self-care is loving yourself, resting, getting enough sleep, cultivating grounding practices like meditation and gratitude, eating healthy and nourishing foods, staying hydrated, moving your body, doing things you love and that bring you joy, surrounding yourself with things and people that make you feel good. Furthermore, self-care is also an act of setting loving boundaries and listening to your body. It is an act of celebrating small everyday wins and achievements, being your own best friend and prioritizing yourself and your needs. Each act of self-care is a powerful declaration – “I am on my side!”
Do you remember to refill your own cup?
Imagine a watering can that waters beautiful flowers. Now, imagine that YOU are the watering can and the flowers are other people you take care of, help or are there for your family, friends, a partner or colleagues. You give them nourishment and this nourishment is the water in the can… if it is refilled. Without water, you cannot nurture the flowers. Without taking care of yourself, you cannot take care of others. So we have to remember to refill our own cups. And remember to make time and space to take good care of ourselves. Because as cliche as it might sound, we cannot pour from an empty cup.
How bad do you want to feel good?
Health does not have to be complicated, although we have been, perhaps unintentionally, trying to make it so for years and years. In fact, all health is about is taking small right actions every day that combined over the time will lead to results. Simple actions of self-care and going back to basic, time-proved and science-backed habits is all it takes.
Allow me to introduce HEAL: an online holistic health coaching program, designed and purposed to help you cope with stress, nourish your body and mind, and create a better and stronger relationship with yourself in 3 exciting months.
This hybrid model of self-paced learning and 1:1 health coaching is the perfect combination of learning, sustainably creating new habits and getting the necessary support from your health coach along the way, exploring the topics of:
Biology of stress,
Positive mindset and self-love
Discover a 12 weeks step-by-step program and empower yourself with tools you need to thrive through:
6 bite-size, to-the-point modules
6 bi-weekly1:1 health coaching sessions
80+ pages workbook, tools, exercises and journaling prompts
24/7 access to the course content during and after the program available from anywhere in the world
And most importantly, experience one ultimate health transformation and create one better and stronger relationship with yourself and your health.
For more inspiration, please follow Inspired Change Co on Instagram, explore the growing collection of articles on Inspired Change Co website, subscribe to The Little Right Actions Podcast, or sign up to the monthly newsletter with holistic advice on all things mental health and well-being delivered straight to your inbox.
Marina Gross, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Marina Gross is a Holistic Health Coach and mental health advocate, who specializes in stress management and holistic well-being. In a world, where mental health is continuously declining and many experience stress, anxiety and burnout, it is Marina's passion and mission to make mindful health accessible and attainable for all. She is the founder of Inspired Change Co, the online holistic wellness and health coaching platform, and her work is purposed to inspire, educate and empower readers and clients to make their health a daily priority and cultivate a nourishing life that feels good inside and out.