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RCASA’s Thursday: How a healthy lifestyle affects mental health

In Therapy on November 4, 2010 at 10:08 am

We’ve all been there.  Those times in life when we’re completely running on empty, haven’t slept a full night in days, super anxious about something, haven’t eaten anything but Little Debbie’s for 48 hours, and brewing our fourth pot of coffee for the day when it hits us…our heart feels as though it’s going to break out of our chest like that scene in Aliens.  So many times in life we begin to feel as though we can’t handle what’s going on around us, but don’t recognize how small choices about physical health that we make throughout the day could have profound effects on our psychological health.

1. Dr Bourne (2005) states that one of the most powerful and effective methods for reducing symptoms of anxiety is exercise.  When we are feeling anxious, our body experiences a “fight or flight response.’ any type of exercise can be a natural way for your body to get this response out of its system.  Dr. Bourne lists the following as psychological benefits of exercise: increased feelings of wellbeing, decreased dependence on substances, reduced sleep problems, improved mental functioning,  and less depression (2005).  Now, many of us think that this means in order to reduce anxiety, one’s workout routine must resemble training for the Marine Corps marathon, but in fact, any type of exercise which elevates one’s heart rate will show some level of effectiveness.

2. The second lifestyle subject which affects both physical and mental health is one’s diet.  There are foods and drinks that inhance one’s anxiety, such as caffeine and nicotine.  These substances cause nerves to fire off messages at more rapid rates, which may be a good thing if you’re trying to write a 20 page paper in the next five hours before class, but not so good of a thing if you’re trying to slow down the anxious thoughts (Bourne, 2005).  Foods that contain salt, preservatives, and the hormones found in some meats also increase one’s anxiety.  Research is showing that moving one’s diet to include more natural ingredients, lean meats, and fewer carbohydrates can drastically improve one’s symptoms of anxiety.

3. The last piece of advice…SLEEP!  It sounds repetitive and contrary to what most of us who experience anxiety can do…but SLEEP!   Sleep is one of the most important things that a person who suffers from anxiety can do to help themselves; and since exercise and diet can have strong effects on one’s ability to sleep, it’s important that all three are taken into consideration.

So, if you are one of the millions of people out there struggling with anxiety, I know how tempting it can be to drive your car the 10 feet to the nearest coffee shop where the barista knows you by name and order because this is your fifth trip of the day, and you tack on three scones to your order as your day’s meal, doing all of which at 11 o’clock at night and not planning on hitting the sack for another 5 hours.  But looking at our mental health holistically can have major advantages to feelings of overall improvement.

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