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The Five Pillars of Mental Health

With the stresses of the pandemic still upon us, many worldwide have come to realize that mental health is not just an adjunct to one's general health, but a crucial aspect of it. Mental Illness Awareness Week runs from October 3-9 and World Mental Health Day is October 10, so it's a great time to have an honest, open discussion around mental health topics like depression and anxiety.

The Five Pillars of Mental Health

If you're struggling with mental health issues, you should know you're not alone. There are many kinds of support available to you. Just as physical strength doesn't simply come about on its own, mental health can take support and a little effort. The habits you acquire to proactively strengthen your mental health will stand you in good stead when you do have to face a tough time.

Addressing these five pillars of mental health will put your mental health in the pink:

Mental health is related to brain health, and brain health relies on quality sleep. In the words of the Mental Health Foundation, "sleep is essential — it is as important to our bodies as eating, drinking and breathing, and is vital for maintaining good mental and physical health. Sleeping helps us to recover from mental as well as physical exertion."

If you're not experiencing a good night's rest, it may be because you're stressed, overdoing caffeine during the day, or relying on alcohol to fall asleep (which can help get you to sleep but will not lead to a full night's sleep). It could also be because your sleep environment needs modification, or because you are spending too much time in front of a screen before bedtime. You can help yourself by creating a better sleep environment using these handy hints.

The relationship between sleep and mental health is a two-way street. Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety can also be an underlying cause of poor sleep. The important thing is to break the negative cycle, after which you and your healthcare provider can work out which is driving the other.

Eating quality food — whole foods like more fruit and vegetables— is a great way to support your mental health as well as your physical health. The two are, after all, closely connected. Scientists are increasingly interested in the connection between the gut and the brain. According to Harvard Medical School, "what affects the gut often affects the brain and vice versa."

The gut needs fiber and "prebiotics" to produce good bacteria in your microbiome. The best nutritional way to support gut health and the microbiome is to eat unprocessed, natural food, minimizing refined flour, sugar, and red meat. In the words of food and science writer Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much".

Many reach for alcohol to self-medicate when they are depressed or anxious, but alcohol itself is a depressant and can lead to a decline in your overall mental health, particularly if you are susceptible to addiction. By contrast, a whole foods diet rich in healthy fats like Omega-3s (including sardines, anchovies, and salmon or, if you're vegan, sources like chia seeds or marine algae) will make you feel better over the long term, creating a virtuous cycle where your nutrition supports your sleep and your ability to exercise better.

Foods rich in probiotics can also support the good bacteria in your microbiome. According to Harvard Medical School, "some research has found that probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function and lower stress and anxiety." While research is ongoing, try including more probiotic-rich foods in your diet (like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut) to improve gut health which, in turn, supports brain health. Switching from white bread to whole grain or sourdough is another easy and delicious way to support your gut health. According to nutritionists, your gut can make as much as 90% of your serotonin (the "happy hormone"). So it's worth improving your diet and reaping the rewards in a healthier body and mind.

Mindfulness has been defined by leading secular mindfulness practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn as "the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally." The idea of mindfulness is that when you focus your attention on being grounded in the present moment, your "monkey mind" is less likely to spin scenarios and generate the kinds of thoughts that lead to depression and anxiety. By creating separation between the idea of "you" and "your thoughts," mindfulness, in the words of Kabat-Zinn, "gives rise to the direct experience that ‘the pain is not me.'" This is true whether one's suffering is mental or physical.

Mindfulness helps you feel less at the mercy of your emotions by allowing you to observe them from a distance. It helps you respond more calmly when facing difficult, stressful, and challenging situations.

Meditation is helpful to many as a way of being more mindful, but some find it challenging to keep a meditation practice going, and you might benefit from these helpful tips on how to maintain a meditation practice.

Physical exercise is key to mental health, reducing anxiety and depression. Find a kind of movement you enjoy! Enjoying exercise makes it that much likelier you will keep doing it. You might like one or a mix of:

  • Lifting weights

  • Doing yoga or Qi Gong

  • Hiking in nature

  • Swimming

  • Walking with friends or a dog

  • Personal training sessions

If you're looking for support in your physical exercise practice, to reduce the risk of injury and introduce your body to some new movement techniques, Sofia health practitioners offer virtual fitness classes and personal training to suit any level of fitness and all kinds of interests.

Social connection is integral to being human. The effects of social isolation on physical and mental health are widely noted and widespread in our society. It's been an almost impossible task to stay connected with one another while observing the rules of social distancing during the pandemic. If you've been feeling the effects of isolation, now's a great time to reaffirm your connection to other people. One great way is through talk therapy. Sofia Health makes it easy to find a mental health professional, with specialists in general counseling and an array of specific subspecialties in mental health counseling.

Of course, you should always consult your physician before seeking additional medical advice. That said, these days we can all benefit from an increase in our mental health awareness. Visit Sofia Health to find and build your personal health team, a team that will address all five pillars of mental health, helps you bolster resilience, and achieve your best holistic health.

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