Breaking Down Mental Wellness
A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding and Improving Mental Health and Wellness
Mental wellness, mental wellbeing, mental health and “I would say mentally I am not well.” We’ve all seen a huge uptick in this necessity that honestly has been neglected for far too long. Between all the hustle (and side hustles) it makes sense that self-care regularly gets shoved to the backburner so we can focus on our daily demands. However, that often comes at a cost for our mental energy and wellbeing.
Whether you’re a starving artist, stressed out student, multitasking parent or caffeinated professional, there’s one thing all of us have in common: we could all benefit from a healthier headspace.
But how do we even start working towards said headspace? Is there a master key to self-care that works for everyone?
While self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for better mental wellness, the foundation for overall mental health and wellbeing does intersect at the same three points for everyone: sleep, stress and cognition.
How Does Sleep Affect Mental Wellness?
It’s probably no surprise that when you’re tired, you don’t quite feel right. Maybe you’re cranky before coffee or you can’t quite get your thoughts aligned for more than 30 seconds at a time. Maybe it’s more about not having the energy to do the things you wanted to, so it gets pushed to tomorrow… or the next day… and now there’s an overwhelming mountain of laundry instead of a manageable pile.
Regardless of how exhaustion hits you, when we don’t get restful sleep our mental wellness sure takes a hit.
The Sleep Health Foundation recommends that adults ages 18-64 should get between 7-9 hours of sleep a night. When we’re deprived of sleep our bodies create more cortisol, a hormone associated with stress which impacts mood, cognitive function and even getting better sleep the next night.
How to Get More Restful Sleep
Healthy Sleep Habits to Try
- Enjoy a bedtime ritual that makes you feel good like sipping some chamomile tea or reading a book
- Get enough physical activity in during the day to help tire you out
- Go to bed at the same time, every time (yes even on weekends) and set a goal to get at least 7 hours of sleep
- Add bedtime supplements with ingredients like valerian, GABA or melatonin to your nightly routine
- If possible, turn the temperature down to around 65 degrees Fahrenheit
- Reduce noise pollution with a fan or white noise machine
- Reduce light pollution with a sleep mask or blackout curtains
- Try aromatherapy with a soothing scent like lavender
- Avoid blue light at least 30 minutes before going to sleep (bonus points if there are no electronics in the room)
- Dim the lights 2 hours before bedtime—it helps encourage natural melatonin production
How Does Stress Affect Mental Wellness?
We all know that stress can throw us for a loop. Some of us get that gross overwhelming feeling where we just want to crawl under a blanket… never be seen or heard from again. Some of us get super moody and snap when things don’t go according to plan. And there are even those who honestly thrive under pressure, but then get hit with a wave of fatigue that lasts for what feels like forever.
The American Psychological Association explains that stress can affect multiple parts of wellness from experiencing physical tension to negatively impacting heart and digestive health. When we can’t manage stress in a healthy way, it wears down on our mental energy and keeps us from doing many of the things we want to during the day.
Unhealthy levels of stress can keep your mind racing at night, making it more difficult to fall asleep and disrupting restful sleep and recovery. Lack of sleep paired with feeling stressed can also affect brain activity and make it hard to concentrate.
While we probably can’t just simply avoid stressful situations every day, there are a lot of benefits to recognizing and managing stress so that you’re more able to remain resilient and carry on with your day.
How to Better Manage Stress
Taking the time to slow down and check in with yourself is a great start toward managing everyday stress. When we keep stress at bay, it’s much easier to keep a clear head and slow racing thoughts so we can achieve daily goals and even fall asleep more quickly.
Healthy Stress Management Ideas
- Try meditation or breathing exercises to help slow your heart rate and collect your thoughts
- Keep a journal to track how you feel throughout the day, be sure to reflect on how you feel after eating certain foods or after a workout
- Exercise during the day to keep the endorphins coming—try jogging, riding a bike or yoga and see how you feel later
- Include supplements in your wind-down routine with ingredients like ashwagandha, Panax ginseng or even CBD if that’s your thing
- Play mood-boosting music; if you need some ideas try one of our playlists
- Find an activity that slows you down and brings you joy; it can be as simple as watering your plants if you’re a plant parent, taking a bath or even cooking a small meal for yourself
- Light a candle—the glow can help soothe the mind and if it’s scented you get some aromatherapy too
- If the candle isn’t scented, try essential oils with a relaxing aroma like rosemary
- Go outside… seriously touch some grass or something, you’ll feel better
- Clean up your space; you’ll be surprised how much being around clutter can give your brain the icks
How Does Cognition Affect Mental Wellness?
Cognition is just a fancy way of saying overall brain function, which can include lots of elements like focus, energy or even memory. It’s necessary to do daily functions from studying for an exam to remembering to pick up the kids or even putting time aside to finish that slide deck for that big meeting this Friday. However, when you haven’t had a good night’s sleep or feel like you’re under the gun, your cognitive function can go haywire.
Sleep quality and stress levels both impact healthy cognitive function. During each sleep cycle, our brain is actually recovering and removing byproducts from daily function so that it’s ready to go for a new day. So, when we don’t get those sweet, sweet 7 hours of sleep we keep talking about, we’re not giving our brain enough time to recharge, which impacts our mood, ability to focus and more.
Similarly, stress levels also impact our brain health. Cortisol is an essential stress hormone that kicks in when we’re going through stressful situations. In moderation, it’s actually good to have as it is released during the fight-or-flight response and literally has kept us alive since our species graced this planet (think running away from a spooky spider—its ancestor might’ve killed your ancestor a bunch of years ago. Thanks cortisol!).
However, if cortisol builds and builds over time from chronic stress, it isn’t so helpful. This hormone can negatively impact many parts of brain function from concentration and memory to learning new things.
Healthy stress management and sleep habits are a great way to nourish cognitive function. There are also fun ways to keep your mind sharp over time as well as healthy habits to keep your brain working at its best.
Helpful Cognitive Health Habits
- Play games with friends—word games can keep you on your toes but board games and socialization are fun ways to keep your brain engaged
- Look for nootropics that can help improve mental energy, memory and focus
- Take breaks when you’re working and give your mind a chance to rest
- Create a healthy diet with food and drinks that support brain function like salmon, broccoli, berries and even coffee
- Stay physically active to get your heart rate up and increase the flow of blood to your brain
- Seriously… 7 hours of sleep, do it
- Learn a new skill—take up woodworking, painting or try writing out what you did yesterday to keep your brain busy
Prioritize Mental Wellness
The biggest step toward living a more balanced, healthy lifestyle is to actually prioritize mental wellness as a daily necessity. Trends come and go, but mental health is a fundamental part of how we think, feel and interact with our surroundings. Be sure to take the time you need to step back from all the crazy going on in the world and assess what your unique needs are and find methods of self-care that work for you.
Once you break out of the mundane mindset you can feel your best, work your best and most importantly, be the best version of yourself, inside and out.
You got this.