Understanding and looking after your mental health is important. One of the best things you can do for your own wellbeing is learning what affects it and, as a result, how to improve mental health.
Your mental health influences how you feel, think and behave in your day-to-day life. It also affects how well you cope with stress, overcome challenges and setbacks and build relationships with other people.
In the post below, we’ll be covering some ideas and ways to improve mental health. These will help you to look after your emotional wellbeing, boost self-esteem and improve your mental health.
Ways to improve mental health — an overview
In the article below, we’re going to cover how different aspects of our lifestyles affect our mental health and some of the most effective ways to improve your mental health, including:
- Exercise for mental health and the benefits of exercise on mental health
- Diet and mental health, including the impact of different types of diets, such as vegetarian diets and mental health
- Mental health and relationships
- Social media and mental health
- Alcohol and mental health
- Asking for help if you need to
Understanding the link between some of these things and your mental wellbeing is one of the first steps towards improving your mental health.
There are many benefits of exercise for mental health — regular physical activity can make a big difference to your mood and wellbeing. But how does exercise help mental health, exactly?
Here are some reasons why exercise is good for mental health:
- Doing exercise releases feel-good chemicals in the brain (known as neurotransmitters) like dopamine and endorphins. These make you feel happier and more energised. These feel-good chemicals also help to counteract and reduce feelings associated with anxiety and depression.
- Exercise makes you tired and prepares your body for sleep, which can dramatically improve the quality and quantity of your sleep — meaning you sleep better for longer. Good sleep can help to improve your mood and wellbeing.
- Exercise can boost your self-esteem and confidence as you improve and meet your fitness goals, which is important for your mental health. When we have low self-esteem, we tend to struggle more with coping with life’s ups and downs and it can be detrimental to our mental health.
- Exercise gives your brain something to focus on when you’re feeling overwhelmed, which can help you feel calmer and in control. This is sometimes known as ‘meditation in motion’ and can be a positive coping strategy for when you’re struggling.
Exercise won’t instantly ‘cure’ your mental health problems, but many people have found that regular exercise makes a big difference to their mental wellbeing, making them feel more positive and more energised.
Everyone is different — what works for one person might not work for another. Find an activity that you enjoy, something that fits into your daily life. This way, you’re much more likely to feel the benefits of exercise to your mental health.
You might not associate diet with mental health, but what you eat can have an effect on your mood and mental wellbeing. What you eat, this nourishes your whole body — including your brain.
Improving your diet — through eating regularly, avoiding certain foods and maintaining a healthy well-balanced diet — may help to:
- Give you more energy
- Improve your mood
- Help you think more clearly
It can be difficult to know what is good and bad for you, especially when dietary advice seems to change regularly, but there are foods you can eat which will support strong mental health.
Here are some foods that are good for your brain and mood:
- Protein-rich foods like lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, legumes, nuts and seeds: protein contains amino acids, which your brain needs for the chemicals (like dopamine) that regulate your mood and thoughts.
- Fruit and vegetables: these contain lots of the nutrients (minerals, vitamins and fibre) that keep us healthy, mentally and physically.
- Slow-release energy foods like pasta, rice, whole grain bread, nuts and seeds: these keep your energy levels and sugar levels steady (sugar crashes can leave you feeling tired, low and irritable).
- Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, oils, nuts and seeds: your brain needs fatty acids for cognitive function — healthy fatty acids can improve mood and support your brain cells.
- Foods that are good for your gut, like live yoghurt, probiotics, beans and pulses: gut health is tied to our mental health, so keeping digestion healthy with healthy gut foods and plenty of fibre can improve your brain health.
These are some of the ways you can nourish your brain and keep your mental health strong with food.
Below, we cover some specific diets and mental health, to give you an overview of anything you need to know about how they interact.
Vegetarian diet and mental health
More research needs to be done into the link between a vegetarian diet and mental health problems, but vegetarianism has recently been linked to increased chances of depression and poor mental health.
If you follow a vegetarian diet, then you need to make sure that you eat a balanced diet and get enough nutrients for your body and mind to function well.
For example, it’s important to get enough protein in your diet without sources like lean meat and fish. There are plenty of vegetarian-suitable foods that are rich in protein, such as milk and dairy products, legumes (like peas, beans and lentils), soy products (like soya milk and tofu), nuts and seeds.
Likewise, you will need to find vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids (which are important for brain health), such as rapeseed oil, nuts, eggs and soy-based food.
Vegan diet and mental health
As with following a vegetarian diet, it’s important to ensure that you maintain a well-balanced and nutritious diet if you are vegan.
You need to eat a variety of different protein sources to get the right mixture of amino acids, which are vital for the building and repairing of the body's cells, including brain cells.
Pulses, such as beans, lentils and peas, are particularly important if you don’t get your protein by eating meat, fish or dairy products. Egg and meat alternatives, such as tofu, Quorn and tempeh, are also good protein sources.
Gluten-free diet and mental health
People with coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity often report mental health problems, such as depression, poor concentration, fatigue and anxiety among their symptoms. This is generally thought to be due to the psychological difficulties of living with a chronic illness, including dietary restrictions, social restrictions, exclusion and increased anxiety about negative symptoms.
There is a suggested link between symptoms of bipolar disorder improving under a gluten-free diet; however, more research is necessary to correctly establish the link between a gluten-free diet and mental health.
Poor diet and mental health
An unhealthy diet will negatively affect both your physical health and your mental health.
Eating certain foods, too much food, skipping meals and not drinking enough water can impact on your brain and mood. This gives you low energy levels, mood swings, concentration problems, disrupts your sleep, and weakens your immune system.
Avoid foods which make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly, such as sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks, and alcohol.
Here are some foods that adversely affect mood:
- Caffeine (tea, coffee, chocolate, coca cola and energy drinks)
- Foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones
- Sugary snacks (sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks etc)
- Refined carbs (such as white rice or white flour)
- Trans fats and partially hydrogenated oil
- Fried food
We know that relationships with other people — whether that’s family, friends, romantic partners or work colleagues — are crucial for our mental wellbeing.
Good relationships can:
- Improve our mood
- Boost feelings of self-worth
- Help you to feel more accepted and build your sense of belonging
- Provide emotional support for you, as well as letting you support others too
- Give you opportunities to share positive experiences with others
However, building and maintaining good relationships with other people is easier to do when you have sound mental wellbeing. Poor mental health can affect your relationships negatively, and cause you to feel lonely and isolated.
Here are some ways you can build and maintain positive relationships if you’re struggling with your mental health:
- Make time for the people you love: keep in touch with friends and family regularly (this could be face-to-face, phone calls or messaging).
- Talk about how you feel: it can be hard opening up to people, but doing so will help you feel supported, acknowledged and more positive.
- Join a group: Look for local groups, classes or clubs where you can meet new people and share an interest, such as painting, yoga, gardening or even volunteering.
- Look for peer support groups: sometimes, it can be hard talking to your friends and family. This is where peer support comes in, support groups where people can use their own similar experiences or feelings to help each other. This could be online or in real life.
Balancing mental health and relationships can be hard, but whatever you decide to do, there is plenty of support out there and people who want to help.
The rise of social media means that we are more connected than ever to others; it can be an invaluable tool for keeping in touch with friends, loved ones, and the wider world.
However, social media can have a detrimental effect on mental health in a number of different ways.
How social media affects mental health
Here are some of the ways that social media can affect mental health in a negative way:
- It can fuel feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem: seeing pictures, statuses or tweets from other people can make you feel more insecure about your own life, as well as leading to feelings of dissatisfaction and envy as you compare yourself to others
- It can create FOMO (fear of missing out): seeing images from social events or other people’s lives can make you feel like you’re missing out, and that people are having more fun than you — or living ‘better’ lives. This can trigger anxiety and low self-esteem issues
- It can make us feel isolated: we think of social media as connecting with other people, but it can actually make us feel more isolated, disconnected from friends and family, and increase feelings of loneliness
- It’s an inadequate substitute for real-life connections: face-to-face contact is extremely important for humans — eye contact, body language, bodily contact and real-life conversations are all important for our personal mental health and for our relationships
- It impacts our sleep too: scrolling through social media last thing at night makes it harder for our brains to switch off, which makes sleep harder — which, in turn, will exacerbate mental health issues.
Social media and young people's mental health and wellbeing
It is important to be aware of the link between social media and young people's mental health and wellbeing.
Our younger years are a crucial period for emotional and psychosocial development, and social media can be detrimental to young people’s mental health.
A recent report links social media to negative effects such as increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep quality, as well as poor self-esteem and body image.
Here are some social media and mental health statistics from that report:
- One in six young people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives
- Identified rates of anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70% over the last 25 years
- Young people themselves say four of the five most used social media platforms actually make their feelings of anxiety worse
- Young people who are heavy users of social media (spending more than two hours per day on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram) are more likely to report poor mental health, including psychological distress and symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Seven in 10 young people have experienced cyberbullying, with 37% of young people saying they experience cyberbullying on a high-frequency basis
If you’re feeling particularly stressed, anxious or down about something, then drinking alcohol can seem like an easy way to de-stress and relax.
Although you might feel better after you’ve had a couple of drinks, in the long-term, drinking (particularly drinking excessively) can have an impact on your mental health.
Mental health problems not only result from drinking too much alcohol; they can also cause people to drink too much.
In the section below, we’ll go into the link between drinking and mental health, including the impact of alcohol on mental health.
Mental health risks associated with drinking
The connection between mental health problems and alcohol is complex, but here is an overview of the impact and risks of drinking alcohol on one’s mental health:
- Alcohol affects the brain’s chemistry and disrupts the delicate balance in the brain. This means that alcohol can change our mood, emotions, thoughts, actions. You might notice this when you first feel calmer and more confident after a drink or two. However, this relaxing effect soon wears off and is replaced by negative thoughts and emotions such as stress, sadness, anxiety and anger.
- Alcohol can make anxiety worse. A glass of wine might be your go-to for unwinding in the evening, but excessive drinking actually makes anxiety and stress worse: these feelings can be exacerbated by alcohol, particularly during a hangover.
- Excessive drinking is closely linked to depression. The two feed into each other, creating a vicious cycle which is difficult to get out of.
- Alcohol affects our perception. When you’re under the influence of alcohol, you miss social cues and misinterpret what people mean. This can lead to you taking offence, feeling upset or paranoid, or responding in a way that is upsetting or alarming to the people around you.
- Drinking is not a healthy coping mechanism. Using alcohol to ‘deal’ with mental health problems such as anxiety or depression could also lead to a greater reliance on it to relax, as well as increased tolerance to alcohol, which often leads to alcohol dependence.
- Alcohol can cause us to make dangerous decisions. In extreme circumstances, excessive drinking can cause people to behave impulsively or irrationally, which could lead to them taking dangerous actions such as self-harm or even suicide.
Is alcoholism a mental illness?
Alcohol is sometimes classified as a mental health problem. This is because it has both mental and physical components; it involves physical addiction, but it also interferes with a person’s mental state, affecting how they behave and interact with others. Alcoholism also often involves compulsion, like some other mental health disorders, and denial.
If you have mental health problems and also have problems with alcohol use, you will probably be described as having a ‘dual diagnosis’.
Self-esteem is how we value and perceive ourselves. It is based on our opinions and beliefs about ourselves.
Self-esteem and mental health are often closely linked. Having healthy self-esteem means that we tend to feel more positive about ourselves, our relationships, and our place in the world. Higher self-esteem enables us to deal with tricky situations and problems in life.
When we have low self-esteem, we tend to struggle more with coping with life’s ups and downs. We see ourselves in a more critical light and may have problems with liking or valuing ourselves. We might struggle with making decisions, trying new things, or overcoming challenges and hardships in life.
Low self-esteem can be caused by a number of things: childhood experiences, relationships, stress, difficult life events, and personality.
We all have times when we don’t feel good about ourselves, or we feel as though we're lacking in confidence. However, if this lasts for a long time, or becomes more severe, it can have a detrimental effect on both our mental health and our daily lives.
Advice on how to improve self-esteem
It’s important to remember that different things work for different people, and there is no quick fix for things like low self-esteem.
With that in mind, here are some tips and advice on how to improve self-esteem:
- Be kind to yourself: practise positive self-talk instead of criticising yourself: try to say positive things about yourself each day (even if it feels strange). Challenge unkind thoughts instead of agreeing with them automatically; why are you talking to yourself in this way? Think about what you'd say to a friend in a similar situation.
- Avoid comparing yourself to others: other people may seem to have perfect lives to you, but remember that you won’t be seeing the full picture — especially on social media. Everyone has their own difficulties and insecurities to deal with.
- Celebrate your successes: focus on positives and wins, no matter how small they are. Acknowledge and remember that you have done well, and remember this for next time.
- Be assertive: don’t agree to anything you don’t want to do — this can make you feel resentful, angry or stressed. Practice saying no to things you don’t want to. Don’t let your thoughts or opinions go unheard either — assert your opinions and speak your mind.
If you’ve been trying to improve your mental health and you’ve tried the advice above but you’re not feeling any better, then you may want to get some additional help.
For people struggling with poor mental health, it’s not always easy to know where to go for help or who to turn to. But it’s important to remember that there are lots of people and organisations who can provide help, information and support.
If you’ve been experiencing poor mental health or symptoms of a mental health disorder, then you can visit our What Is Mental Health?’ page — there’s a section at the bottom where we’ve gathered some useful information on where you can go for help.
Keeping on top of your mental health and emotional wellbeing is important. Staying mentally well and learning how to improve your mental health will help you to cope with the ups and downs of life.
There are many different ways to improve mental health which we have talked about in detail above: looking after your physical health through a balanced diet and regular exercise, building positive relationships, and looking after your emotional wellbeing and improving self-esteem.
Forming and maintaining healthy habits and routines will help you feel better and improve your mental health.