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Mental illness is a global crisis, with an estimated 30% worldwide suffering, and over two thirds not getting the critical help needed. And, if the untreated disease isn’t enough of a burden, patients are faced with the crippling stigma that is attached to mental health disorders. Analysis of literature and film typically categorizes the mentally ill into three categories: 1) they’re homicidal maniacs that need to be feared, 2) their world is seen from a child’s perspective and they need to be cared for, and 3) they’re simply too weak of character so someone should make their choices for them.

Managing the disease, and the cultural stereotyping, can be a challenge for patients, but one solid step forward begins with proper self-care. Learning to make good choices for both the body and the mind are critical to well-being, but because problems with decision making already stand as a barrier for patients with mental health disorders, matters are bit more difficult. Overcoming these challenges will be critical to your success. Let’s look at some personal care strategies.

Relax and Breathe. One of the most often overlooked ways to change mental status is our breathing. Breathing has actually been scientifically linked to changes in the heart, brain, digestive system, and the immune system. It can work to physically help with diseases processes like asthma and heart failure. But, it also works to help with mental disease. Esther Sternberg, a physician researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, describes our breathing as our body’s braking system. She describes rapid breathing as our body’s natural response to “fight or flight” in response to stimuli, and by contrast slowing our breathing can result in a relaxation response, “the relaxation response is controlled by another set of nerves — the main nerve being the Vagus nerve. Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That’s the stress response, and the Vagus nerve is the brake,” says Sternberg. “When you are stressed, you have your foot on the gas, pedal to the floor. When you take slow, deep breaths, that is what is engaging the brake.”

Exercise. As hard as getting motivated for exercise may be when you’re in the depths of depression or dealing with anxiety issues, it couldn’t be a better time for you. Numerous studies have linked exercise with healthful benefits to the mind and the body. Mayo Clinic suggests that a strong exercise program will, release endorphins stimulating your own sense of well-being, help you gain confidence, take your mind off other worries, provide strong social connections which also have health benefits, and teach you how to deal with your illness in a more healthy way.

Eat Healthy. Much is said about diet and physical health, but diet and mental health is equally as important. Try these five foods for better mental health: 1) Fatty Fish, 2) Whole Grains, 3) Lean Protein, 4) Leafy Greens, and 5) Yogurt with Active Cultures.

Sleep Well. Perhaps, it’s obvious that not getting enough sleep can severely impact our mood, and additionally our mental health; what is less known is that lack of sleep actually causes mental illness. Sleep deprivation forces our brain’s emotional circuitry to change. Research at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that while “scientists previously believed the psychiatric problems triggered the sleep issues. New research from (the) lab, however, suggests the reverse is the case; that is, a lack of shut-eye is causing some psychological disturbances.”

Music. The last decade has seen a huge increase in the use of musical therapy in clinical settings. “Music very much has a way of enhancing quality of life and can, in addition, promote recovery,” says Joanne Lowey, co-editor of the journal Music and Medicine. Focusing on self-care is one of the most important things you can do to improve your mental health. If you allow your self-care to fall by the wayside, larger problems can erupt – including substance abuse or suicidal thoughts. Surround yourself with support groups with like-minded people, don’t isolate yourself, don’t self-doubt, don’t feel shame. Your illness doesn’t define you; what defines you is how you manage your illness.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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