A look at how our lifestyle and habits influence our mental health and wellbeing and what we can do to live a better life.
Both Ali and I have struggled with poor mental health. We’ve been very open about it as we feel so passionately that the more we talk about mental health, the more it will help remove the stigma that still so often surrounds it. It took a long time to get my Bipolar2 diagnosis and while having this diagnosis might sound worrying, I feel it’s been hugely empowering for me. It’s allowed me to take back some control in my life. It’s also given me a real awareness of who I am and what I need. This knowledge is power, because although I do sometimes need professional support, there is a LOT I can do to help myself. Part of this is learning how external factors influence my mental health and wellbeing because knowing this means I can make changes towards a better and more fulfilling life.
What causes ill mental health?
Poor mental health can be caused by many different things, both internal and external. Research tells us that factors such as inherited traits, environmental exposures before birth and even our brain chemistry may lead to mental health problems, although these factors alone might not cause someone to struggle. However, add in certain external factors and the likelihood may be significantly increased.
But what are the external factors that can affect our mental wellbeing? Well put simply, they're connected to our lifestyle. They’re all about how we live our lives and what habits and routines we have. Our lifestyle can influence our mental health in both positive and negative ways and knowing this gives us the power to make changes towards a more positive life. Let’s take a look at some of them.
8 External Factors that influence mental health
Sleep is a HUGE one for me. Over the years I’ve learnt that if I don’t get my sleep, the next day (or days) will be a problem. Whether it’s our children (or our partners!!), our environment and neighbours or our own anxiety keeping us awake, sleep deprivation will leave even the most zen of us feeling irritable!
Sleep and mental health are intricately connected. Traditionally, insomnia and sleep issues have often been seen as a symptom of mental health problems, but they’re also now known to increase the risk of certain mental health illnesses arising. If you’re interested in the sciencey bit of exactly how sleep can influence our mental health, take a look at this article by Harvard Health Publishing.
But what can you do to improve sleep? Of course there are often external factors that we aren’t able to influence, but there are many we can. From sleep hygiene and your sleep environment to controlling your exposure to light and exercise (more on these two later), there’s a whole lot we can keep in check. This article has some fab tips on How to Sleep Better.
A good diet is essential for our mental wellbeing on so many levels. From the purely biological to the psychological, it can play a pivotal role in how we feel and how we feel about ourselves.
On a physiological level, research has shown that if we’re deficient in certain minerals, such as iron and vitamin B12, there can be an increased risk of low mood. Our bodies are also sensitive to stimulants such as caffeine, which will heighten feelings of anxiety if we’re feeling particularly stressed or worried.
From experience, I know I find it difficult to eat well when I’m having a bad day. Sometimes we just really need those unhealthy carbs! But deep down I know something nutritious will make me feel a whole lot better and do my body more good too. I’ve now learnt to plan for these times and I’ve got into batch cooking. I try to keep my freezer full of feel-good, healthy meals for days when I can’t face cooking.
If you’re interested in delving deeper into the topic of how food can influence our mental health, take a look at this article on Foods to Help Fight Depression.
Ali and I wrote about how good exercise is for us in our blog 6 Ways to Find Joy in Lockdown. It really brings us so many benefits, from pumping a cocktail of positive hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins through our bodies to keeping our physical health in check too.
We all know how good we feel after an aerobics class or a run. But did you know that the effects of exercise are more than just short term? Physical activity is known to directly affect the brain leading to changes in areas that are linked to depression. I think the science of this is fascinating and Psychology Today has a fab article How Your Mental Health Reaps the Benefits of Exercise here.
Of course, not everyone wants to sweat it out at the gym or do online fitness sessions. It’s important you find what works for you. Physical exercise can be digging in your garden, taking a walk around the block, doing an evening yoga practice or just dancing in your bathroom to our Positive Planner Positive Tunes Spotify playlist. Every little bit helps, so you do you.
It’s tempting, and completely understandable, to reach for a glass of wine at the end of a tough day. We often look to socially acceptable drugs to make us feel better. They allow us to escape our problems, helping us relax and unwind.
However, alcohol actually has an effect on the neurotransmitters in your brain. These are the chemicals that send messages from one nerve in your brain to another. Alcohol stops them from working correctly and long-term it can have a negative impact on your mental health and wellbeing. It’s the reason why, after the initial feeling of relaxation you get from a glass of wine wears off, it can leave you feeling anxious and depressed the next day.
I’ve experienced this personally and always factor it in when I go out for a couple of drinks with friends. I plan ahead because I know I’m going to find the next day hard. This knowledge really is power and there have been times I’ve decided to give up alcohol for a month when I’ve got a difficult time ahead with work, for example. This is a perfect case of learning how external factors influence mental health and acting on this to make life easier.
Spring has really started to show her face now. It feels so good to see blue skies and nature’s signs of hope in the buds and shoots. The days are noticeably longer and getting enough sunlight is really important for us. It helps our bodies produce the Vitamin D we need to help fight fatigue and depression. Sunlight also makes our brains release chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin that improve our mood.
Living in areas where winter can be long, dark and grey really can have detrimental effects on our mental health and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is very dependent on the season. It’s not easy to get the sunlight you need when you’re not living somewhere warm and sunny like me, but there are ways around it. Ali treated herself to a desk lamp that emits natural light this year and she’s also got an alarm clock that wakes her up with the same natural light on cold, dark mornings.
6: Connecting with people
Did you know that the effects of long-term isolation can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? That’s shocking, isn’t it?
Humans crave connection. We’re hardwired to need it. However, you don’t have to be alone to feel lonely and you don’t necessarily have to feel lonely if you’re alone. Everyone is different in terms of their need for connection.
In itself, loneliness isn’t a mental health problem but the two are very closely linked and long-term loneliness can have a very negative impact on mental health, specifically depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
So how do you get out there and connect? Technology is allowing us to connect with people more than ever before and this can be incredibly helpful for those of us who aren’t able to get out easily. Mind UK has great advice on how to manage loneliness and find support too. From how to make new connections and try peer support to talking therapies and ways to look after yourself - you’ll find their ideas and resources here.
7: Social media
I know there are huge benefits to the connectivity social media can bring, but this type of connection can also be hugely detrimental to our mental health including increased risks associated with depression, anxiety and loneliness, for example.
FOMO is very real and can totally bring us down. We should never compare our real lives with the carefully curated life that someone shows on their Instagram feed. I believe the key thing is to keep technology in perspective - follow people and pages that inspire, motivate and bring you happiness. I also try to have one tech-free day each week, usually on a Sunday. This isn’t for everyone, I know. But you could take a step towards being more present and mindful by deleting a couple of apps at the weekends.
If you're interested in taking time out from social media but are unsure where to start (it can be REALLY daunting!), you'll find everything you need to know in our blog A Beginner's Guide To A Social Media Detox.
I’m so lucky to live where I do. I’m close to a beach and can easily get out into a wide open space and savour the smell of the ocean and watch the sun rise or set.
Research shows that spending time interacting with nature like this can help those living with depression. It can also help reduce our stress levels by lowering the stress hormone cortisol. I know I’m incredibly privileged to have this and there are many who have little or no access to nature and the green, open spaces that can benefit our mental health so much.
However, connecting with nature doesn’t only mean getting outside. Any connection will do. This can be as simple as growing food and flowers on a window sill, watching a nature programme on TV, listening to soothing sounds of nature, taking time with pets or even looking out of an open window and perhaps adding in a breathing exercise.
How much control do we have?
I wrote about the Circle of Control in my blog 5 Tips to Ease Post Lockdown Anxiety. This is a great exercise in learning how to deal with anxiety in life. It helps us focus our energy on what we can control and move it away from what we can’t. Of course, this doesn’t mean that professional support isn’t helpful, or more importantly, absolutely necessary at times, but when we look at how external factors influence mental health, it helps us realise there’s a HUGE amount we can do to help us live a better and healthier life in mind, body and soul.
Looking at this Circle of Control, all of the factors I’ve talked about are at least partly within our ‘what I can control’ circle. But how much do you think each of these external factors influences your moods and mental wellbeing?
Well, I might just have the perfect way for you to find out. Mood Tracking is fab for taking a closer look at how our moods change and by tracking our habits as well, we begin to get some insight into what our positive and negative triggers are. Knowing our triggers is so insightful and will often bring awareness to habits, behaviours, people, situations and even foods and drinks that affect our experience of life. This knowledge is a powerful tool for us then to be able to engineer more moments of positivity into our lives.
Use mood tracking to find out how external factors influence mental health
If this has inspired you to find out more about mood tracking and how external factors could be affecting your mental wellbeing, then take a look at our new Mood and Habit Tracking downloadable worksheet available in our Resource Library.
Of course we can’t solve every mental health problem just by looking at our behaviour. If you feel you’re in need of more support, do speak to your doctor. We also have some excellent links to organisations and charities that can help and advise you on our Mental Health Links page.
Much love and positives vibes.