Updated: Jul 29
How do eating, resting, and moving impact our mental health? Quite deeply, actually. Though we may consider these basic life functions automatic, when our mental health is under stress, these behaviors tend to go out of balance quickly. Consider, when you’re anxious, how elusive sleep can feel. Or alternatively, how hard it can be to stay awake or get out of bed when you’re feeling hopeless? Though we can’t always control how we feel, by practicing healthy habits and mindfulness, we can set ourselves up to maintain balance in our eating and sleeping which can help us navigate those tough emotional moments.
Sleep hygiene: Sleep is closely linked to our mental health. Research shows that poor sleep can cause irritability, worsen depression and increase stress, while good sleep can enhance overall mood and increase positive coping skills. Most doctors recommend getting between 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. That means thinking ahead for when you need to wake up and setting a bedtime that will allow you to get the sleep your body needs. Think about planning your evening in terms of eating a full meal several hours before bedtime, turning off screens at least one hour before bedtime, and finding a way to wind down your mind and body before bed, like taking a hot bath, reading a gentle story (no suspenseful murder mysteries that will keep you reading half the night!) or doing some meditation, yoga or stretching. Keep the temperature cool in your bedroom: ideally between 60 and 68 degrees F, and make it as dark and quiet as possible, using earplugs or an eye mask as needed.
Give it 15-20 minutes, and if you can’t sleep, try a mindfulness strategy, like focusing on a pleasant sensation in the present moment, like the warmth of your bed. You may feel like you must leave your bed and keep reading in another room, or you can sit up and try a breathing meditation to calm your body. Whatever you do, don’t stay in your bed with your thoughts racing, heart pounding, staring at the clock ticking, and panicking about sleep. Be aware of your negative thoughts when they arise, notice them, and let them go or stay, recognizing we can’t control them. When all else fails, remember that just resting your body and trying a meditative practice will decrease your stress levels and allow your mind and body to recover and regroup to perform the next day.
If you do have a bad night’s sleep, a “power nap” of 30 mins or less has been shown to increase reaction time and elevate focus and mood. Just try to avoid really conking out and sleeping the afternoon away because that can disrupt your normal sleep cycle.
If sleep issues persist, contact your primary care doctor. (For more info: ttps://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/what-can-you-do/sleep-address-issues).
Movement: Many studies have shown regular exercise to be as effective in combating depression as taking medication. Exercise releases endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals in our body that can lift depression and improve mood. Exercise also burns off energy and makes us tired, thereby ensuring more efficient sleep at night. There are so many ways to incorporate movement into your life, so stay creative and spontaneous about how movement can become a stress reliever that you look forward to, rather than a chore to avoid. Focus on what kinds of movements make you happy: maybe you loved to dance as a kid and want to take it up again as an adult. Or you want to strength to be able to lift your own suitcase over your head into the compartment on an airplane. Maybe you want to get out into nature more and incorporate walks or hikes into your life. Whatever you choose, try to think of movement as a kind of medicine you’re offering your body rather than a punishment for what you’ve eaten earlier in the day. When exercise comes naturally and from authentic care for ourselves, we are supporting healthy habits for both our body and mind.
Eating: Check in with your body right now: how is it feeling? Our stomachs may be full from lunch an hour ago, but we may still have an “empty” feeling. Maybe we didn’t allow ourselves enough time to eat, or maybe we didn’t allow a large enough portion. Maybe we did eat enough, but we are feeling stressed or lonely, and we go to food as a way to comfort ourselves. Or, on the opposite end, maybe you are too stressed to have an appetite. You may recognize that your body needs fuel to keep going, but the idea of preparing food feels overwhelming, or eating a meal feels as challenging as climbing a mountain. Depression and anxiety have big effects on our appetite and can activate either too much or too little eating. Staying mindful and present in our bodies is one way to practice healthy eating habits that support our mental health. Food, diet, and eating are very psychologically loaded in our culture: we often applaud thin people as successful and shame fat people as having somehow failed. If we can quiet that negativity and tune into our unique bodies with love and acceptance, we can offer ourselves food that is nourishing and in the amounts that feel right for us.
With that in mind, eating the right food balance can greatly impact our emotional well-being. Eating a diet that is rich in plants, whole-grain fibers, and lean proteins leads to optimum brain and gut function. Think about diets like the Mediterranean and Japanese–with a lot of fresh vegetables and a minimum of sugar or processed foods–these diets help people stay in a healthy weight range and live longer.
Finally, remember that we live in a capitalist society that emphasizes and values production and consumption. Most media we are exposed to will reinforce the idea that to be a good member of society, you need to constantly work and deny your body’s needs to “get ahead” and succeed. Then we often compensate for this physical and mental exhaustion by overconsuming–either too much food or alcohol or eating sugary or unhealthy foods to reduce stress in the short term. It’s ok to step outside of this paradigm and recognize this is not the only way to be “successful.” Though we can’t change the fact that we live in a 9-5 world, we can make the choice to tune into the messages our body is giving us. Resting, moving, and eating healthily are some of the best ways to support our mental and emotional health–and we can feel confident knowing that these small steps can pave the way for success in our lives, however, we define that.
By Alison Napleon, MSW Intern