Some tips on how to improve your mental and emotional health

Sascha GallardoJune 7, 2021

Having a rare or chronic illness can be a source of stress. The different symptoms alone, even the mild pain and fatigue, can already lower one’s mood.

Add to these symptoms the financial concerns, the worry about the treatment process, and not being able to do some of the things you love.

Mental and emotional health are essential to physical well-being. Stress and negative emotions weaken the immune system which makes it even harder to cope with the illness.

But there are things that can help you manage stress and help improve your mental and emotional health. It is important to emphasize, however, that in case of depression or severe anxiety, seeking professional help is extremely necessary.

In this blog, we will talk about some tips on how to improve mental and emotional health.

1. Writing gratitude regularly

Several studies have already been conducted on the impact of gratitude writing on mental health. A 2016 study, for instance, involved 293 adults undergoing psychotherapy. One group was tasked with expressive writing together with psychotherapy, another group was tasked with writing gratitude and psychotherapy, while the third group underwent psychotherapy only.

Four weeks after the writing tasks ended, those who practiced gratitude writing had much better mental health compared with the two other groups. [1]

So one good but very easy activity you can practice is writing gratitude daily. You may get yourself a simple notebook and write down the things you are grateful for such as having a roof over your head, air to breathe, and food to eat. Like in the study mentioned, you may also write it in the form of a gratitude letter for someone, even though you won’t actually send the letter.

As you start this activity, you might want to begin with writing gratitude for as few as three to five things or writing for just 10 to 15 minutes. The idea is to make it as easy as possible for you. Forcing yourself to write for an hour might be a little daunting and you might lose interest and not continue the process at all.

Also, keep in mind that it may take a while before you notice any positive results from this activity. In the study mentioned above, the group that wrote gratitude showed significant improvements four weeks after the conclusion of the task. [2]

So in case at some point you begin to doubt whether the activity will actually result in some improvements, just try to keep doing it and enjoy the activity and soon enough you will start noticing the benefits.

2. Exercise regularly

We’ve always known that regular exercise is good for our physical health. It keeps our muscles strong, it helps burn calories, and it lowers our blood levels, to name a few.

But regular exercise is not only good for your physical health. It can also do wonders for your mental and emotional health.

According to the article “How does exercise reduce stress,” it “reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.” [3]

Of course, you need to consult your doctor first about what types of exercise are ideal for you as well as the frequency and duration. Once that is taken cared of, you can start doing some light physical activity for a few minutes everyday. When it has become a habit, you’ll notice that it’s something you can’t not do anymore because you don’t feel as good if you don’t exercise.

Meditate

The practice of meditation has received a lot of attention in recent years. Not only do more and more people outside of East and South Asia (where the practice originated) began to practice it, researchers have also started to study its actual benefits.

One such study was conducted by Elizabeth A. Hoge, MD, et. al. that was published in 2013 in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. [4] Hoge’s team compared the impact of Stress Management Education (SME) with mindfulness meditation or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs to individuals with generalized anxiety disorder.

Although both methods resulted in significant improvements as measured with HAMA (Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale), those who underwent MBSR exhibited lower anxiety levels as measured with Clinical Global Impressions-Severity of Illness scale (CGI-S), Clinical Global Impressions-Improvement scale (CGI-I), and the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI).

If you decide to practice meditation, you may search for guided meditation videos online. As with gratitude writing, you might want to start with as short as five minutes daily. It’s also important to note that it’s totally fine if your mind wanders during meditation. As meditation programs like the Headspace Guide to Meditation would say, everytime you notice your mind drifting to a thought just acknowledge the thought that comes into your mind and return your focus to meditation.

Learn something new

Is there a new skill that you want to learn or a new topic you are interested in? Maybe you want to learn how to bake or cook. You might be interested in personal development in general, or maybe you have a business idea and you want to learn about starting a business.

Tons of information about all sorts of topics are now available. You can either buy books or read and watch videos online for free. Once you have decided on a skill or topic and found resources, allot a few minutes each day for that.

As you start, keep in mind that you don’t have to be an instant expert on the subject. Just enjoy the process of learning something new each day.

Get enough Vitamin D

Several studies have examined the relationship between inadequate vitamin D levels and depression. For instance, one research aimed to examine the effect of vitamin D supplements on overweight and obese subjects. [5]

The 441 subjects were divided into three groups. Two groups were given vitamin D supplements while one group was given placebo. Improvements in depression symptoms were observed among those who received the supplements.

There are different ways our body can get vitamin D. One is through the food we eat and another is through exposure to sunlight. Make sure to add in your diet some foods that are rich in vitamin D such as fatty fish like sardines and mackerel.

Also, sunbathing for a few minutes a day can be helpful. Just avoid overexposure as well as sunbathing at a time when it’s too hot as they may cause skin diseases like cancer. The ideal time would depend on where you are located such as whether you are near or far from the equator. It’s also a good idea to wear sunscreen and sunglasses and appropriate clothing.

Aside from food and sunlight, you can also get vitamin D from supplements. It is important to note, however, that too much vitamin D can result in toxicity which may cause bone pain, vomiting, weakness, and kidney failure. [6] Make sure to consult your doctor first before trying any vitamin D supplements.

Summary

Having a rare or chronic illness is by no means easy and it can undoubtedly cause stress and anxiety. There’s also a possibility for stress to be experienced for a longer period especially since the stressor which is the illness is something they face everyday.

However, the more stressed and anxious they are, the more difficult it will be to fight the illness. Writing gratitude, exercising regularly, meditating, learning something new, and getting enough vitamin D are just some of the things that can help you improve your mental and emotional help. Try some of these to help you fight some of the stress that comes with having a chronic illness. And as mentioned above, make sure to consult a professional when you feel that the stress is becoming unbearable and might progress to depression.

NOTES

[1] Wong, Y Joel, et. al. (May 2016). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, Volume 28, 2018 – Issue 2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=tpsr20

[2] Joshua Brown and Joel Wong. (6 June 2017) How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain

[3] How does exercise reduce stress? Surprising answers to this question and more. (July 07, 2020). Harvard Health Publishing. Exercising to Relax - Harvard Health Publishing - Harvard Health

[4] Hoge EA, Bui E, Marques L, et al. (2013) Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity. J Clin Psychiatry.;74(8):786-792. Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety | Psychiatrist.com

[5] Rolf Jorde, et. al. (Nov 2008). Effects of vitamin D supplementation on symptoms of depression in overweight and obese subjects: randomized double blind trial. Journal of International Medicine. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2796.2008.02008.x

[6] Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. (April 17, 2020). What is vitamin D toxicity? Should I be worried about taking supplements? Mayo Clinic. Vitamin D toxicity: What if you get too much? - Mayo Clinic

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Thank you for this article, it really helped me. I have to remember to take my vitamin D.

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Another wonderful article! I often read the magazine online from Greater Good, which can be found here https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/

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