The age-old saying ‘you are what you eat’ applies to every aspect of your well-being. According to Harvard Medical School, a healthy diet is as important to your mental health as it is your physical health. In fact, it has been found that there is a very distinct link between a poor diet and the prevalence of mental health concerns. Nutrient deficiencies can also exacerbate existing issues by negatively affecting essential hormone levels in the body. It is therefore of the utmost importance that nutrient-dense food and beverages are consumed as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
Food Can Affect Your Mental Well-Being in Numerous Ways
Our brains rely on a large variety of nutrients to remain healthy and function at an optimal level. When our diets are not rich in essential nutrients, our mental well-being can be affected in numerous ways. Low blood sugar as a result of skipped meals can result in severe irritability and fatigue while eating an excess of sugary food can both decrease energy levels and result in pesky brain fog. If your diet is devoid of healthy proteins your body may not be able to produce enough of the essential neurotransmitters required to relay information between cells. This can, in turn, affect your dopamine and serotonin levels, leaving you feeling overly aggressive or increasingly depressed. If for some reason, your diet lacks vital nutrients despite your best efforts to eat healthily, it may be a good idea to invest in a quality nutritional supplement.
Don’t Underestimate the Value of Good Gut Health
The food you eat can also affect your mental health in a more indirect way – through the gut-brain connection. This connection can link mental health concerns such as anxiety and stress to gastrointestinal problems and vice versa. One way to ensure that your gut remains healthy is to adhere to strict food hygiene protocol. Avoid consuming any expired food products and steer clear of anything that has not been cooked properly, especially chicken and seafood. Also, stay away from any food that has been dropped on the floor as it may have been exposed to a range of nasty bacteria. While many of us have undoubtedly sworn by ‘The Five Second Rule‘ at some point in our lives, scientists have found that bacteria transfers occur regardless of how long the food is in contact with the floor.
Eat All the Colors of the Rainbow
A diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins has been linked to improved mental well-being. Unfortunately, the CDC has found that only one in ten American adults consume sufficient amounts of fresh produce. In order to not only remain physically healthy but mentally fit as well, aim to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and veg a day in all colors of the rainbow. This will provide your body with not only complex carbs but a lot of vitamins and antioxidants as well that can help combat anxiety and depression. Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, and rye can boost serotonin production tremendously which can leave you feeling happier. Probiotic foods have also been found to be very beneficial to mental health according to a study published in Psychiatry Research. Next time you feel anxious consider indulging in probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi.
The food you consume on a daily basis can affect your mental health and overall well-being in numerous ways. While a healthy diet may not be enough to ward off mental health concerns completely, it can definitely go a long way in reducing your risk and decreasing the severity of pre-existing conditions.
After an initial career spent as a sexual health nurse, Issy turned to writing to make a living and now pens articles on topics relating to sexual health and the anxieties it can create. She believes strongly in talking therapies as a way to help overcome issues, after experiencing her own struggles with mental health. Issy now lives with her girlfriend and their pet dog Barney.
It’s no secret that things are wonky right now…to say the very least…
When people go in public, they’re sporting a new accessory…the face mask
AND if someone isn’t wearing one, you definitely notice it
Overnight, parents became home-school teachers, activity providers, house keepers, workers/providers, partners, and caretakers…need I say more?
2020 graduates aren’t having an in-person graduation to celebrate a milestone of their lives
Iconic Austin restaurants are starting announcing permanent closures
Because of shelter-in-place & social distancing…regular facetime with friends, family, and loved ones is either REALLY limited or not happening at all
I could go on, however, that doesn’t seem necessary. What is necessary, though, is how you feel in your body RIGHT NOW after reading that list. That sensation (whatever it may be) is happening because everything listed above is a lot to manage…especially because nobody was expecting a pandemic, and even if we were, we are all first-timers at this and adjusting to new things is often scary. There are a lot of big feelings that have been happening (for everyone) and those big feelings can be confusing…scary…unwelcomed…helpful…they can be all over the place, really, and learning how to navigate all of that is MUCH easier said than done, however, it is 100% doable with various mindfulness practices.
In my dear friend, Katy Manganella’s, blog on establishing a mindfulness practice, she defined mindfulness as “simply the practice of coming into the present moment”. Again…that can be a lot easier said than done, however, there are practical mindfulness tips & tricks below to help you navigate the world of feeling your feelings and looking for ways to ground yourself (especially during a particularly uncertain time).
…yes! Start here! While this may feel like a silly (and oversimplified) suggestion, it’s arguably one of the easiest ways to start practicing mindfulness. Most of the time, we are breathing pretty shallowly…in fact, the last time a lot of us took an intentional deep breath was when a doctor had a stethoscope touching our chest or back and directed you to take deep breaths. Below are a few easy, simple ways to practice intentional, mindful, deep breathing.
This is an easy technique that involves intentionally breathing in for a particular count (for example, 3)…so you breathe in (1, 2, 3) hold your breath (1, 2, 3) exhale (1, 2, 3), hold (1, 2, 3) and repeat. This article has a great video for a guided visual for help with box breathing.
Another way to intentional breathe is to inhale for a particular count (let’s say 5) and exhale for a longer amount of time (let’s say 7). This is a GREAT way to help calm your nervous system.
Some people may try these out and realize they are still breathing shallowly…a way to learn how to breathe deeply & intentionally is to lie down on your back, put a book on your belly (probably something not too heavy) and breathe in and out with the intention of making the book move. This will require some work…and may not be the best technique for someone who has experienced trauma.
Tune into Your Senses
Another mindfulness tip is to tune into your senses. We are CONSTANTLY taking in sensory information and are typically in autopilot. Give yourself an opportunity to focus on one of your senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste) and focus ONLY on that one sense for 2 minutes (set a timer if you need to so you’re not focused on the time the entire time).
For example, if I was focusing on touch in this very moment–I would notice:
My computer (not a very mindful thing…but figured I’d be honest)
The keys feel different than the touch pad
The texture of the couch I’m sitting on
The soft, fuzzy blanket next to me
My dog’s fur
…I was actively noticing those (although admittedly, I was distracted because I’m writing this), however, it was a nice moment to truly slow down. Give yourself permission to slow down and notice things around you.
Things to keep in mind: Taste may NOT be the best sense to focus on…and if you choose smell–know that it’s okay if you don’t smell anything. Don’t force it. Rather, notice what it’s like to not smell anything in that moment. It sounds woo-woo (and maybe it is), but I promise there’s a method to my madness.
Pay Attention to Your Body
…which is another tip that’s easier said than done. For as long as I can remember, I have heard phrases like “I had a gut feeling…” or “…that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up!” It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I understood that that was our bodies communicating messages to us (I promise…method to my madness) and it wasn’t until my late 20s (and MAYBE even my 30s) that I truly understand what that meant.
Even though I’m actively living what you are right now…a global pandemic…and I’m 100% aware of things that are happening around us, when I wrote the list out of changes that are happening all around us, I had a physical reaction to it…I felt a pit in my stomach and a heaviness in my chest…and as I sat with that for a while…I was able to name what was going on: feeling sad (about things happening around us), curious/anxious (about the future), and even a little stuck (because of the uncertainty of the future). That can feel like an overwhelming amount of information to realize from simply noticing a sensation in your body…and some days, it is.
However, the more you notice physical sensations that are happening, the more you can name what feeling(s) you’re experiencing, and the more you can access (and hopefully name!) what you’re needing…otherwise you might just feel foggy, agitated, anxious…or all of the above and feel like you just can’t shake what’s happening inside of you.
Side note: The Emotionary is a book of words that don’t exist for feelings that do. It’s NOT child-friendly and is a fun, great way to access some of the mixed/morphed/big feelings you have.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “meditation”? I called my best friend (a business attorney…so someone who is NOT in the mental health world) and she made a joke about lighting incense, holding hands, and chanting…while that can paint the picture of what meditation looks like for some people, that’s not what it’s always like (I promise!). You can google “guided meditation” and be gifted with SO many options–which is great! You can find meditations for specific purposes (e.g.: waking up or relaxing) or a particular amount of time (e.g.: 2 minutes or 20 minutes). Mindfulness
Note: This is not kid-friendly and uses profanity.
By definition, self-compassion involves “extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering” (for more information on it, check out Kristin Neff’s work!) I know I’ve repeated myself a few times now…but this is DEFINITELY easier said than done. An easy way to start practicing self-compassion is simply by using the word “and”.
“I feel like a failure as a parent right now….AND I’m doing the best that I can”
“I feel really anxious because of the uncertainty around us…AND thank goodness I have a therapist I can talk to about these feelings”
I’m so upset that I don’t get to have a normal graduation…AND I am grateful for ways I can celebrate in the future”
“I love my family, but am SO tired of being around them/I feel like I need a break…AND that’s okay!”
See what I did that? That’s self-compassion in a nutshell. It’s SO easy to get caught up in negative self-talk (especially when we’re surrounded by stress, anxiety, and scarcity thinking)…rather than getting bound to black-and-white & all-or-nothing thinking, embrace the beauty of “and” andallow multiple experiences to happen at once. After all, that IS the human condition…right?
You might read some of the tips & tricks and think “YES! This sounds perfect” and others you might be more like “Nope…no thanks”. Both of those reactions are completely fine and to-be-expected. Whatever tip or trick you gravitate towards, try incorporating that into your life on a regular basis…the more practice you have doing it on the daily, the more likely you will be able to pull that out of your toolbox when you’re feeling a lot of big feelings and are needing something to ground you.
As I sit here writing this, I can’t help but to reflect on how much has changed in the past month. The roles we play, our social connection and sense of community, our work, and so much more.
Navigating through this time with kids can be hard; they have had massive shifts in their lives. Parents have had to expand their role to fill that of teacher, coach, guidance counselor, and many others. Here are five activities that can be used at home (or in nature close to home) to help your children process big feelings in relation to this chaotic time and promote self-regulation skills.
This is a fun game to play with kiddos to promote mindfulness of the body. Mindfulness is pulling ourselves into the present moment. When explaining to children use simple, succinct definitions such as “mindfulness is noticing what is happening right now.” Mindfulness practices can help improve focus and concentration, as well as increase self-regulation skills.
This game helps create awareness of how the body reacts to different emotions. You can even ask questions to further process the emotion. For example, if your child is acting out fear, you can ask them questions like “what helps you to feel safe? What does safety feel/look like to you?”
Yoga practices have been shown to help children with mind-body awareness, self-regulation, improved self-esteem and social-emotional learning (just to name a few!). Cosmic Kids Yoga has an entire YouTube channel with tons of great videos geared towards children of all ages and interests (including Frozen, Pokemon and Harry Potter!). You can access it here: https://www.youtube.com/user/CosmicKidsYoga
According to recent research, repetitive, rhythmic movement (think rocking, swinging or kneading playdoh) and sensory experiences calm the part of our brain that signals danger. Creating aromatherapy playdoh together is a great way to integrate both movement and sensory input to promote feelings of relaxation.
You can also make multiple batches with different smells!
Lavender can help to promote relaxation and sleep
Citrus scents energize
Pine can reduce stress
Peppermint can improve focus/concentration (be cautious with peppermint-since it is a stronger scent, I would reduce the amount needed by half)
Nature Mindfulness Activity
As mentioned before, mindfulness is anchoring ourselves to the present moment. The Child Mind Institute shares that spending time in nature benefits children by building confidence, promoting creativity, and reducing stress. This activity combines both nature and mindfulness to create a sensory experience that can promote regulation and tranquility.
This nature mindfulness activity does not require any materials, just you, your child and thirty uninterrupted minutes outside in nature! Walk through a park, yard, greenbelt or any other natural landscape and identify:
Five things you can see
Four things you can hear
Three things you can feel
Two things you can smell
One thing you can taste (for safety considerations, I recommend only pointing out something you can eat or bring rosemary/mint or any other safe herb from home with you to reduce risk of eating something harmful!)
If your child needs a visual, you can print out a scavenger hunt sheet with things for them to find in nature. Here are some great resources:
This is a confusing time for everyone, including children. Having strong feelings of fear, sadness and anger are understandable and to be expected! This activity helps children to imagine a safe place they can visualize when they begin to feel scared.
Start by reading or playing a safe place guided imagery script, like one of these:
Following the guided imagery set out art supplies (whatever you have at home-markers, crayons, colored pencils, paint, paper). Invite your child to create their safe place on paper. They can draw a literal picture of it or create an abstract piece utilizing color/shapes to express how safety feels to them. Allow them to choose a meaningful place to keep their piece. If they do not wish to share their safe place, that is totally ok!
Art is a useful tool to express other emotions as well. It can provide words and language around emotion that is difficult to verbalize out loud. Children can use color and shapes to show and externalize how big feelings including fear, anxiety, sadness and joy feel to them.
Perhaps the most important tool to remember during this time is relationship. Connection and attachment are healing in themselves. In order to fully be present with your child, we must also do things that nurture our soul as well. I invite you to take a moment to yourself right now by placing one hand on your heart, the other on your stomach and feel your breath. Quietly extend compassion to yourself in this chaotic time.
You are seen, you are heard. We are all doing the best we can.