5 natural ways to boost your mental health during stressful times

Life today is razor's-edge tense. If your regular coping methods aren't measuring up, there are science-backed actions we can add on our own to ease anxiety,...

Posted: Jun 2, 2020 7:35 AM

Life today is razor's-edge tense. If your regular coping methods aren't measuring up, there are science-backed actions we can add on our own to ease anxiety, depression and stress — all done naturally, no doctor's note required.

Get enough exercise

If you had to choose just one thing to do to better your mental and physical health, choose to exercise on a regular basis.

Scientists believe exercise increases blood circulation to the brain, especially areas like the amygdala and hippocampus — which both have roles in controlling motivation, mood and response to stress. For one thing, it releases endorphins, the body's feel-good hormones.

You don't have to do high-intensity exercise to ease stress, according to a study of university students. Researchers found that exercise of moderate intensity, defined as working out hard enough so you can still talk but can't sing, reduced depression.

High-intensity interval training, however, increased stress and inflammation. It's possible intense exercise could make an already stressed-out system more jittery, "especially in individuals who were not accustomed to exercise," said study author Jennifer Heisz in an article she wrote.

Numerous studies show the biggest benefits come from rhythmic exercises, which get your blood pumping in major muscle groups. Those include running, swimming, cycling and walking. Do the exercise for 15 to 30 minutes at least three times a week over a 10-week period or longer at low to moderate intensity.

"A brisk walk, jog or bike ride can help keep you calm and healthy during these uncertain times," said Helsz, who is an associate professor in kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

Focus on sleep

There's another benefit of exercise — it will improve your sleep quality, one of the best things you can do to ease stress and boost your mood. There's an additional benefit to a better snooze. You'll be protecting your heart, improving your brain and reducing your desire to snack.

It's not just about sleeping longer, either. You're trying to give your body time to go through enough sleep cycles to repair itself, which means going from light sleep to deep and back again. Set yourself up for success by developing good sleep habits that will train your brain for restorative sleep.

Develop a routine. You want to teach your body (and brain) to calm down, so try to begin relaxing at least an hour before bedtime. Shut off the news and put down your smartphone. Taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, listening to soothing music, meditating or doing light stretches are all good options.

You should also have a regular bedtime and a regular time for getting up in the morning, even on weekends, experts said.

Avoid certain food and drink. Avoid stimulants such as nicotine or coffee after midafternoon, especially if you have insomnia. Alcohol is another no-no. You may think it helps you doze off, but you are more likely to wake in the night as your body begins to process the spirits.

Strive for cooler temperatures. Make sure your bed and pillows are comfortable, and the room is cool: Between 60 and 67 degrees is best. Don't watch television or work in your bedroom. You want your brain to think of the room as only for sleep.

Keep yourself in the dark. Be sure to eliminate all bright lights, as even the blue light of cellphones or laptops can be disruptive. If that's hard to accomplish, think about using eye shades and blackout curtains to keep the room dark. But during the day, try to get good exposure to natural light since that will help regulate your circadian rhythm.

Deep breathing

Something as simple as taking deep, slow breaths can do amazing things to our brain and therefore our stress, experts said.

"Learning breathwork lets you know that you have an ability to physiologically calm yourself," said stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for Contentment magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.

"When you physiologically calm yourself, you actually change your brainwaves," Ackrill said. "I used to do neurofeedback, which is brainwave training, and I would have people hooked up to all kinds of machines. And after doing breathwork with them you could see these massive changes in the brain. It also lowered blood pressure."

Deep breathing realigns the stressed-out part of our bodies, called the the sympathetic system, with the parasympathetic, or "rest and restore" system, Ackrill explained.

While there are many types of breathing, a lot of research has focused on "cardiac coherence," where you inhale for six seconds and exhale for six seconds for a short period of time. Focus on belly breathing, or breathing to the bottom of your lungs, by putting your hand on your tummy to feel it move.

"Anytime you intentionally bring your attention to your breath and slow it down, you've already done a good thing," Ackrill said. "That's just one simple tool that you can use and it gives you back a feeling of power and control.

"And it gives you that pause where you begin to realize that you are separate from what's happening to you, and you can choose a response instead of just a primal reaction."

Take up yoga, tai chi or qi gong

Yoga, of course, is a form of physical exercise. In additon to releasing endorphins, yoga can regulate the body's central stress response system, called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and improves sleep quality, said Jacinta Brinsley, a doctoral candidate at the University of South Australia who recently published a study on yoga.

But yoga is also a spiritual discipline, designed to meld body and mind. A yoga lifestyle incorporates physical postures, breath regulation and mindfulness through the practice of meditation.

"Yogic philosophy teaches that the body, mind and spirit are all interconnected — what you do in one area, for example, a physical exercise to strengthen your leg muscles, will have an effect in all of the other areas of your system," said Laurie Hyland Robertson, the editor in chief of Yoga Therapy Today, a journal published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists.

"So we can expect that leg exercise, especially when you approach it in a mindful, purposeful way, to affect not only your quadriceps but also your emotional state, your body's physiology and even your mental outlook," said Robertson, who coauthored the book "Understanding Yoga Therapy: Applied Philosophy and Science for Health and Well-Being."

Two traditional Chinese exercises, tai chi and qi gong, have also been shown to be excellent stress reducers. Both are low-impact, moderate-intensity aerobic exercises that contain a flowing sequence of movements coupled with changes in mental focus, breathing, coordination and relaxation.

Studies have found that tai chi and qi gong increase blood levels of endorphins, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improve immune function, a key benefit in the age of coronavirus. And brain scans of people using tai chi and qi gong find increased alpha, beta and theta brain wave activity, suggesting increased relaxation and attentiveness

Meditation

Meditation and mindfulness are two excellent ways to lower stress.

At the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers studied the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks recruited by the Dali Lama and found startling results: Tens of thousands of hours of compassionate meditation had permanently altered the structure and function of the monks' brains. One 41-year-old monk had the brain of a 33-year-old.

But you don't have to devote your life to meditation to see change, said Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, the institute that did the research on the monks.

Davidson, who is a professor of psychology and psychiatry, pointed to the results of a randomized controlled trial of people who've never meditated before. Using direct measures of brain function and structure, he found it only took 30 minutes a day of meditation practice over the course of two weeks to produce a measurable change in the brain.

"When these kinds of mental exercises are taught to people, it actually changes the function and the structure of their brain in ways that we think support these kinds of positive qualities," Davidson said. "And that may be key in producing the downstream impact on the body."

One of Davidson's favorite mindfulness exercises cultivates appreciation.

"Simply to bring to mind people that are in our lives from whom we have received some kind of help," Davidson said. "Bring them to mind and appreciate the care and support or whatever it might be that these individuals have provided."

"You can spend one minute each morning and each evening doing this," he said. "And that kind of appreciation is something that can foster a sense of optimism about the future."

Like exercise, mindfulness will need to be practiced on a regular basis to keep the brain's positive outlook in good shape, Davidson said. But the effort is definitely worth it.

"This is really about nurturing the mind," he said. "And there is ample evidence to suggest that there are real psychological and physical health-related benefits."

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