Managing your mental health is an under-appreciated life skill

Without a healthy mind, tackling life's challenges becomes exponentially more difficult.

Managing your mental health is an under-appreciated life skill
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
  • Most people know about the importance of managing your finances or eating a healthy diet, but few pay as much attention to their mental health.
  • If we engage in bad habits, we might suddenly find ourselves confined to our beds by fatigue or up all night with anxiety.
  • Research has shown that these four activities are crucial to maintaining a healthy state of mind.


If you learn to cook well, you can impress your friends. If you learn to manage your finances, you can become wealthier. If you learn to code, you've acquired a valuable skill that will keep you employed in good times and bad. When it comes to life skills, these tangible talents clearly stand out. But being able to manage your mental health may very well be the most important life skill, since having an off-kilter state of mind can seriously impair your ability to function in society, not to mention your ability to make use of your other skills.

Think of it like a car: You can spend money on an engine with more horsepower and faster acceleration, but it's not going to be of much use to you for long if you don't regularly replace the engine oil.

Although we don't think of them as such, mental illnesses are among the most common forms of disease. One in 5 Americans, or 46.6 million people, will experience a mental illness in a given year. Nearly half of all homeless people have a mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder. Mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder and depression, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S.

Clearly, there's more we can be doing.

Mental health is a broad subject, and not every strategy will work the same on everybody else. If you have a serious mental health condition, the best way to stay healthy is to regularly visit your mental health professional to help manage your care. However, there is evidence to support the positive impact of certain activities on your mental health.

1. Watch your diet

The gut contains a surprising number of neurons: over 100 million. There are so many neurons in your gut that it is sometimes referred to as your second brain. So, it should come as no surprise that your first brain is heavily influenced by what's going on with your second.

Our microbiomes, or the small galaxy of bacteria living inside of our guts, are constantly talking to our second brain. Gut bacteria pump out neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, all of which significantly affect our mood. In fact, a full 95 percent of our bodies' serotonin is produced in the gut. The bacteria that are producing these neurotransmitters aren't self-sustaining; they need the right foods to survive. When your diet contains too much of one kind of food and not enough of another, the diversity of bacterial species in your gut goes down.

Research has shown that gut bacteria play a major role in the rise of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other illnesses. Furthermore, many types of medication, including antidepressants, are modified by your gut bacteria. So, when it comes to preserving your mental health, focusing on your diet is an excellent first defense.

2. Get enough sleep

Pulling an all-nighter has about as big an impact on performance as having a blood alcohol content of 0.10. Not only that, but it's also a major blow to your psychical well-being. Getting enough sleep is a challenge for those suffering from a mental health disorder; 50 to 80 percent of psychiatric patients experience chronic sleep problems, as compared to 10 to 18 percent in the general U.S. population. It's not hard to see why this is. Insomnia is a common symptom of mental illnesses, but in truth, it can be a major cause of them as well.

There is significant evidence that REM sleep is related to the ability to process emotions, and when this sleep cycle is disturbed, it can have a major impact on your mental health. PTSD, for instance, has been linked to a failure of the brain to process memories when sleeping, and major depression has been linked to excessive REM sleep. Getting a consistent night's sleep can help regulate these issues.

Of course, getting a good night's sleep is easier said than done, especially if a mental health condition seems like its directly interfering. Fortunately, there's a few strategies one can employ to make it more likely that you'll get a better night's sleep.

  • Cut out caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol: All three of these interfere with sleep. Caffeine and nicotine are obvious candidates, but few realize that alcohol, too, prevents healthy sleep. Though it can help you fall asleep faster, it also can cause you to wake up once its effects wear off. And more importantly, alcohol affects the quality of your sleep; even if you get 8 hours, those 8 hours won't be as restorative after a night out.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise, has been shown to improve sleep quality and to help people fall asleep faster.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: Sleep hygiene is sort of a catch-all term for all the little practices that make it easier to sleep. These include, for example, falling asleep and waking up at the same time every day, exposing yourself to natural light or darkness at the right time, avoiding computer screens before going to bed, using your bed only for sleeping, and so on.

3. Practice meditation

Mindfulness meditation is arguably the best practice for staying mentally healthy. This form of meditation encourages mindfulness, or (according to Bishop et al.), "a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is." This kind of meditation is especially useful for those with anxiety, as it trains you to sort between useful worrying, the kind that motivates you to solve a problem, and useless worrying, the kind that ends up doing more harm than the thing you're worrying about.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, explained the benefits of meditation for anxiety-sufferers to the Harvard Health Blog. "If you have unproductive worries, you can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently," said Dr. Hoge. "You might think 'I'm late, I might lose my job if I don't get there on time, and it will be a disaster!' Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, 'Oh, there's that thought again. I've been here before. But it's just that — a thought, and not a part of my core self.'"

The evidence backs this up. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University reviewed nearly 19,000 meditation studies and found that meditation reduces anxiety, depression, and stress. It also enhances mental performance and increases compassion, which is always a nice bonus.

4. Exercise

And, of course, this list has to close with exercise. Regular exercise complements the other items in this list well, as it leads to improvements in sleep and can encourage a greater awareness of one's diet. We all know that exercise will improve your cardiovascular health, but it also has a major impact on mental health. So much so that some researchers argue exercise should be prescribed before certain psychiatric drugs when treating mental health issues and that every mental health clinic should have its own gym.

Aerobic exercises, such as jogging, swimming, and even dancing, have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. Exercise in general improves self-esteem and cognitive function and reduces stress. Not only does exercise release endorphins that can give a much-needed boost for depressed individuals, it also improves blood flow to the brain, helping to ensure that critical parts of the brain get the nutrients they need for proper function.


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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