Managing your mental health is an under-appreciated life skill
Without a healthy mind, tackling life's challenges becomes exponentially more difficult.
- 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.
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.
- You're Wired for Anxiety. And You're Wired to Handle It. ›
- Need relief from mental fatigue? Try these two techniques. - Big Think ›
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
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