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Managing your mental health is an under-appreciated life skill

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

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.


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Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

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Politics & Current Affairs
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