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Improving your mental health can be as easy as 1-2-3

Between the morning coffee you’re already addicted to, the lunch you forgot to pack and that late-evening feeling of slipping behind on your schoolwork or credit card payments, it’s hard to find time to fortify your mental health.

The good news is psychological and neurological studies are finding that little things you do every day can actually have a profound and long-term impact on your mental health. Whether it’s taking a five-minute break to think happy thoughts or trying today’s crossword, it is possible to fit mentally healthful activities into any schedule.

Use your head

With global dementia rates estimated around 35 million people, today’s researchers are exploring connections between mental exercises and how they affect deteriorating brain function later in life.

Worldwide studies in mental performance suggest that exercising your brain with challenging activities can dramatically impact neural degeneration later in life. Like a muscle, your brain improves and sustains Itself with regular use. Some studies have looked to higher education, career paths and even socioeconomic standings as ways of predicting dementia later in life, and have indeed found correlations.

More interesting yet are those studies showing that simple but challenging daily activities can improve thought processes, memory and ability to focus.

A study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that crosswords, which involve memory retrieval, have been linked to lower chances of dementia. Reading. playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing were other activities that appeared to reduce dementia. The more frequently the stimulating activity was done each week, the better the results by a wide margin. So get thinking!

Use your body, too

Though psychotherapy and medications are usually the first prescriptions for mental illness, physical exercise is now recognized as a potent antidepressant.

According to research findings presented by the American Psychological Association, physical exercise works as an antidepressant for people of all ages, becoming more effective as we age. Furthermore, a 1999 study at Duke University found that exercise alone was in fact more effective than medication in the long-term.

All modes of exercise – walking, jogging, aerobics and weights – done as little as three times a week, have been shown to lessen depression to some degree. These activities have had the added benefits of improving anxiety issues, self-esteem and addictions. Many recent studies are now making ties between physical activity and mental deterioration, exploring how physical activity appears to increase brain cognitive abilities and even ward off Alzheimer’s and dementia.

If you’re interested in being more active, start slow and gradually increase the amount of time you’re active and the intensity of your activity to avoid overdoing it mentally or physically. Your personal preferences mean the world when it comes to using exercise as a relaxant, energizer or anti depressant, so try different things out until you find an activity you enjoy. You’ll be more likely to stick with an activity that you enjoy doing.

Rethink success

Positive thinking is no joke in the scientific world. Dwelling on your perceived failures and expecting the worst from life can bring about or prolong a slew of mental health issues, like anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, assertiveness issues, addictions and low self-esteem. Rethinking success means rethinking failure, too. Accept that as humans we are inherently prone to fall as well as succeed. Positive thinking will not only fortify you against self-defeating thought patterns, but its acquisition is sometimes integral to recovery from mental and physical illness. If you’re worried about negative thinking habits, talk to a counsellor or psychologist. There are a plethora of self-help books out there preaching simple ‘rules’ for success and happiness, but quite often negative thinking habits are routed in deeper wounds that may need tending to. For new and inspiring perspectives on success and how to live happily, I would recommend checking out to watch a mind-blowing speech or two. “John Wooden on True Success” is a personal favourite.

This article was originally published in issue 142-04 on October 2, 2009.


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