Keeping Your Mind Healthy
We sometimes seem to be in the middle of an epidemic of mental health problems. There are higher levels of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses than ever before, particularly among young people. The big question is whether there is anything we can do to avoid these conditions.
We all know the importance of eating ‘five a day’, or five portions of fruit or vegetable every day, to maintain physical health. While the science behind the precise number is probably somewhat dubious, the importance of eating well to maintain health is not in doubt.
But what about the mind? Are there things that you should, or should not do, in order to keep your mind healthy?
Nobody is suggesting that it is possible for everyone to avoid all mental health problems. However, many scientists would say agree that there are things that can be done to maintain a healthy mind.
Sound Mind, Sound Body
There is a certain amount of truth behind the Latin tag ‘mens sana in corpore sano’, or ‘a sound mind in a sound body’.
There is no question that people who have chronic problems with their physical health often also suffer mental health problems. This is probably not surprising, because it is hard to cope with constant pain, or the debilitation that goes with a long-term physical health problem.
However, on a more superficial level, looking after yourself physically can also make you feel better about yourself. It is certainly easier to cope with high levels of demands on your time and energy if you are physically fit.
What, though, should you actually do to keep your mind healthy?
Eating the Right Food
A good diet is essential for physical health. A growing body of evidence suggests that it also makes a difference to your mind.
The Mental Health Foundation notes that a good diet is important for mental health. It also suggests that diet can play a role in the development, management and prevention of several specific conditions, including schizophrenia, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s disease.
That is not to say that diet can control these conditions, nor that it should be looked upon as a panacea or cure-all, or that other treatments should be stopped in favour of a particular diet.
However, diet may play a role, alongside other treatments, in the management of these conditions.
A few years ago, ‘superfoods’ were everywhere. This is a term used to describe certain foods with very high quantities of particular nutrients. From the early descriptions, you might almost have thought these foods had magical powers to improve mental and physical health. Most sources now, however, suggest that the term is simply a marketing tool.
The European Union has even banned the use of the term 'superfood' in marketing except where the claim is backed by credible scientific evidence of a proven medical benefit.
The Mental Health Foundation notes that fewer than half of those who report mental health problems consume fresh fruit every day, compared with more than two thirds of those who do not report mental health problems. The issue here may be somewhat ‘chicken and egg’: does a poor diet contribute to the problem, or does the problem cause the lack of interest in eating healthily?
Either way, there is little doubt that feelings of health and well-being are more likely if you consume a balanced diet, with the correct balance of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water for you.
See our nutrition pages for more information, including: What is Protein?, What is Fat? and What are Carbohydrates?.
The Importance of Exercise
David Linden, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, suggested in an interview that the most helpful thing that anyone could do for their mind was to take 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day.
Linden explained that we do not really understand what’s behind the beneficial effects of exercise. However, scientists have observed that exercise causes all the blood vessels in the body, including in your brain, to dilate. This changes the metabolic capacity of the brain. Exercise also makes the brain secrete certain chemicals which help keep neurons healthy and able to change.
All this sounds like a very good thing for the brain and the body.
See our page: The Importance of Exercise for more.
Keeping your Mind Active
There has been plenty of speculation in the press over many years about useful ways to slow down brain degeneration in ageing and, particularly, how it might be possible to overcome Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
One suggestion is that doing crosswords, and other puzzles or 'brain-training' that keep your brain active, might be helpful. However, this is likely to be far less helpful than physical exercise. This is because doing puzzles uses only a small part of your brain and does not do anything for the rest. The effects of exercise, however, are much wider.
However, if you cannot do exercise for some reason, doing puzzles is likely to be better than nothing.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Based on some of our most popular content, this eBook will help you to live a happier, healthier and more productive life.
Learn how to look after your body and mind: the fundamental first steps to personal development.
This eBook, now in its second edition, with new and revised content, is designed to make life both easier and better.
Social media, smartphone addiction and mental health
There is growing evidence that there is a strong association between smartphone use, particularly social media use, and poor mental health.
It is not entirely clear what causes the link. However, there is considerable speculation that social media leads people to make comparisons between their own life, and the carefully curated lives that they see on screen. It seems that however much we understand, logically, that nobody’s life is perfect, it is hard not to think that what is presented on social media is reality.
It has also been speculated that ‘fear of missing out’ drives us to wish to remain connected in case we ‘miss’ something important.
Social media is designed to be addictive
It is important for anyone using social media to understand that it is designed to be addictive.
The currency of ‘likes’ supplies external validation and releases various chemicals in our brains that make us feel good. The rapid changes in content and ability to just keep scrolling also discourage time-bound use.
There is growing evidence that it is important to get into the habit of switching off your smartphone periodically—and not just at night.
For example, many schools are now banning phone use during the school day. Some have even banned phones from the premises. This helps young people to ‘switch off’.
Many workplaces now also accept that the pressure to be connected is damaging and are taking action to protect their workers. Some, for example, are starting to encourage workers to have someone else change their email password before they leave for a holiday so that they cannot check their email while away. In France, workers now have a legal right not to check emails or receive work calls outside working hours.
It is important to resist pressure to be ‘always on’. Tell people that you will be turning off your phone—and then do so.
Try taking time out from technology: spend time outside, or reading a book, perhaps, instead.
There is more about this in our page on Screentime for Children.
The ‘Good’ Mind
There is more to mental health and a ‘good’ mind than simply avoiding dementia and other mental illnesses.
The mind is shaped by all the experiences, ideas and thoughts to which it is exposed. To a certain extent, then, you can choose what you ‘feed’ your mind, just as you can choose what you feed your body.
What you choose to consume for your mind can be described as your ‘mind diet’. Your ‘mind diet’ can make your mind more or less ‘healthy’, and certainly more or less interesting.
“Garbage in, garbage out”
People talk about books that are ‘trash’ or ‘pulp fiction’. By this they mean light, easy reading that does not challenge the mind.
Reading a book like this every now and then does no harm, just as an occasional visit to a burger joint does not affect your health. But a diet of junk food alone is not good for the body, and a diet of undiluted pulp fiction is not good for the mind.
Your 'Mind Diet'
It is worth taking a few moments to consider your ‘mind diet’ every now and then.
How good is my mind diet? Is it what I would describe as a ‘balanced diet’, of different types of ideas and subjects? Or do I tend to focus more on one type of input?
In particular, what is the balance between ‘junk’ and ‘healthy’ mind-food?
What effect is this having on me as a person? You might need to ask friends and family to give you an honest assessment if you are concerned about this.
What can and should I do to improve the balance?
If you struggle to construct an ‘ideal’ mind diet, then try thinking about someone whom you admire, and consider what kinds of thoughts, ideas and experiences may have shaped their mind. Think about what that would look like for you.
The Challenge of Maintaining your Mental Health
Of course, just as physical illness can affect anyone, so can mental illness, regardless of lifestyle. If it affects you, you should always consult a doctor. Nobody is suggesting that you can cure mental illness by simply consuming the right diet and taking exercise—although this can contribute to the management of your condition.
Science, does, however suggest that there are many things that we can do to keep mind and body as healthy as possible and contribute to improved outcomes in the event of illness.
Common sense suggests that it is relatively easy to eat a balanced diet, and take exercise, and that the benefits to both mental and physical health would more than outweigh any inconvenience. Turning off your smartphone periodically is also likely to pay dividends in the longer term.