According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 3 Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime.
While most often mental illness develops during adolescence and young adulthood, mental illness can affect people of all ages, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Statistics Canada defines mental illness as “the reduced ability for a person to function effectively over a prolonged period of time because of significant levels of distress, changes in thinking, mood or behaviour, feelings of isolation, loneliness and sadness, or the feeling of being disconnected from people and activities. [*]”
Mental illness can come in many forms. Some examples of mental illnesses are depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders, and eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia.
Although mental illness is prevalent in our society, there are many ways to help support our own and each other’s mental wellness. Besides the first step which is to seek guidance from a physician, psychologist, mental health nurse, or social worker, here are some steps you can take to help improve feelings of overall well being:
When life gets busy, it can be easy to stop prioritizing the things that can help you feel good. Spending time in nature is an often overlooked activity, especially for those living in urban centres where outdoor access is more difficult. However, it turns out that getting outside is a crucial and undervalued part of optimizing your well being. Studies show that even just looking at nature can help to lower your heart rate, and in turn regulate your nervous system -- the system in the body that can go into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode when under stress. Prioritizing nervous system regulation is key to helping improve your well being; when you deal with high stress and anxiety on a regular basis, your adrenal glands can produce excess cortisol, which is one of your body’s stress hormones. Excess cortisol can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, reduced energy, negative mood, and even poor sleep.
Although it’s unclear exactly why nature helps us feel more relaxed, several studies show that we are calmer in natural spaces. Not only can nature help reduce stress and anxiety, it can also help to improve mood, boost creativity, and increase feelings of connectedness. A study which evaluated the brain activity of those who’d just walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting showed lower activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex - an area associated with rumination, stress, and anxiety - compared to people who walked for 90 minutes in an urban setting. According to an article published in Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing, even just listening to nature sounds and outdoor silence can reduce blood pressure, helping to reduce the nervous system’s fight-or-flight response discussed earlier. Plus, since most of us are disconnected from technology when in nature, we are granted with more mental space to ponder new ideas and feel more connected to ourselves and the planet.
As much as technology’s influence has caused many people to feel that they can do more by themselves than ever before, humans still remain inherently social creatures. In fact, humans actually share mirror neurons, which are nerve cells that help us to match each other’s emotions. In a society that connects more over social media than face-to-face, it’s easy to forget how much community can contribute to positive mental health. According to a recent study by Dr. Réka Gustafson of Vancouver Coastal Health, those who prioritize socializing tend to live healthier lives, meaning they’re more active, eat nutritious food, and spend less time on screens. By intentionally scheduling more social time into your week, you can help to boost feelings of positivity and connectedness, helping to improve your overall well being.
As a woman, it can be a great idea to track your menstrual cycle. Paying attention to how you feel at different times of the month can help give you more clarity -- and self-compassion -- for when you feel anxious, sad, fatigued, irritable, or experience mood swings associated with your period. According to the Mayo Clinic, 3 in 4 women experience emotional, behavioural, and physical symptoms before menstruating, including: tension or anxiety, depressed mood, crying spells, mood swings and irritability, anger, appetite changes and food cravings, trouble falling asleep, social withdrawal, poor concentration, change in libido, joint or muscle pain, headache, fatigue, weight gain related to fluid retention, abdominal bloating, breast tenderness, acne flare-ups, or alcohol intolerance. These symptoms can be caused by cyclic hormonal changes, fluctuations of serotonin, or underlying mental illness, like depression. In order to seek the best treatment, begin paying more attention to what day in your cycle you feel the best and the poorest, and see if this becomes a pattern. Once you have more awareness about how you feel at different times of your cycle, you can seek guidance from a healthcare professional on nutritional supplements, vitamins, medication, or medical cannabis to help you ease your symptoms.
It’s easy to dwell in the past and obsess about the future. Mindfulness practices, such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, breathing, and simply noticing your surroundings and checking in with yourself, can help to positively impact your mental health since they bring you into the present moment. Plus, paying attention to how you are feeling and what you are thinking can provide insight into the emotions and physical sensations you experience, helping you feel more connected to yourself and your moment-by-moment experience. Mindfulness has been linked to reduced stress, improved physical health, and the ability to look at situations from other perspectives. Learning to approach these practices with curiosity, attention, and acceptance can help you to adopt these principles into your life, which may help you feel more peaceful and at ease. Try paying more attention to your actions on a daily basis, and begin observing your thoughts, feelings, and even physical sensations.
Moving your body on a daily basis is essential for helping to maintain health -- both mental and physical. Physical exertion helps to release endorphins, which are “natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids)[*]” as well as other feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Exercise also helps to strengthen bones, increase musculature, and decrease body fat. Research shows that getting daily movement can help to increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety and depression, improve sleep, boost mood, increase energy and stamina, and reduce weight. Plus, it can also help to promote self-efficacy, motivation, and even social interaction. Join your local gym, grab a workout buddy, or better yet, get outside to reap not only the benefits of exercise, but also nature.
It’s a great idea to combine these five tips with guidance from a physician, psychologist, mental health nurse, or social worker to help improve your mental well being. Plus, it may be worthwhile to consider medical cannabis to help ease some of your symptoms. At NamasteMD, we provide consultations for medical cannabis documents from the comfort of your own home. Sign up here to begin your application and get one step closer to legal, medical cannabis consumption.