In honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month, UAB experts provide six ways to improve mental health.
According to a recent University of Alabama at Birmingham study, the pandemic increased the prevalence of people with depression or anxiety symptoms in America substantially — from about 11 percent of people in 2019 to close to 40 percent in 2021.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. UAB experts provide six ways to improve your mental health.
Limit your sources and amount of news intake
“Constantly listening to news and/or cable talk shows will only add to one’s anxiety in times of an outbreak or disaster,” said Laura Dreer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences. “While it’s important to stay updated, limiting updates to once a day will help you stay more in the moment and lower your stress levels. This is particularly important for parents with young children and to be mindful of keeping the news to a minimum.”
Streamline incoming news by picking a few reputable sources rather than relying on potentially unreliable social media.
Set boundaries for discussion topics
Often loved ones ask well-intentioned — or even targeted — questions that can be triggering, invasive or uncomfortable, and dodging conversations can feel overwhelming to those affected.
Dayna M. Watson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB School of Education’s Counseling program, explains that preparing statements can help to set meaningful and realistic boundaries.
Write out and practice a few short statements that express boundaries. While it may be tempting to try to beat around the bush or sugarcoat attempts at establishing healthy boundaries to make it less upsetting for the other person, it is best to keep boundary statements short, respectful and clear:
- “That is not something I am open to discussing today.”
- “Please do not say things like that to me or around my children.”
Phrases like these can go a long way in communicating where the boundary is. In some situations where repeated attempts to draw healthy boundaries are made and a loved one continues to cross that line, it may be best to plan ahead to limit the amount of time at events that include the individuals or to gracefully exit the event if it becomes an issue in the moment.
Read a book
Read a positive book, a murder mystery or even a manual, as reading has proven health benefits. According to Scholastic, regular reading can decrease stress levels by up to 68 percent and can lengthen life by up to two years.
Get enough sleep
Another great way to improve mental health is to increase the number of hours and the quality of sleep.
“It can be tempting to stay up later, especially when there is a long to-do list,” Watson said. “But practicing good sleep hygiene can be a great tool to manage stress.”
According to the UAB Medicine Sleep/Wake Disorders Center, sleep-promoting behaviors include:
- No electronics one to three hours before bedtime. Electronics interrupt physiological sleep mechanisms and stimulate the brain. If you must be on your computer or phone at night, wear glasses that block blue light.
- A more sleep-friendly environment that may include dimmer lights, a cooler temperature and no television. Patterson says it is best to have a comfortable mattress and pillow, with no dogs, cats or children in the bed.
- Avoid heavy meals late in the evening. Indigestion and heartburn can interrupt sleep.
- Avoid caffeine three to four hours before turning out the lights, and no alcohol, nicotine or marijuana one to three hours before sleep. Insomnia is a primary sleep disorder in the United States, and these stimulants can prevent people from falling asleep.
- Daytime exercise. Even a small amount of daily aerobic exercise can improve sleep quality.
- A consistent bedtime. Shift workers have an especially hard time with this, but those on routine nights do better than those who do rotating shifts.
“Mindfulness means being fully present in the moment,” Dreer said. “It is easy for many of us to get caught up in things that have happened in the past or in the future while missing out on living in the present.”
Combat the pinging notifications and things vying for attention by practicing a bit of mindfulness at the start or end of your day — or even as a lunchtime break. Check out mindfulness platforms and apps that are easily accessible to practice meditation or breathing.
Add stretching into a fitness routine
Stretching is popular in fitness programs, athletic preparations and injury rehabilitation and beneficial for several muscle conditions. It is known to lessen stress, relieve headaches and backaches, and increase muscle flexibility and bone strength.
When stretching, UAB Medicine’s Orthopedic Services says the important things to consider are:
- Make sure the muscles are warm and pliable before pushing them to the limits of their range of motion. As part of a dynamic warm-up, that may include walking or very light jogging prior to going through a full functional stretching regimen.
- Correct technique. Once progress is made and a more aggressive stretching routine begins, remember that correct technique is a top priority. Work closely with a strength and conditioning professional whenever possible to perfect form before moving to advanced levels.
- Focus on the major areas of the body that help with mobility. These areas include calves, hamstrings, hips and thighs. For upper-body relief, use moves that stretch the shoulders, neck and lower back.
- Make the body’s muscles work, but do not stretch until it hurts. Proper stretches should never cause pain.
- Know the body’s limits. According to UAB Orthopaedics, some research has shown that stretching the muscles before they are warmed up can cause damage. Exercising first gets blood flowing to muscle tissue, making it pliable. However, that applies only to light physical activity, such as a quick walk, before stretching.