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5 Keys to Psychological Health

3. Did you leave the house today?

Key points

  • Maintaining good mental hygiene can help us achieve greater well-being.
  • Our daily habits can affect our psychological functioning in a myriad of ways.
  • Sleep, exercise, and positive social interaction can all boost our mood and improve our health.

Many people who experience symptoms of worry or sadness have trouble understanding the root of their negative emotions. When you are at a loss to understand your feelings of dysphoria, low mood, and fatigue, it may be time check-in on your mental hygiene practices. Mental hygiene describes the behavioral habits that we need to keep ourselves psychologically fit. By performing the basics, we can significantly improve our mood and our ability to manage daily stressors.

1. Are you getting enough sleep?

Sleep deprivation can have an outsized effect on our cognitive, physical, and psychological functioning. When we don’t get enough sleep, we have trouble concentrating, focusing, and remembering information. We are also more irritable and emotionally dysregulated. When we aren’t sleeping, our body produces more stress hormones.

All of this can cause us to perceive information in a more negative light, which affects our ability to problem-solve. However, getting enough sleep is probably the most complicated of the basic hygiene practices. Sleep itself can involve maintaining a set of good habits, which can be difficult for many people.

2. Did you exercise?

The research on the psychological benefits of exercise is extensive. The impact of exercise on psychological functioning is equivalent to or better than psychotropic medication. Exercise can reduce stress in several ways, both directly and indirectly.

First, exercise affects your physiology. When you are exercising, you might initially produce more stress hormones, but your body quickly adapts, and you experience lower levels of stress hormones when you engage in physical activity. You also produce more neurotransmitters associated with mood, anxiety, and stress responses.

Exercising gives people a sense of accomplishment, which improves one’s sense of self-efficacy, the confidence one feels in accomplishing a task. Exercise can help you feel confident in other areas of your life as well. Exercising outdoors is even better because you get your daily dose of vitamin D, an additional factor known to influence mental health.

3. Did you leave the house?

With COVID-19, more and more of us have adopted habits that keep us inside. We no longer leave the house to work, go to school, or grocery shop. With life slowly returning to normal, we are all reluctant to go back to a life that includes traffic, long check-out lines, or complicated school drop-offs. However, that doesn’t mean you need to be confined indoors.

Exposure to sunlight is a well-established prerequisite for maintaining a positive mood. People who live in places with less sun exposure have higher rates of depression and suicide. Sunlight also stimulates vitamin D production. We also are generally better “breathers” when we are outside. That is, we are more likely to take long, slow breaths, which helps us relax.

4. Did you have a positive face-to-face interaction today with someone outside your immediate household?

Humans are social creatures. We need to be around other people. People who belong to communities with robust social support networks are protected from developing a range of psychological disorders. Conversely, lonely people are at risk of developing depression and anxiety, as well as other types of physical ailments.

Technology has reduced the amount of time we spend in face-to-face interactions. Sheryl Turkle, a professor of Science and Technology at MIT, argues that our increasing reliance on technology to fulfill our social needs has paradoxically caused us to be more alienated from one another. We are less likely to have conversations because they have been replaced with text messages and Instagram likes.

COVID has exacerbated this trend, as we have fewer opportunities to participate in social interactions that arise organically. Friendly conversations with strangers force us out of our comfort zone. We may be more likely to “fake positive,” which can lead us to feel actual positive feelings.

5. How much time did you spend on social media?

Social media can certainly feel addicting, and some experts now argue that it has the same effects on our psychology as other addictive behaviors. Although it is harmless in moderation, it appears to have a range of negative effects when people start to rely on it to feel better or to relax. For women especially, social media increases opportunities to self-compare, which can lead to life dissatisfaction.

It is easy to find examples on social media of people who have lives that may seem more glamorous or exciting. Additionally, people often engage in social media passively. Unlike watching a movie or reading a book, social media doesn’t cause us to think or feel complex thoughts or emotions. This is the appeal of platforms like Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

When we’re already anxious or tired, we want to turn off our brains. This type of avoidant behavior is unhealthy because it prevents us from engaging in more effective coping behaviors. There is also accumulating evidence that social media can be toxic, as it aggravates divisions and appeals to our cognitive tendency to oversimplify. This type of oversimplification amplifies cognitive errors that make us prone to depression, such as all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing. If you’re not sure where to look when finding the source of your negative feelings, there is a good chance that social media is the culprit.

This checklist is not meant to be all-inclusive. However, it can be a good start to establishing healthy habits, which can make you more resilient to the slings and arrows of life.

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