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5 Habits That Could Be Harming Your Mental Health

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistAugust 24, 2018

Every day you make choices, big and small, that affect your well-being. Some of the small ones seem, well, small – but they still make an impact. Here are a few common habits that could be harming your mental health more than you realize.

Eating a poor diet

The field of nutritional psychology is revealing the effects of food on our psychological well-being. For example, eating a lot of processed food (like cookies, chips, bread, etc.) substantially raises the risk for depression.

So, if you live with depression, you may find some relief simply by improving your diet. Recommendations typically include eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish, healthy fats like olive oil, and other minimally processed foods (the “Mediterranean diet”).

Try This: As a starting point, choose one daily meal for a healthy makeover. So, maybe it’s swapping your sugary cereal for a healthier breakfast, like scrambled eggs with spinach or oatmeal topped with nuts and fresh berries.

Being inactive

Our bodies thrive when we move them throughout the day, but as adults we often spend entire days sitting: at meals, at work, in front of the TV. But the more inactive you are, the more likely you are to experience anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other negative effects.

Try This: Find one fun movement activity to start doing once per week, like playing tennis or walking with a friend.

Staying inside all the time

Just as it’s easy to sit all the time, we can also spend entire days without setting foot outside. But being outdoors—especially in natural environments like parks—is linked with improvements in mental health. It can also be an effective way to calm your nervous system, and to enjoy socializing with the people you run into.

Try This: Take a short walk outside after lunch. Focus on the experience as you take in the sights and smells and feel your body move.

Living in a constant state of stress

Some amount of stress is an unavoidable part of being alive, and isn’t necessarily bad for you. But chronic stresses, like ongoing financial concerns or repeated relationship conflict, can take a toll on your body and mind. Over time, you’ll not only become more irritable, but you’ll also be more likely to experience conditions like anxiety and depression.

Try This: Spend a few minutes at the end of the day decompressing through progressive muscle relaxation (here’s a guide to get you started).

Being tied to your phone

So many things require us to spend time on screens: work, hotel reservations, online shopping, the list goes on. And of course, there are infinite reasons for us to be on our phones – texting, checking social media, playing games, reading the news…

What’s the cost of constant screen time? Burnout, relationship conflict, and sleep problems, just to name a few. And greater use of social media is linked to lowered life satisfaction over time.

Try This: Go for a walk with a family member and leave your phone at home.

To stay well mentally and emotionally, you have to be tuned into what you need. Ask yourself what you need today: What would fuel your body? What would refresh your mind? What would nourish your spirit?

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

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