Health & Fitness

Proactive Ways to Improve Your Mental Health

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Everyone has mental health low points, similar to having a common cold. Heed the advice from local medical professionals on how to be proactive about your mental health.

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No matter where you’re at neurologically, there’s probably something you could do to take better care of your mental health. And if you’re experiencing a mental health disorder, there are resources in our region that you may not know about that can help you.
Take note as local medical professionals share nuggets of wisdom regarding a wide range of mental health topics.

Mindfulness/Meditation

“Mindfulness” is a current buzzword, even though meditation techniques date back thousands of years.

“I think today, we’re always connected and we can’t get away from our phones,” says Jason Soriano, licensed clinical psychologist at Mercyhealth. “We can’t get away from text messages and social media. It’s literally every second of every day, we are connected and overwhelmed by information.”

Social media use is linked to less-healthy relationships, lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression, Soriano adds. That’s why remembering how to be present and “in the moment” is beneficial to your mental health.

The terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” are oftentimes used interchangeably, says Soriano, since the goal for both activities is to focus on your moment-to-moment internal experience versus external stimulation.

“There are a thousand types of meditation techniques – you can literally look them up on YouTube,” Soriano says. “Mindfulness is a little less specific – it’s more about doing something for yourself, like going for a walk, to be present and in the moment.”

Even just five minutes of meditation or mindfulness each day can foster positive benefits, Soriano adds. This includes increased ability to focus, reduced stress and anxiety, and even physiological changes such as healthier blood pressure.

The key is to focus on your emotions while simultaneously focusing on your breath.

“Techniques can very easily be learned at a yoga class, or even, like I said, through a YouTube video,” Soriano says. “You can find out how to do this anywhere, and just a brief amount of time can cause massive change and healthy improvements in a person’s life.”

Gut Bacteria

Who would’ve thought your gut could be related to your mental health?

“The more we examine the brain, the more we’re starting to realize how our bodies are interconnected,” Soriano says. “Literally, the microbiotics in our gut system can affect our brain.”

One of the most significant brain/body connections being researched is the link between gut bacteria and a person’s mental health, especially concerning diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Soriano says. The theory is, if certain bacteria in your gut release certain hormones throughout your body, you could potentially have a lack of neurotransmitters and develop a neurochemical imbalance, Soriano adds.

But even a neurotypical person can experience an affected mood or energy level due to high blood sugar.

Similar to mindfulness, “probiotics” has become a buzzword. People are excited about the concept of consuming microorganisms that provide health benefits, Soriano says. And it’s because current mental health research is diving into the world of gut bacteria.

“But in terms of what you can do, it’s kind of tough, because I see hundreds of probiotics out there,” Soriano says. “You want to make sure to take what a doctor recommends.”

Otherwise, many foods naturally contain beneficial live bacteria. Things like kimchi, apple cider vinegar, kombucha and yogurt are probiotics, since they contain healthy microorganisms. Other foods are considered “prebiotics,” such as garlic, cabbage, asparagus and whole grain oats, since they contain microorganisms that “feed” the healthy bacteria in your gut.

“The takeaway is that our body is affected in so many ways, and our diet can indirectly affect our brain,” Soriano says. “It’ll be interesting to see what research shows in the next five to 10 years.”

EMDR

Sometimes, a single traumatic event can be the root cause of a mental health crisis. Or, maybe multiple traumatic events are bubbling under the surface, causing severe distress.
EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a type of therapy designed for clients who don’t want to verbally describe in detail their traumatic experiences. It’s commonly used to treat patients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Soriano says.

“You can imagine, especially with sexual abuse, for example, that clients don’t want to talk about all of the details,” he says. “And so, EMDR is basically internal processing, where it allows people to work through their trauma without talking about it.”

EMDR is broken down into eight stages. During the first couple of sessions, Soriano will get to know his client and their history. Then, he uses “bilateral stimulation,” or rhythmic external stimuli, to help a client work through their trauma.

The goal is to transform painful memories into empowering memories.

“It’s proven ridiculously effective at helping clients in under 12 sessions,” Soriano says. “Let’s say you’re a war vet, and you’re noticing that you have a lot of paranoia, heightened awareness, and you’re struggling in social situations. OK, when else have you noticed this? We go back to the battle memories; we find the earliest trends in a person’s life when they’ve struggled. Then, we help them reprocess those memories from the early times. As they work through that, we notice the more recent memories and struggles tend to get better.”

It’s not that the memories are taken away. EMDR helps clients to reframe their memories.

“The biggest feedback I hear is that people don’t need to fight against their painful memories or emotions anymore,” Soriano says. “EMDR is about learning how to face them head-on, in a safe place, in a therapeutic way.”

Depression

You may not ever be diagnosed with a disorder, but that doesn’t mean depression won’t affect you at some point in your life.

There are various forms of depression and they can all manifest in different ways, says Gabriel Gonzalez, vice president of behavioral health services at FHN.

“You usually experience a very high increase in sleep patterns or a significant decrease,” he says. “There could be an increase in energy or a decrease in energy. Basically, your normal functioning is interrupted somehow.”

Major depression indicates you’ve had persistent depressive symptoms for about six months or more, Gonzalez says. If symptoms last more than three years, the depression is classified as “dysthymia” – meaning the disease is chronic.

But there’s also lower-level depression that can occur within someone who lost a job or a relationship, or else experienced another significant change. Symptoms may include a lack of appetite or interrupted sleep patterns for a brief period of time, usually a month or less.

Regardless of the magnitude of depression, daily physical activity is important, Gonzalez says. Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, while also maintaining a healthy diet, can lead to significant mental health benefits.

It’s also important to get a healthy amount of sleep – about eight hours a night for an adult.

“These are probably the easiest things a person can do to address their depression early,” he says. “If symptoms become more clinical, then you start getting into the psychotherapy and medications.”

Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” is an important part of clinical treatment, Gonzalez says. Medication can also be a solution.

“I’ve always been a believer that a combination of the two is the way to go,” he says. “We know that medications, like an SNRI [serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor] or SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor], oftentimes take about two weeks to kick in. So, it’s very important to be doing some form of psychotherapy in the meanwhile.”

Grief

Grief is a form of depression commonly related to the loss of someone or something. Like any other mental health complication, grief becomes unhealthy the moment it prevents a person from functioning within their normal life.

“So, if you’re grieving, and you’re so tired you don’t get out of your house, or you end up missing work and maybe even losing your job, it’s unhealthy,” Gonzalez says.

Treatment goes back to being active. Exercising, getting involved in activities you enjoy, and spending time with people you feel supported by are all strategies to cope with grief. Sometimes, a short stint on a medication can help.

“I don’t think people realize that medications are temporary,” Gonzalez says. “Just because you start a mental health medication doesn’t mean you’re going to be on it the rest of your life.”

During the holiday season, grief can oftentimes resurface or become worse, since the loss may feel more apparent and obvious. Establishing new traditions is oftentimes helpful, Gonzalez says.

“We can still continue to do our holiday traditions, but shift our mindset and look at these traditions as a way to honor the ones we’ve lost,” Gonzalez says. “Otherwise, transitioning into new traditions can help you to focus less on what you lost and focus more on enjoying the holiday season.”

Postpartum Depression

This specific form of depression may just be the most stigmatized of all, since having a new baby is always challenging. New moms are recovering from childbirth, adjusting to significant hormonal changes, coping with sleep deprivation and learning how to care for their new baby. So, in the first few weeks it’s normal to experience some sadness and mood changes, or “baby blues.”

Generally, this resolves on its own in a few weeks, says Dr. Diana Kenyon, a gynecologist at Mercyhealth. But, if symptoms last longer than this and start to interfere with a mom’s ability to function day-to-day, postpartum depression should be suspected.

Kenyon treats a fair share of women who experience postpartum depression, since the mental health complication occurs in about 10 percent of women who have given birth.

“We often think of a person with depression as someone who sits around feeling sad and crying all day, but it is so much more than that,” she says. “I describe it as ‘emotional exhaustion’ that begins to interfere with one’s ability to function.”

Women with postpartum depression have a significantly decreased ability to enjoy life with their new baby and may feel an inability to connect with their baby, Kenyon adds. A mom with postpartum depression may exhibit significant anxiety about the health of her infant, a lack confidence in her ability to care for her baby, or a lack of interest in her baby. Sleep changes are also common, including insomnia.

“Postpartum depression can last up to a year or more in some patients,” Kenyon says. “Getting help with either counseling or medication can help achieve recovery sooner, but it’s important to continue treatment until your medical provider feels it’s safe to stop.”

It’s unclear why some women get postpartum depression and some women don’t. But, it’s important for women to develop a postpartum plan with their doctor if they’ve experienced postpartum depression before, since up to 50 percent of women can experience it again.

“Counseling is a great first step for treating postpartum depression,” Kenyon says. Mercyhealth’s Social Work Department is available for mothers to discuss counseling options. The hospital also has a Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Support Group that serves as a resource for pregnant moms and new parents who are experiencing these disorders.

“It can be very helpful knowing that you are not alone in how you are feeling, and also have the opportunity to connect with others who are in a similar situation,” Kenyon says. “In more severe cases, medication may also be needed. There are many medication options which are safe in breastfeeding moms as well.”

After having a baby, it’s extremely important for moms to be honest with how they’re feeling, Kenyon adds. Having postpartum depression does not make you a bad mom.

“We screen all women for depression during and after pregnancy with a standardized questionnaire, and the unfortunate thing is that many will not report or be honest about the symptoms they are experiencing,” Kenyon says. “There is still a huge negative stigma surrounding postpartum depression, but there doesn’t have to be. If you are experiencing these symptoms, discuss them with your health care provider. There are ways to get help.”

Where Improvements Are Needed

It seems our society has come a long way in recognizing the importance of mental health. However, there’s still more work to be done.

For starters, career opportunities in the mental health field are abundant.

“I think the practice of mental health has been well-established, but we need more skilled bodies who can manage the delivery of care, and that’s where we’re struggling the most,” Gonzalez says.

And unfortunately, not everyone administering mental health care is qualified. Make sure you know who’s treating you and how they’ve been trained.

“You kind of have to be your own advocate and make sure you’re working with trained professionals who have the right materials,” Soriano adds. “Don’t buy a probiotic from someone on Facebook who says it’ll magically cure your depression – you know?”

But, considering the difference between today’s treatment methods and those of the past, there’s quite a lot to be proud of.

“Sixty years ago we had guys doing lobotomies because there were no other options,” Soriano says. “Now, we’re seeing that there are so many things you do with therapies and medications. We’re always expanding the range of mental health treatments, and as a professional, I’m thrilled.”

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