Self-care basics

How well are you taking care of yourself? Are you eating well, getting enough rest, moving enough, getting some exercise? Do you have a good balance of social connection? Does your “mental diet”—the things you pay attention to, intentionally and unintentionally—nourish you, stress you out, or leave you feeling empty?

If you are doing well with these things, good for you. If (like most of us) you have room for improvement, you may find something useful here. Making good choices in the following six areas may substantially improve your mental health and well-being:

  • Diet. The association between the Standard American Diet (SAD)—with high intakes of simple sugars, refined grains, processed “foods,” fried foods, and red meat—and the chronic illnesses that cause most of the sickness and death in the developed world is clear. SAD has been linked to depression and anxiety in humans and even in mice.

Many wildly divergent diets are promoted as the solution: Mediterranean, low-fat, low-carb, whole-food-plant-based, paleo, and many others. How to choose? An excellent, simple guide that cuts through the confusion is Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, which expands on his now-famous 7-word guideline: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

  • Sleep. Insufficient sleep contributes to poor mental and physical health in profound ways that science is just beginning to understand. If you don’t feel well-rested when you awaken, you aren’t getting enough sleep. Do your best to keep a regular sleep schedule, with good sleep hygiene, sleeping long enough to awaken refreshed. More information on the link between sleep and disease risk can be found here.
  • Movement/exercise. Human beings evolved to move a lot and exercise a little. There is substantial evidence that our sedentary lifestyle (translate: sitting too much) makes for poor health and early death, even if we exercise a lot. Even several hours a week of exercise cannot make up for spending most of our waking hours sitting. So you should move, a lot, every day. And exercise, as well as offering a host of other health benefits, can be as effective as medication for mild to moderate depression; better yet, the benefits last longer. So get some exercise too. Some tips on how to get started can be found here.
  • Social connection. The human nervous system is hard-wired to connect with other human nervous systems. Without adequate social connection we fail to thrive, physically and emotionally. We vary in how much we need, and what kind, but we all need it; the right amount/kind for you is whatever allows you to feel a sustained sense of connection with others. If you feel lonely often, you need to work on this area. A good overview of the effects of social connection on emotional and physical health, including a 15-minute TED talk with a surprising conclusion about how to create social connection, can be found here.
  • Mental diet. The brain can only process a small amount of the information available to our senses, so we select what comes into our awareness through the process of attention. Whether something exists in your world literally depends on what you put your attention on.

We have two basic attention systems: bottom-up, which responds automatically to salience of information (especially if negative) and top-down which directs our attention where we choose to put it. Unless you completely avoid all media and advertising, your bottom-up system is bombarded daily with messages designed to evoke fear and desire, making your world a scary place and keeping you wanting things that you don’t have — a recipe for undermining your mental health.

It’s up to each of us to deploy our top-down system to notice positive things that give us a sense of safety, satisfaction and connection, and to be vigilant about discerning whether salient, negative messages really warrant our attention. What do you choose to put your attention on—not just external phenomena, but thoughts and feelings—that nourishes you, that increases your sense of well-being? What might you choose? A great way to improve your mental diet is taking in the good.

  • How you treat other people. Yes, this goes on the list too. If you choose to be kind, generous and tolerant with others, you live in a world that is full of kindness, generosity and tolerance, which physiologically promotes your own well-being. If you choose to be selfish, thoughtless and/or unkind to others, you undermine the integration of mind, brain and relationships that is the foundation of good mental health.