7 simple, science-backed ways to better your mental health
The science that can help alleviate anxiety and ward off depression.
There is a mountain of self-help books, online gurus and social media trends telling you how to improve your mental health, but do they actually work? While some of the tips you might have heard can make a real difference to your day-to-day mental health, there are equally those that are more fiction than fact.
So what's the best way to know what is actually going to help, and improve your mind's wellbeing? Follow the science. We've picked out the seven best ideas for dealing with anxiety and boosting your mood, all backed by documented research.
1. Ignore the social media doomsayers
We are constantly told that, while in theory, it should be a fun thing, social media is in actuality making us sad. But is this true? Well, scientists aren't actually sure.
It wasn't that long ago that we were told constantly that playing video games causes people to commit violent acts. Now, many years on from that we know for certain that there is no link between games and violent tendencies.
While that was the panic of the time, social media is the new panic worrying people. That fear, paired with data not being passed on from the social media companies themselves means we're in a bit of a unsure place in terms of whether there is a link between social media and sadness.
Right now, the best advice is to judge for yourself how social media makes you feel. If you feel good when and after using it, then keep on going. If it brings you down, taking a break from it can be a good way forward.
- Read more about social media and mental health
2. Breathe better
A time-old classic: when life gets a bit too stressful, the first bit of advice you'll often hear is to just breathe... and for good reason.
According to Ian Robertson, a psychology professor at Trinity College, Dublin, deep breathing “is the most precise pharmaceutical you could ever give yourself, side effect free.”
He also points out that it’s very discreet. “You can do it in a meeting and nobody need know you’re doing it,” he says.
Deep breathing – particularly breathing with elongated exhales – activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which acts like a brake, calming your body down. Long, deep breaths from your diaphragm will slow your heart and also reduce your blood pressure and anxiety.
Deep breathing can also be an effective way of dealing with pain. Chronic pain is closely linked to stress and learning how to do ‘controlled breathing’ is an important part of treatment for managing both.
That’s partly because pain and stress have a similar effect on the body. They increase your heart rate and blood pressure, make breathing faster and shallower, and cause muscles to tighten up. If you live in a state of chronic stress or pain, your nervous system will stay on permanent high alert, with your muscles in a constant state of tension.
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And it’s not just your body. Stress and pain make your levels of stress hormones surge, which in turn will keep your brain in a state of constant arousal. You’ll be more sensitive to pain signals and much more aware of them. One way to help break this vicious circle is to practise deep-breathing exercises.
One breathing exercise you can try is the 4-2-4. Breathe for a count of four, hold it for two, then breathe out to a count of four. Repeat the process at least 10 times.
- Read more about how breathing can help reduce stress
3. Bolster your microbiome
A healthy microbiome goes a long way. But what does that actually mean?
Human cells make up less than half of what you call ‘you’ – the rest are trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses in your gut, on your skin and throughout your tissues, collectively known as your microbiome.
You need them because of the role they play in digesting your food and maintaining a healthy immune system. They need you because they need somewhere to live.
Research is now suggesting that a healthy gut biome will also mean a healthy mind. There is a direct link between a strong gut biome and happiness.
Scientists are providing evidence for this link, which they refer to as the ‘microbiome-gut-brain axis’.
Not only that, but they are showing that by altering your gut bacteria (microbiota) via administering probiotics (live bacterial supplements) and prebiotics (dietary fibre supplements that encourage bacterial growth), you can actually improve stress response, reduce anxiety and mitigate the effects of other mental health problems.
- Read more about your microbiome
4. Lower your anxiety with yoga
Certainly, yoga is an activity known for being calming. But while the appearance of happy people is there, does the science follow? Yes! Well, to an extent.
Scientists at the New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine have found that when it comes to treating generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – a chronic condition that causes anxiousness about a wide range of situations and issues – yoga has short-term benefits but is less effective than cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in the long run.
A talking therapy that can aid patients with negative thinking, CBT helps people manage overwhelming problems in a positive way.
However, while it is a better solution in the long run, therapy isn't going to be for everyone and yoga can be a great alternative.
Naomi M Simon, a professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, who is one of the authors of the study, said: “Generalised anxiety disorder is a very common condition, yet many are not willing or able to access evidence-based treatments.
“Our findings demonstrate that yoga, which is safe and widely available, can improve symptoms for some people with this disorder and could be a valuable tool in an overall treatment plan.”
In the study, participants were put through a Kundalini yoga practice that involved getting into different strengthening postures, as well as performing various breathing techniques, relaxation exercises, and meditation.
Results showed that 54 per cent of those in the yoga group saw their symptoms improve compared to 33 per cent in a group who were given frequent tips and suggestions on how to reduce stress.
Prof Simon said that while CBT is considered the gold standard treatment for GAD, alternative interventions, such as yoga, could help manage the condition for those unwilling to explore talking therapy as an option.
- Read more about yoga as therapy
5. Get out in the garden
Improving your mental health doesn't always mean radical changes to your diet or exercise plan, it can be as simple as getting out into your garden.
A study from 2021 found that gardening just two to three times a week maximised the benefits of better wellbeing and lower stress levels.
Those who garden everyday had wellbeing scores 6.6 per cent higher and stress levels 4.2 per cent lower than those who didn't garden at all.
“This is the first time the ‘dose response’ to gardening has been tested and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the more frequently you garden – the greater the health benefits," said Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) wellbeing fellow and lead author Dr Lauriane Chalmin-Pui.
“In fact gardening every day has the same positive impact on wellbeing as undertaking regular, vigorous exercise like cycling or running.
“When gardening, our brains are pleasantly distracted by nature around us. This shifts our focus away from ourselves and our stresses, thereby restoring our minds and reducing negative feelings.”
According to the study, published in the journal Cities, gardening on a frequent basis – at least two to three times a week – corresponded with the greatest perceived health benefits.
- Read more about gardening and stress relief
6. Eat more healthy foods
It's a classic line that you will have heard from your parents. Whether you are ill, tired, or just not feeling your best self, you'll hear the response of "well, what have you been eating?" and, as usual, mums are right here.
The food we put in our bodies plays a huge part in how happy we are, with different foods working to improve our guts, brain power and overall mood. So which grub should you add to your shopping trolly?
There isn't a set list, but certain foods to consider are:
Unpasteurised sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, blue cheese, live yoghurt, miso, tempeh, fermented pickles and kombucha all help to boost the diversity of beneficial microbes in our gut.
As mentioned above, a healthy guy microbe is key to our overall health, including in its influence on your mental health and anxiety.
Tea, coffee and dark chocolate
In small doses, tea, coffee and dark chocolate can all be good for you. They are rich in polyphenols which can enhance the elasticity of blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely. Polyphenols also have a protective effect on the brain.
Tea has been shown to reduce anxiety and even improve memory and attention.
Chard, kale, cabbage, spinach, watercress and rocket are abundant in various nutrients like beta carotene, folate, vitamin K and magnesium, which are involved in the function of the brain and nervous system.
Raw, unsalted nuts
Nuts like almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios and walnuts are valuable sources of polyphenols. When these are digested by our gut microbes, they produce phenolic acids that protect the brain by reducing inflammation and oxidation.
Fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, trout, herring and sardines are full of omega-3. Omega-3 fats are irreplaceable when it comes to healthy brain structure and function.
Evidence suggests they may be beneficial for those with mild cognitive impairment and depression. We must obtain omega-3 fats through the diet, which can be achieved by eating one or two portions of oily fish per week, or taking a DHA/EPA supplement.
- Read more about getting a healthy diet
7. Reduce your ultra-processed food intake
Food plays such a role in your mental health that we are bringing it up once again. As the food we eat becomes more processed, we now have a new foe to deal with, ultra-processed food.
Food is split into multiple groups of processing. In the earliest group you have completely untouched foods. This is fresh and dried fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, milk, grains etc.
This works down with things like honey, sugar, salted meats, cheeses and other foods sitting in the middle.
However, in the ultra-processed food category, you can find mass-produced breads, breakfast cereals, fizzy drinks, ready-to-eat pizzas, and a huge host of other foods.
Currently, The UK leads the way in the consumption of UPFs across Europe, with 55 per cent of UK adults’ daily calories coming from ultra-processed foods, mostly in the form of baked goods (cakes and biscuits), confectionery, processed meats and soft drinks, and that figure is growing. Americans are slightly ahead of us, with ultra-processed food and drinks making up 57 per cent of their daily calories.
But food processing has done much good. Food that lasts longer is cheaper for the consumer. UPFs are convenient to prepare and eat. And, by design, they taste good. So what’s the problem?
In order to extend the shelf life and palatability of UPFs, additional sugar and fats are added, which may have negative consequences for metabolism, blood glucose control and brain health. Finally, and most importantly, the convenience of these foods means that they increasingly push more nutritious but more difficult-to-prepare foods out of our diets.
Though one glass of squash isn’t going to kill you, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned about the majority of our diets consisting of these foods. This is because the nature of processing means that brain-healthy nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, essential fats and fibre, are lost.
- Read more about ultra-processed foods