10 Steps to Improve Mental Health
For many, mental illness is fraught with many unanswerable questions. In my case, the question “Why me?” is one I have asked myself over and over. This question has become the central quest of my life’s work as a naturopathic doctor specializing in mental health, exploring why mental illness happens. Through decades of experience of working with my own struggles as well as with my patients’, I have come to recognize the importance of addressing ten key areas when pursuing mental wellness:
- Stress Management
- Behaviours v. Reactions
- Exposure to Environmental Toxins
- Love and Compassion for Yourself and Others
Conditions like depression and
anxiety are commonly seen as a
neurotransmitter deficiency, but
taking a drug doesn’t fix the root
cause of why these chemicals
are out of balance. Your body
may not be supporting the
pathway to make healthy amounts
of neurotransmitters in the first
place, because it may be missing
the building blocks or missing other
key biochemical cofactors.
If your diet is poor, highly processed, or full of caffeine and sugar, you simply cannot
make enough serotonin or other neurotransmitters to feel balanced. Environmental toxins like heavy metals, pesticides, and endocrine disruptors also block nutrient absorption. Key pathways in the brain require proper amounts of the essential nutrients—such as tryptophan; vitamins C, B6, and B3; iron; magnesium; riboflavin; folate; and zinc.
While diet components are extremely important, so is the eating environment. Creating
habits like cooking at home, eating with others, chewing thoroughly, and eating
mindfully will make a big difference. Blood sugar levels also affect mood significantly,
so it is important to eat regularly. There is so much to say about diet that I have written
a guide book on this subject: The Essential Diet: Eating for Mental Health.
A consistent and regular sleep
routine is critical to our mental
health, because it allows us to
rest, detoxify, and process what
happens to us during the day.
Being deprived of sleep
decreases energy; increases
stress, cortisol, and emotional
reactivity; suppresses the immune system; and promotes weight gain.
More importantly, doctors now
recognize lack of sleep as a direct contributory factor for many chronic and acute mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and episodes of psychosis. It’s not just about quantity; it’s about quality. Are you sleeping through the night, or waking several times? Are you stressed and grinding your teeth or having terrible dreams? Stress increases cortisol in your body, which decreases
your body’s ability to produce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, making it harder
to get a good night’s sleep.
In the end, getting a good sleep is multifactorial and requires you to work with your
lifestyle, thoughts, eating and exercising habits, hormones, and coping mechanisms
for stress. Supplements and medications can only take you so far; getting to the root
cause of poor sleep is the goal.
I often say that exercise is the
antidepressant treatment available.
A 2016 meta-analysis focusing on
regular aerobic exercise as a
treatment for depression shows it
is statistically equal to
antidepressants as treatment,
without the adverse effects. It is
also effective in schizophrenia,
bipolar disorder, ADHD, and OCD.
It’s not just aerobic exercise that’s effective; studies have also shown the psychological benefit of other types of activity.
Having a regular routine of weight lifting, playing sports, and/or doing yoga can improve mood and decrease anxiety and depression scores just as well as rigorous, high-intensity running can.
The psychological benefits of exercise are even greater when we do it with others, and especially beneficial when we exercise outdoors. Joining a community sports team that gets you outside and interacting with others regularly is a big step toward improving your mental health.
Stress is a psychological experience of feeling like your resources (internal or external) are almost exhausted (or are fully used up), and you are struggling to cope with the demands
of life. No matter what the stressful event is, if the mind experiences psychological stress,
the body experiences physiological stress. This physiological stress is an ancient survival mechanism built into our bodies to help us flee harmful situations, but in today’s world,
it’s less helpful.
This “fight-or-flight” reactivity suppresses the immune system, halts digestion, and affects
hormone production, which affects our sleep and impacts adrenal energy stores. Over the
long term, this can lead to adrenal exhaustion, muscle tension, digestive complaints,
depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
The first step in stress management is becoming aware of triggers. With awareness, you
can then work to reduce or eliminate them. If you can’t reduce stressors, you must learn
to manage your reactivity given your current life situation. Working with psychotherapeutic techniques, such as the seven Rs of working with problematic thoughts (that I discuss in
my book Beyond the Label) or systematic relaxation tools, you can manage your
response to stress.
Exposure to Environmental Toxins
In today’s day-to-day life, chemicals are everywhere. It’s the sad truth that regulatory
groups just don’t protect us enough from so many harmful environmental toxins.
Unfortunately, these insidious chemicals contribute to many chronic health
conditions, including mental illness.
To understand your toxin load, take our Environmental Quiz
(http://naturalterrain.com/environmental-quiz/), which considers exposure you
might have to plastics, pesticides, nonstick pans, microwaves, extended cell-
phone use, artificial colouring and fragrance, make-up and personal-care
products, genetically modified foods, antibacterial soap, alcohol, and
pharmaceuticals. Also, what is the air and water quality like in your hometown,
and do you filter either?
With so many sources, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The point is not to burden
you with the task of immediately changing everything. Start by becoming familiar
with your most frequent and intense exposures, and work to reduce them. Be
aware of initiatives like the Environmental Working Groups’ list of the most heavily
pesticide-sprayed foods (The Dirty Dozen) and the least sprayed foods
(Clean Fifteen), and apps like Think Dirty that lets you scan household products to
discover their toxin content and find healthier alternatives.
Every thought we think isn’t necessarily true; thoughts are simply ideas that exist in
our heads. However, some thoughts are so powerful that we take them to be facts.
Sometimes, old wounds and childhood conditioning come out in thoughts like:
“I’m not good enough,” “I can’t do this,” and “I’m unlovable.”
Each time we have negative thoughts like this, we naturally have emotional reactions
to them as if they were true. We may feel hurt, saddened, defeated, demoralized,
depressed, and suicidal. These emotions then can reinforce the thoughts, making
them feel very real. It is as if the emotions were evidence that the thoughts are true.
When this spiral happens, the work that needs to be done is breaking the thought-
emotion cycle. Using a stepwise practice, you can learn to widen the space between
thoughts and emotions and learn to separate fact from fiction. You will learn that
thoughts and the emotional reaction to thoughts don’t have to run your life. You can
learn a more balanced approach to thinking. This practice uses a cognitive model to
recognize and work with distorted thought patterns, as well as body-focusing
techniques and breathing to harness the parasympathetic nervous system and
modulate the physiological stress response.
For some, emotions can be elusive
and hard to pinpoint, while for
others, they can be clear,
overwhelming, and incessant. As
well, they can be different to you
at different times. The emotional
work I do with my patients follows
a process of understanding what
one is feeling in a very present,
honest way, then working towards
letting go of resistance and
accepting one’s emotions. Skills I
teach along the way are recognizing one’s own emotional sensitivity level, learning
to set healthy boundaries, and mindfulness of the present moment. This work flows
back and forth with the work on thoughts, behaviours, and emotional reactivity.
Behaviours Versus Reactions
Often in mental health conditions, there are cycles of behaviours that reinforce
the illness: Isolating, sleeping too much or too little, blowing up or shutting
down emotionally, eating too much or too little, etc. To address this, following
closely behind the work on thoughts and emotions, comes the practice of
As one learns to lengthen the time between thoughts and reactions, there grows
a window of opportunity for one to act in a different manner than simply reacting.
We can learn to choose a healthy behaviour, as opposed to immediately reacting
in a protective manner.
An example is if we have a negative thought, we can pause and say to ourselves:
“I am thinking a negative thought.” By doing so, we widen the gap between thought
and emotion, and we have practiced recognizing exactly what the emotion is. With
this, we can choose our response from a calm place. We can choose healthy and
positive actions that do not reinforce the negative thoughts or feelings that are
present with mental illness. We choose actions that dislodge negative cycles of
thought and emotion, and lift us out of depression, anxiety, and other
Mental health is often viewed as a biochemical imbalance. I have made
my life’s work an exploration of the
other factors that contribute to mental health concerns beyond biochemistry, including psychology, trauma,
physiology, and environment, but
there is another factor to explore:
The spiritual aspect of mental health. Here, I define spirituality as believing
in, or being connected to, a power
greater than yourself.
My view is that mental illness is a way by which our spirit is trying to get our attention because some aspect of our lives (such as school, work, or a relationship) is not moving
in concert with our spirit. By looking at ourselves and taking the time to be silent, very present, talk to others, and open up about what we are feeling, we can address the underlying root of depression, anxiety, addiction, bipolar disorder, and other problems
that can lie in the spiritual realm.
It is my personal belief that a connection to a spirit, whatever your chosen practice is,
is critical and vital to healing yourself and the current state of the planet.
Love and Compassion for Yourself
and for Others
Ultimately, it is our feelings about ourselves and how we treat ourselves that are critical
to our mental health and wellbeing. I ask every patient how much they love themselves
on a scale of one to ten, and it is rare for me to get a response over five. It breaks my
heart to hear someone speak unkindly of themselves—yet I, too, would once have given
a similar response. Ask yourself: If you talked to your best friend the way you talk to
yourself, would they accept it? Many who struggle with mental wellness are hiding this
conversation they are having with themselves, and living with shame.
The incredible gift I get to share with my patients is how to learn to love oneself and,
eventually, how to extend this love to the world. Using techniques like mirror work,
reconnecting with one’s body, affirmations, gratitude, self-compassion, and nonviolent
communication, love is a skill that can be learned and improved upon.
Mental illness is a multifaceted condition, with no universal experience or manifestation.
I firmly believe that there is no quick-fix or single solution to such multifactorial
conditions. To truly heal, you must address each area: Diet, sleep, exercise, stress
management, environmental detoxification, thoughts, emotions, behaviours, spirituality,
love, and acceptance. Doing so addresses the root causes of mental illness and will
restore your mental health. Recovering your mental health is possible and you can do
it. Start by taking the first step!
- Bjorndal, C. Beyond the label: 10 steps to improve your mental health with naturopathic medicine. Edmonton: Natural Terrain Inc., 2017, ISBN
978-0994802002, 376 p.
- Kvam, S., et al. “Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis.”
Journal of Affective Disorders. Vol. 202 (2016): 67–86.
- Mead, G.E., et al. “Exercise for depression.” The Cochrane Database of
Systematic Reviews. Vol. 3 (2009): CD004366.
Christina Bjorndal, ND
Dr. Bjorndal has a clinical focus in the natural treatment
of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar
disorders, eating disorders, OCD, ADD/ADHD, and