Anxiety and depression can seriously affect a person’s well-being and should be taken seriously.
However, research shows that there are subjective strategies and lifestyle changes that can improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Here are 10 evidence-based ways to combat common mental health problems so you can keep your mental health relatively healthy, even as the cost of living rises.
1. Go outside to reduce the “spy spiral of loss”
Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 found that walking outside for 90 minutes reduces rumination, a pattern of repetitive negative thoughts. People who walked in nature also showed a decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex below the forehead, a part of the brain associated with emotion, compared to people who walked in a crowded urban area, suggesting a unique benefit to natural space.
A 2015 meta-analysis of multiple studies on nature and mood, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2015, found that time in nature is associated with a moderate increase in positive emotions, and a lower but significant decrease in negative emotions. Open-air time has also been linked to improved attention and mental flexibility, according to a 2019 review published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
2. Move your body
When you’re feeling depressed, exercise may seem like the least attractive thing you can do. But moving your body can benefit your mind, sometimes to a sudden extent. In a 2007 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, people with major depression were randomly assigned to a group exercise program, home exercise, antidepressant, or placebo for 16 weeks. At the end of the study, 45% of people in group exercise classes and 40% of home exercisers no longer meet the criteria for major depressive disorder. This was statistically similar to the 47% cure rate in the antidepressant group.
Exercise may also ward off anxiety by training the brain not to panic when it experiences physical symptoms of fear or anxiety, such as high heart rate or rapid breathing, according to research published in 2011 in Somatic Psychiatry.
A large 2019 study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry found that it didn’t matter what you do — which exercise was associated with better mental health compared to not exercising. The biggest benefits were noted in team sports, cycling, exercise and sports activities.
3. Meditation practice to activate emotional control
Decades of research suggest that meditation can have mental health benefits. For example, meditation practices can activate brain networks associated with emotional control, according to a 2020 review in Frontiers in Biosciences. Meditation can also reduce blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2017 review in the Journal of Psychological Research. In a 2019 review published in the Journal of Psychiatry, wakefulness-based techniques appeared to outweigh basic relaxation techniques in treating anxiety.
It should be noted that, as with many treatment strategies, some people may experience negative side effects or even worsen symptoms with meditation. A 2020 study in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica found that 8.3% of people have adverse experiences with meditation, usually in the form of exacerbations, symptoms of new depression or anxiety after meditation practices.
4. Connect with others and break down negative thought patterns
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted social life, Americans reported high levels of loneliness. According to a survey by health insurer Cigna, 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely in 2019 (loneliness were measured by the UCLA loneliness scale, 20 questions designed to assess social isolation and feelings of loneliness).
This is bad news for mental health, because loneliness is linked to depressive symptoms as well as a whole host of health problems, from lack of sleep to impaired immune function to early death. Research shows that loneliness can be overcome, though: interventions such as support groups or increased opportunities for social interaction can help people form connections, according to a 2013 paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.
5. Reduce the use of smartphones
Smartphone use is slightly associated with stress and anxiety, research has found, but certain types of screen time certainly affect mental health. For example, in young people with high levels of “fear of being lost,” stress can lead to overuse of smartphones, which in turn can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as sleep disturbance, according to a 2021 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.
It’s deceptively simple, but a human touch can make people feel less lonely. In a study published in 2020 in Nature Public Health Emergency Collection, researchers found that people in the UK – the ‘low-connect’ community – reported less neglect in their personal relationships if just touched, compared to people who were not touched. A study conducted during Covid-19’s social restrictions found that those deprived of touch (meaning physical contact with a family member or romantic partner) reported most anxiety and depression. The results appeared in September 2021 in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
7. Gratitude to you
In one now-famous experiment, researchers asked participants to remember either daily troubles or things they were grateful for, or life-neutral events. People who included things they were grateful for over 21 days reported more positive moods and fewer negative moods than those who recorded neutral events. They also reported feeling more satisfied with their overall lives and more optimistic. Other studies have since found similar effects. For example, expressing gratitude in a relationship can boost people’s happiness in that relationship, according to 2012 research.
8. Just breathe
A 2016 study found that practicing deep, slow breathing, alternating with rapid and stimulating breathing, can help reduce depressive symptoms in people who don’t respond well to antidepressants.
Slow deep breathing can also help reduce anxiety by involving the septopathetic nervous system, according to a 2019 review in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. This is the part of the nervous system that controls spontaneous processes. The sympathetic nervous system, known for its role as “rest and digestion,” is known to soothe the body and mind.
9. Putting sleep first
Depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders go hand in hand. Thinking and anxiety can make it difficult to sleep; at the same time, lack of sleep can exacerbate anxiety and negative feelings. A study published in 2020 in the journal Sleep found that when people sleep poorly, they are more likely to get angry the next day.
Lack of sleep, especially deep, non-rapid sleep in eye movement, impairs the medial prefrontal lobe cortex, the part of the brain responsible for many of our self-reference thoughts and emotional processing, according to 2019 research in the journal Nature Human Behavior. Insomnia also disrupts the connection between this higher processing center and the limbic system, a network in the brain that controls combat responses and other essential functions for survival.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these tips for better sleep: stick to a regular schedule, avoid electronic devices in bed, monitor caffeine intake, and do some exercise during the day.
10. Manage your health conditions
People with chronic health conditions have higher rates of depression than the general population. According to the Cleveland Clinic, an estimated third of people with a chronic condition also suffer from depression. With some conditions, rates are higher. For example, 40% to 65% of people with a heart attack suffer from depression. Feeling pain can be a key factor in the cause of depression for chronically ill people, according to 2021 research from China published in the journal BMC Psychiatry.
Chronic conditions can also limit people doing activities that bring them happiness. For this reason, the National Institute of Mental Health advises sharing any symptoms of depression with your health care provider. Doctors may be able to modify medications that can affect pain and mood, or recommend pharmaceutical treatments for depression that do not affect other medications the patient may take.