Mental health month is all about awareness. After all, mental health is the lens through which we all view the world around us. If you haven’t had an experience with depression or anxiety yourself, it’s likely you know someone who has struggled with a mental health condition. This month, our goal is to feel more connected through the struggle and talk more openly about what works, what doesn’t, and what our experiences have really been like. Because at the end of the day, we’re all on the road to better mental health together.
Most of my patients would say that they aim to conduct their lives in a way that leads to well-being. However, despite our best intentions, many of us are likely engaging in habits that can actually hurt our mental health. Once these habits are established, many people will continue them simply because they are part of a familiar routine or because they might not be aware of how detrimental they can be to their mood, energy levels, and nervous system.
And while most of us are aware of the classic habits—like sleeping too little or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol—that can hurt our mental health, studies are increasingly showing that there are a plethora of habits and thought patterns that play a part. Here are six of these habits that I commonly identify in my patients and what I advise them to do instead:
1. Drinking too much caffeine.
Love your morning cup o’ joe and making quick coffee runs on your work breaks? For many of us, it's positively unfathomable to give up that extra cup of coffee during the day. If this sounds like you, you might want to consider this. Studies have shown1 that there is a relationship between excessive caffeine intake and depression, moodiness, and anxiety—particularly for those people who are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Further, caffeine serves as a stimulant that could result in difficulty falling asleep, which can keep you up at night and worsen your mood.
Try this instead: Conduct an experiment and try cutting back your caffeine intake—especially later in the day—and see how you feel. If you're a big coffee drinker, try keeping it to fewer than three 8-ounce cups per day. This will help you avoid many of the negative side effects of caffeine while still boosting your alertness and attention. You can also get a lab test to determine whether you're a fast or slow caffeine metabolizer, which can help you discover how it might be affecting you and your mental health.
2. Assuming things are beyond your control.
A thought pattern that is frequently associated with depression, moodiness, and anxiety is viewing much of life as beyond your control or influence. In psychology terms, this is called an external locus of control, which means you tend to view things as happening due to chance, fate, or luck (external locus of control) instead of through your own actions. As a result, you might start to feel helpless or wonder why you should even try to influence a situation. For example, someone who is struggling in her relationship might just assume that it is destined to fail instead of looking carefully for how she might be able to influence the outcome.
Try this instead: If a situation feels like it’s entirely beyond your control and you're starting to feel helpless, take a step back and try to understand what parts of this situation you might be able to actually influence. Even if it's something that seems super small, it can break this thought pattern and you'll be better off. Chances are that you have more influence over the situation than you might think.
3. Being too sedentary.
In addition to increasing cardiovascular risks and other health problems, a physically inactive lifestyle has been associated with depression and anxiety. Further, a physically active lifestyle has been shown2 to be protective for improving your mood and anxiety. This may be due to several different factors including the release of endorphins, boosting of confidence, and increase in the body's core temperature.
Try this instead: Aim to increase your activity levels throughout the day, not just for 45 minutes after work at the gym. If you have a sedentary job, try to spend your breaks walking, request a standing desk, and make sure you're getting up to move your body every hour or so. For some extra aerobic activity, join in on some fun extracurricular sports and activities. Having trouble getting started? Ask a friend to join you so that you can keep each other motivated and hold one another accountable in this healthy endeavor.
4. Too many screens.
Although many people consider scrolling through Instagram or watching YouTube videos very relaxing, excessive screen time is associated with both moodiness and depression. Due to the type of light emitted by the screen, it can activate the brain, thereby resulting in insomnia. Excessive screen time can simultaneously cause exhaustion and agitation. It can also cause us to spend less time face-to-face with people who are important to us, resulting in feelings of isolation and no time to nurture these relationships.
Try this instead: Take an electronics holiday by either completely avoiding electronics or only allowing yourself a certain amount of screen time per day. This is especially important in the evening. Refocus that time on spending quality moments in person with your closest friends. Plan to spend more time in nature, which is proven to protect against depression and anxiety.
5. Overdoing the simple carbs.
Carbohydrates are important for energy and for healthy levels of serotonin, which is known as the "happy" chemical in the brain. But not all carbohydrates are created equal! There’s a difference between complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables and whole grains, and simple carbohydrates like candy and other sugary, processed foods. Simple carbohydrates are a quick source of energy and are easily and rapidly broken down by your body. As a result, eating simple carbohydrates predisposes you to rapid fluctuations in your blood sugars, which can result in mood swings. Not to mention, a significant drop in blood sugars can result in the release of catecholamines and other stress hormones, which can also cause agitation, irritability, and anxiety.
Try this instead: Incorporate more complex carbohydrates to keep your blood sugar levels steady and to avoid fluctuations in your mood. Try to avoid sugary or processed foods (watching out for corn, rice, and potatoes, too) and instead allow your system to be nourished by wholesome, more nutritious choices that can sustain a healthy body and mind.
6. Black-and-white thinking.
This is also known as either/or thinking, a viewpoint that tends to view situations as either good or bad, positive or negative, or a success or a failure. In this binary form of thinking, there are only two options. But let's be honest, life is rarely black-and-white! I once saw a student who had this tendency; he came to me in distress, expressing that while he had done fairly well on his exams, he had failed his chemistry final. Given that chemistry was so important to his chosen career field, he was convinced that he was an utter failure and was filled with feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and heightened anxiety.
Try this instead: As I mentioned to this young student, you must understand that failing at something doesn't mean you're a failure. It's important to understand that life (and the people and situations we are exposed to) is very complicated, and such complexity simply cannot be explained through a two-option thought process. Consider that even if you struggle with something, it doesn't reflect on who you are as a person; in fact, there are so many other wonderful and positive aspects of you to consider. So give yourself an ego-boosting reality check that can protect you from sadness even in hard times.
Mental wellness largely occurs as result of healthy and balanced thoughts, as well as careful lifestyle and dietary choices that are essential in nurturing the mind and body. This can be achieved through carefully examining your habits, identifying the ones that might not be in line with your wellness goals, and then replacing those with new and healthier routines and behaviors. Although changes in your routine might be a bit of an adjustment in the beginning, the key to forming new habits is to stick with it—eventually it’ll become automatic and you will be well on your way!
Aparna Iyer, M.D. is a holistic and integrative board-certified psychiatrist in Frisco, Texas. She is an author and speaker on topics pertaining to emotional health and women's mental health. She also works as a consultant, helping organizations implement processes that allow for improved mental health, support of the maternal workforce and inclusivity in the workplace.
Iyer is largely focused on wellness and women's mental health and carefully incorporates psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, and behavior modification into her treatment to help her patients achieve fuller, happier lives.