Think Small Changes Won't Help? Here Are 4 That Will Transform Your Mental Health

Photo: Hillary Fox

We’re all familiar with the goals so many of us set to support and improve our physical health, like going to the gym or trying an elimination diet. But what we often fail to address in our quest for improved wellness is our mental and emotional health. Sure, the benefits of addressing our physical wellness may very well spill over into our emotional sphere, but isn’t our mental health important enough to focus on in and of itself?

In theory we'll also answer yes to that question, but here’s the problem: Even when we do resolve to be happier—to stress less or to kick worry to the curb—it’s tough to come up with concrete ways to achieve our goals. Indeed, improving your mental and emotional well-being is much easier said than done, and it can feel totally overwhelming. Just making the decision to start feeling better isn’t always enough direction to actually get you on the right track.

The good news is that research shows that you can significantly enhance and support your mental health just by engaging in some simple self-care practices. These four will go a long way:

1. Mind your gut health with a probiotic.

No surprise here! First on the list when it comes to caring for your psychological health is taking care of your gut, specifically, nurturing all the trillions of microbes that live there. This hardworking community of microorganisms—collectively known as the gut microbiome—has a lot more to do with your mental health than you may think.

You see, the beneficial bacteria in your gut (also known as probiotics) can communicate with your brain to bring about significant mood changes that affect your emotions on both a day-to-day and a long-term basis. These helpful gut bugs can alleviate and prevent depressive symptoms (even when the depression is related to an unhealthy diet), reduce anxiety, and decrease stress.

How do they do this? Well, first and foremost, they produce and regulate neurotransmitters and hormones that are crucial for optimal mental health—like serotonin (the "happy" chemical), GABA (the "calming" chemical), oxytocin (the "cuddle" hormone), and cortisol (the "stress" hormone). In fact, more than 90 percent of all the serotonin in your body is manufactured in your gut with help from your bacterial friends!

Probiotics also help to balance your hormones, and they enable you to absorb all the nutrients from the food you eat—including the vitamins and minerals that you need to feel well emotionally. Certain strains of bacteria even manufacture some of the B vitamins and vitamin K, all of which play a large role in mood and mental health. In addition, beneficial bacteria work with your immune system to reduce inflammation in the body, which is closely associated with depression and other mood disorders.

Your action tip: Commit to supporting your microbiome on a daily basis by choosing a whole food diet high in plant-based fibers and by taking an effective, multi-strain probiotic supplement that delivers billions of mighty microbes deep into your gut, where they can get to work supporting your mental health from the belly up. And since prebiotic fiber is so crucial to a healthy gut, you may want to consider adding an organic prebiotic powder supplement to your daily regimen to keep your gut bugs going strong.

2. Embrace natural skin care—one product at a time.

It may sound odd to include skin care as a method for fostering a healthy brain and emotional state, but taking care of your skin—and paying attention to the signs it gives you—can be an important factor in your overall mental health. If you’ve ever felt your face flush tomato red after an embarrassing incident or been hit with a breakout in the midst of a stressful time, you know how intricately your skin and emotions are linked. Indeed, psychodermatology, a relatively new medical field that studies the interactions between the mind and the skin, is showing us that our skin can give us some important clues about our mental state.

For example, research shows that psoriasis, acne, and atopic dermatitis can all develop and worsen in response to stress, and an important part of treating these conditions is to address what’s going on emotionally. So if the way we’re internalizing our emotions can trigger skin problems, what can we do to tease the process in the opposite direction and care for our skin in the hopes of benefitting our emotional health?

The key lies in recognizing that your skin is much more than just a giant cover—it’s the largest organ you have, so what you put on your body is just as important as what you put in it. The problem is that so many skin care products on the market today are filled with harsh ingredients that are bad news for your body and brain. Your skin is also an immune organ, with its very own microbiome that communicates with the immune system in your gut to keep you well. But many of these same chemicals destroy the microbial balance of your skin, leading to immune reactions and inflammation that not only cause skin irritation and breakouts but can trigger mood issues. Considering that the average American uses at least 126 chemical ingredients in personal care products each day, it’s easy to see how it all adds up and might take a toll on your body and mind.

Your action tip: Start reading the labels on your skin care products with the same level of scrutiny that you read food labels, and venture for simpler, purer, and cleaner choices free from harmful synthetics, artificial preservatives, and other questionable ingredients. You don't have to do this all at once; just start with one product at a time. Wait until you run out, and then try to switch to a more natural version when you replace it. Look for pure, natural oils that nourish both your skin and your mental health, from the outside in.

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3. Smell the roses (or the lavender or the grapefruit).

Did you know that humans are able to detect an astonishing 1 trillion different smells? It’s true, and our sense of smell may be our most underappreciated asset when it comes to supporting our mental health. On the path to emotional wellness, we often forget to (quite literally) smell the roses.

It’s different for everyone—maybe it’s the smell of cookies that brings you right back to your grandma’s kitchen or the scent of evergreen trees that makes you feel like you’re camping with your parents again—but we’ve all experienced the way a smell can instantly transport us back in time.

Our sense of smell is very closely connected to our memories and emotions—this is because we process smells as they come in through our nose via the olfactory bulb, which begins in the nose and continues along the bottom of the brain, then connects to the hippocampus and amygdala, two areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory. In fact, smell is so powerfully intertwined with memory and emotion that people are able to recall twice as many memories when they are associated with an odor!

You don’t often have control over all the smells you're exposed to in a day, but you can intentionally utilize scents to trigger very real emotional responses by trying aromatherapy, the use of naturally extracted aromatic essential plant oils to promote physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Research shows that aromatherapy can reduce anxiety, improve mood, ease symptoms of depression, and promote feelings of well-being. (And perhaps not coincidentally, researchers have found that people who are depressed often have smaller olfactory bulb volumes and decreased senses of smell compared to nondepressed subjects.)

Your action step: Take the time to learn about the power of essential oils for emotional wellness. Lavender essential oil, for instance, is an amazing de-stressor—add to baths, use in a diffuser, or simply spray on your pillow for a calming, soothing experience. Rose oil (or fragrant rosewater) and frankincense oil are also very powerful antidepressants, ylang-ylang is great for anxiety, and grapefruit oil is wonderfully uplifting. With essential oils, the possibilities for supporting your mental health are truly endless!

4. Find your zen with mindfulness, even if it's just a few minutes a day.

Mindfulness is quite the buzzword these days, and rightfully so. As a self-care practice, being mindful is associated with all sorts of physical benefits, such as lower blood pressure, improved sleep, and boosted immunity. But when it comes to the benefits to mental health, mindfulness really hits it out of the park. Defined as "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis," mindfulness is the ultimate emotional tonic. Research shows that practicing mindfulness can help with a variety of mental health issues, from stress and anxiety to depression and PTSD.

How exactly does it work? Up until recently, many of the mental health benefits of mindfulness have been self-reported, and researchers could only postulate why mindfulness practices like meditation have such a significant impact on our mental state. Now we know that being mindful reduces stress and anxiety in very measurable ways. In one study, people who participated in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction practice not only reported significantly reduced feelings of stress, but their amygdalas—the part of the brain associated with emotional processing and fear—showed decreased gray-matter density.

Your action tip: At its most basic, mindfulness is simply a form of meditation that involves bringing your attention to the present moment and noticing sensations and thoughts as they arise. If this DIY form of mindfulness practice appeals to you, look for apps like Headspace, Insight Timer, or Aura to gently guide you toward improved mental health, in a way that is quick and easy but will produce big results. If organized training is more your speed and you want to really invest some time, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can help you to alleviate anxiety and depression in a more structured fashion.

Our mental health doesn’t just affect our emotions; it affects everything and everyone around us—our physical health, how we interact with our family and friends, our ability to work and support ourselves, and our desire to follow our passions and really make a difference in this world. And the way we see it, we all owe it to ourselves to be the very best version of ourselves that we can possibly be. Taking the time to focus on your emotional health, and embracing whole body self-care practices that keep you feeling well from head to toe, are the keys to unlocking your happiest, most centered you!

Ever heard of the vagus nerve? It might be the secret to calming anxiety.

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