Wellbeing Approaches to Working Through Anxiety and Depression

4 Ways To Experience Thriving Mental Wellbeing.

We can all agree that mental health is an important issue within our society. Mental Illness is the third biggest source of disease burden in Australia.

One of my key insights as an accredited Mental Health First Aider was being introduced to the spectrum of interventions that are readily available and how Mental Health can be seen as a continuum, ranging from having good mental health to having mental illness. It is normal for individuals to move along this continuum at various stages of their lives.

Individuals who are well or present with mild symptoms, are best suited for prevention interventions such as resilience programs, exercise, and stress management. Mental Health First Aid recognises the symptoms, and give initial support to those becoming unwell and guide them to suitable treatments and support.

Whilst there is a tendency to focus on the languishing aspects of mental health, perhaps exploring the polarity of what makes individuals flourish may also contribute to helping with depression and anxiety. This blog will specifically address wellbeing approaches for the prevention of depression and anxiety, and the complementary treatments and lifestyle changes available that can play a vital role in mental wellbeing.

How Positive Psychology helped me with Anxiety and Depression

In 2016, I faced a surgical procedure for a rare genetic disorder whilst navigating a psychologically painful break up with my partner. This led to the diagnosis of clinical depression and anxiety, accompanied by confusion on what mental health recovery options were available, beyond the scope of medication. Physiologically, I had lost weight and muscle from poor dietary habits and leading a highly sedentary lifestyle during my recovery time, which seemingly worsened my experience of mental illness.

Medication was an important stepping stone that supported me whilst finding strength to get back on my feet and take ownership of my life. I knew I needed to commit to recovering beyond this surgical procedure and break up. Until this point, I had thrown in the towel. I believed my medically termed conditions were my identity. They felt so much bigger than me. Luckily, I was able to recognise that my mindset needed to shift to invite the possibility of recovery and growth. This personal commitment guided me to sign up for a gym membership, where I started making some big lifestyle changes.

I'll be the first to admit, my first few sessions were physically and emotionally challenging. It was well worth it though. The brain changing benefits I experienced included an immediate mood boost from increased dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, charging through my body. I savoured positive emotions of gratitude, pride and hope on my drive home. Even though I felt a bit like Captain America before his transformation, that first session motivated me to continue training, which led to increasing my physical strength, improved focus, better dietary habits and ultimately reduced my symptoms of depression and anxiety.

My story illustrates several well-researched wellbeing approaches that supported me in moving from mental illness to good mental wellbeing. You might like to reflect on the following questions if you are seeking to make improvements to your mental health.

Do you have a Fixed or Growth Mindset?

According to research, the fixed mindset has been associated with depression, substance use, self-injury, stressful life events and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, when compared against the growth mindset. A longitudinal study revealed that a fixed mindset of anxiety, the belief that anxiety is unchangeable, is a risk factor for future psychological problems, distress symptoms and treatment preferences.

Mindset interventions can be used to reduce anxiety and depression. For instance, a 75-minute presentation was delivered to a group of students on how to use a growth mindset as an effective strategy for learning and managing anxiety, contributed to decreased anxiety, and an increase in grades.

You can develop a growth mindset by continual learning, perseverance, being open to feedback, embracing challenges and failures, and celebrating the success of others.

Are you getting enough Physical Activity?

Exercise can be used as an intervention to help prevent depression, maintain good mental health and treat chronic mental illness, as it directly affects the brain and improves neuronal health, with evidence suggesting this leads to neurogenesis in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for memory​, ​emotion regulation​ and learning.

An extensive meta-meta-analysis based on 92 depression studies with 4310 participants and 306 anxiety studies with 10,755 participants, revealed that physical activity reduces depression and anxiety.

A study by Trivedi (2011) found that 45 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise, 3 times per week, is beneficial for mental illness, with optimal results over a timeframe of 10 to 12 weeks. Exploring the validity of these results, I found another study that revealed similar results, where 30 to 40 minutes of self-selected low to moderate intensity aerobic exercise for 3 to 4 days per week was specifically effective for the treatment of depression.

Are you eating Nutritious Food?

Nutrition has a significant impact on our mental health, with research suggesting that a poor diet can contribute to worsening symptoms of anxiety and depression.

A meta-analysis encompassing dietary patterns found that a higher consumption of fruit, vegetables, olive oil, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, and antioxidants, were linked to a decreased risk of depression. Higher intakes of meat, refined grains, sugar and lower intakes of fruit and vegetables, had been found to increase the likelihood of depression.

A healthy diet along with exercise and sleep are important components of mental health, if not more important than medication and therapy.

Do you practice Gratitude?

Practicing gratitude may act as a buffer against stress and depression. There is evidence that gratitude letter writing contributes to better mental health in adults.

Participants from a study revealed that although the benefits of gratitude weren't immediate, they experienced an improvement in their mental health after several weeks of practice, and experienced these benefits 12 weeks after a gratitude writing intervention ended.

Perhaps you can experiment with writing down things you are grateful for each day, carving out time each week for gratitude journaling or openly expressing gratitude with others.

Final Words

This is a glimpse at how shifting the narrative from the languishing aspects of mental health, can be beneficial for psychological and physiological health. The Department of Health (2020) encourages physical activity and education on nutrition for building a healthy lifestyle as preventative measures for ill health.

Exercise leads to better mental health by increasing mental flexibility that fosters a growth mindset to process new information, whereas the cognitive inflexibility of mental illness, perhaps seen as a fixed mindset, is thought to lead to unhelpful behaviours.

Individuals who practice gratitude and utilise a growth mindset have lower chronic stress and depression, as they are focused on positive emotions and getting better. They believe they can grow and achieve more through learning and taking action to utilise better strategies, for optimal mental wellbeing.

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