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4 Science-based Habits that Can Protect Your Mental Health

As early as the 1950’s, the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed its vision for No Health Without Mental Health.

In fact, this idea was first put forth by the first Director-General of WHO, Dr. Brock Chisholm, a psychiatrist who strongly believed that there could be no true physical health without mental health. It was WHO’s firm statement of commitment to raise the importance of mental health to that of physical health. To create an understanding that mental health is foundational to wellbeing in people’s lives.

Focusing on women, a recent article in one of the major medical journals, the Lancet, called for a similar equality in pregnant women. The article, entitled “No Health Without Perinatal Mental Health,” called for equality in mental and physical healthcare among pregnant women, citing the UK’s abominable lack of mental health and specialty psychiatric services for pregnant women.

Mental Health=Physical Health?

Half a century later, we’re not that much farther ahead. Mental health is simply not on par with physical health. People, governments, and health systems do not think of them as equal threats to health. When we think about “health” we tend to think about diet and exercise and freedom from illness and disease. We don’t think about emotional health to the same degree.

So – we protect our physical health. We eat (reasonably) well. We walk at lunch (sometimes). We get our annual flu vaccination. We go for our annual physical check-up (maybe).

But we may not think about protecting our mental health.

Protecting Our Mental Health

Many people don’t realize that it’s even possible to protect their mental health, and therein lies the danger. Many are caught in the “myth” that they are “doomed” if:

  • A family member has a mental health problem
  • They’ve experienced a bout of depression in the past themselves
  • They’re going through hard times

Some people simply believe that it’s fate, and there is little that can be done.

Busting Myths: Doom and Gloom

It’s not simply fate. Even if you have risk factors for depression and anxiety, such as someone in your family has been diagnosed with a mental health problem, or you are facing a very stressful situation in your life, you are not “doomed.”

You can take steps to protect your mental health. There are actions you can take and habits you can build into your life that can act as a buffer, so that when hard times come you are able to manage and cope.

Rewriting Myths: Science-based Habits that Count for Mental Health

Composer Gustav Mahler. Psychiatrist Carl Jung. Author John Milton. Composer Richard Strauss. Novelist Victor Hugo.

What did these famous individuals have in common? They walked for long periods. They meditated and journaled. They visited friends in the evening.

They had routines and patterns in their lives that allowed them to be the best they could be: the most creative, the most inspired, the most purposeful.

In fact, Carl Jung had a summerhouse over looking Lake Zurich in Switzerland, which he called Bollingen Tower. I love his reflection, “At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself.” He had found a place of repose where he could be alone to write and live a simple existence.

These individuals were right. Research on mental wellbeing tells us that there are 4 key habits to preserving our mental wellbeing. The big four are:

  1. Exercising for 30-minutes, 3 times a week (and even standing more) reduces depression and anxiety and increases self-esteem
  2. Eating a healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet, reduces the risk of depression
  3. Spending regular time with emotionally supportive friends reduces the risk of depression
  4. Sleeping for 7 or more hours/night decreases stress and the risk of depression

There is no “magic bullet.” The same four habits that are important for physical health are also critical for mental health. Investing in these habits is time well spent – for body and mind.

Extra reading:

Pronk NP, Katz AS, Lowry M, Payfer JR. Reducing occupational sitting time and improving worker health: the Take-a-Stand Project, 2011. Preventing chronic disease 2012;9:E154.

Coon JT, Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J., Depledge, M.H. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environmental science & technology 2011;45:11.

Akbaraly TN, Brunner EJ, Ferrie JE, Marmot MG, Kivimaki M, Singh-Manoux A. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science 2009;195:408-13.

Sanchez-Villegas A, Delgado-Rodriguez M, Alonso A, et al. Association of the Mediterranean dietary pattern with the incidence of depression: the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra/University of Navarra follow-up (SUN) cohort. Archives of general psychiatry 2009;66:1090-8.

Santini ZI, Koyanagi A, Tyrovolas S, Mason C, Haro JM. The association between social relationships and depression: a systematic review. J Affect Disord 2015;175:53-65.

McEwen BS, Karatsoreos IN. Sleep Deprivation and Circadian Disruption: Stress, Allostasis, and Allostatic Load. Sleep medicine clinics 2015;10:1-10.

Baglioni C, Battagliese G, Feige B, et al. Insomnia as a predictor of depression: a meta-analytic evaluation of longitudinal epidemiological studies. J Affect Disord 2011;135:10-9.

4 Science-based Habits that Can Protect Your Mental Health

Dawn Kingston

Dr. Dawn Kingston is an associate professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and holder of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women Cross-Provincial Chair in Perinatal Mental Health. Her work centers on helping pregnant women take care of their mental and emotional well-being. Dr. Kingston has been doing research on prenatal mental health for the past 10 years. She became interested in women’s mental health during pregnancy as a nurse caring for sick infants in a neonatal intensive care unit. At the time, the medical field was focused on physical pregnancy problems, but new research was linking prenatal stress, anxiety and depression to preterm birth and other health problems in children whose mothers suffered with prenatal anxiety or depression. Since then, studies have shown that mental health problems are among the most common health problems in pregnancy. Her goal is to set up systems to provide support for emotional and mental health during pregnancy, especially in areas where it is unavailable, to improve pregnancy outcomes and prevent postnatal depression.

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APA Reference
Kingston, D. (2016). 4 Science-based Habits that Can Protect Your Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2018, from


Last updated: 18 Jan 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Jan 2016
Published on All rights reserved.