Incorporating Diet and Lifestyle Changes into Your Mental Health Treatment Plan
When it comes to improving your mental health, therapists and doctors often recommend making lifestyle changes that can ease symptoms, especially issues related to anxiety and depression. This often includes dietary changes, enacting an exercise routine, starting a meditation practice, and more.
But making these changes can be easier said than done. Everyone knows eating well and exercising are important and beneficial for their health, but simply knowing often isn’t enough to actually make these changes feasible in our lives.
This can make some people wonder if those changes are really worth the headache.
The Gut-Brain Axis
What many people don’t know is that there’s a strong relationship between the brain and the digestive tract. That means what’s going on in the rest of your body, especially your gut, can impact how your brain functions. The vagus nerve, a part of your brain, monitors a lot of brain activity in the gut, sending signals to the brain telling it how to behave.
This two-way relationship has a lot of implications for our mental health. If there’s a lot of inflammation in your digestive tract, that can affect brain function. When you help your nutrition, digestion, and overall health, you can improve your overall mood over time – on the molecular level.
Going even further, foods that are good for us have information stored in their molecular structure. They provide our body with information that helps it function better, which also has mental health implications.
How to Incorporate Lifestyle Changes into Your Treatment Plan
Only you can know whether you’re ready to make big leaps or are better equipped to make gradual changes. Plan those changes according to your routine, schedule, preferences, culture, and behavioral patterns. Try to work within that existing framework to make your changes.
Part of knowing yourself is being realistic about what you can (or are willing to) change. This takes introspection. Before you dive into making lifestyle changes, think about what benefits you expect to see, what changes you’re likely to enjoy making most, and how to keep yourself motivated.
Don’t Take Everything On at Once
If your therapist or doctor is recommending lifestyle changes, try to make them in small steps.
Talk to your provider to pinpoint the most important changes to make – the ones your provider thinks will be the most impactful. Start with those. Those tend to be the changes you’ll get the most immediate benefit from, and seeing results can be extra-motivating.
For example, if your provider is recommending a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins to help you stay focused and attentive throughout the day, think about your current lifestyle. Do you have an existing eating routine that mostly works for you, but could use some improvements? Or are you currently one of those people who often skips meals or forgets to eat? If that sounds more like you, don’t try to make the leap straight to a labor-intensive diet overhaul. Start by focusing on eating meals consistently, then build on that habit when you’re ready.
Work Within Your History and Constraints
If you’re currently struggling with depression, anxiety, or have a history of trauma, that can get in the way of making lifestyle changes. Financial constraints can also get in the way.
Take some time to think about how you got where you are today. Factoring in the complexities that make you unique will help you tailor a multi-pronged approach that will get you to the next step.
For example, if your provider is recommending you start exercising regularly to treat your depression, that might feel unattainable. Working out can bring back unpleasant memories of middle school gym class for some people. For others, it can seem flat-out impossible to fit into their busy schedule. Depending on how severe your depression is, sometimes you might struggle to even get out of bed, let alone go for a run!
Before you dig up your pair of running shoes from the back of your closet, consider whether there’s a form of exercise you feel positively (or even neutral) about. Don’t try to force yourself into a lifestyle change that doesn’t feel right. And if you can’t think of anything you enjoy, you can start by doing a few stretches when you wake up – even if you can’t get out of bed.
Be Honest With Your Provider
This is one reason why therapy can be so helpful. Your mental health provider can help you unpack your history to help you make manageable, sustainable changes.
Get the Support You Need to Make Positive Changes
Mental health can feel so personal that many people feel the need to make all their lifestyle changes on their own, in private. But in other parts of life, that’s seldom how we handle change. Most people have an easier time getting better when they have a support system around them. Here are some ways you can get help from those around you:
- Engage closely with your therapist, doctor, and other health care providers – especially at the beginning of the process. They’re an invaluable source to help you identify which lifestyle changes are most important for you to focus on. They can help you navigate challenges and get creative about how to make lifestyle changes feasible for you.
- See if anyone you live with or see often is interested in making small changes to their diet as well. You can take turns making healthy meals, trying new foods, swap tips, and commiserate when you experience setbacks.
- Ask your partner to help hold you accountable for the goals you set. Explain why you’re making the changes so they know they’re supporting you not only in a new routine, but in your mental health treatment plan. Knowing they’re helping make a positive difference in your mental health will help them understand how important this change is to you.
If you feel silly asking for help, remember that most people who love you will be excited, not annoyed, by an opportunity to help you.
- Find an accountability buddy to exercise with. Do stretches with your kids throughout the day, go on walks with a friend, or invite your roommate to try meditating with you. This can give you something to look forward to about your new ritual. It also gives you a chance to see someone else reap the benefits of that lifestyle change, which can be just as motivating as feeling the changes in yourself.
- If you need to remember to take supplements or include specific foods in your diet every day, don’t discount the power of setting reminders. You can try downloading a medication app to remind you about your supplement doses. You can use a spreadsheet or an app to plan out your meals and make sure you’re incorporating any specific foods your provider has recommended. If you need help remembering to eat regularly throughout the day, there’s nothing wrong with setting an alarm on your phone to remind you when it’s mealtime.
When Something’s Not Working, Change Course
You should expect setbacks whenever you try a new component in your treatment plan. But if you’re trying to make a change and it just doesn’t seem to be working, resist the urge to double down. If you see yourself as a disciplined, Type A kind of person, it can be hard to take a step back and recognize when an approach isn’t working for you.
But this is one situation where the adage “work smarter, not harder” is extremely true. Instead of trying to just white-knuckle a routine that flat-out isn’t working, take a step back and reevaluate. Ask yourself:
- When I’m more successful at incorporating this lifestyle change, do I see benefits in my mental health? Or do I seem to be expending effort and getting nothing in return?
- What are the main things getting in the way of this new routine? Be as specific as you can, even if you feel silly. Sometimes, the solutions to these problems are as simple as keeping your supplements in a more convenient location so it’s easier to remember to take them on time.
- Is there an alternative to this routine that I think might work better for me?
- Is there someone I can ask for help who I haven’t reached out to yet?
If you feel like you keep running into a wall, talk to your provider. They can talk you through whatever’s getting in your way, help you identify solutions, or suggest alternatives that you can try.
How Long Will it Take for Me to Start Feeling Better?
This answer is different for everyone, but your provider will be able to give you an estimate. Some people feel better immediately. For others, it takes a while.
Keep in mind that as you get better, improvements are usually bit by bit. Plan for setbacks so you don’t get discouraged when they come up. If you’re feeling frustrated, talk to your provider before you give up on your new changes. Those small, gradual improvements are usually what indicate lasting change.
Try to think of setbacks as opportunities to pinpoint new factors you may not have considered yet. If you’re struggling with the changes your provider has recommended, that’s a great chance to ask, “What haven’t we uncovered?” or “What haven’t we addressed yet?”