As if the lingering COVID-19 pandemic weren’t enough, the U.S. is also experiencing a mental health crisis - or so some 90 percent of Americans believe.
In February 2023, about 32 percent of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders - though that's down from a high of 39 percent in 2021. Experts are still sorting out why mental illness spiked during the pandemic, especially among women and younger people. Signs point to increased social isolation, financial hardship and the effects of the disease itself.
To combat this increase of symptoms, here are some tips to improve your mental health.
1. Find the Right Therapist
Choosing a therapist depends on the type of therapy, and the type of therapy depends on your symptoms and personal preferences.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common style these days and works to change maladaptive thought patterns, which in turns change feelings and behaviors. Research has demonstrated that CBT works for a wide range of people, including those suffering from mental illnesses such as depression.
In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), the patient works to develop greater emotional tolerance to better withstand intense emotions. Along the way, the therapist may recommend exposure therapy, a strategy in which the patient gradually exposes oneself to a difficult or fearful situation, such as attending a loud party. DBT is also the style of choice for borderline personality disorder, which involves intense emotions, but it can also be used for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.
There are many other styles of therapy, including Psychodynamic Therapy, a descendant of psychoanalysis that seeks to explore the unconscious mind.
Set therapy goals early on and expect to do most of the work in between sessions, as you try to implement change in your life.
2. Start Exercising
Whether you have a mental disorder or not, exercise can have a profound effect on mental wellbeing and stress levels, as it drives down cortisol levels. A 2016 review of 23 trials found exercise to be about as effective as medication in treating depression, but the improvements fell off if the person stopped working out.
Exercise releases a whole portfolio of feel-good chemicals, including endorphins (which activate the opioid system), endocannabinoids (which activate the cannabinoid system), and a combination of adrenaline and noradrenaline (which stimulate the brain). Oh, and getting a workout also releases serotonin and dopamine, which can further enhance your sense of wellbeing.
3. Eat Healthy Fats
Beyond that, experts recommend a balanced diet of protein, vegetables and whole grains.
4. Try Something New
For people with mental illnesses, social support can have a “moderate effect” on mental health, according to a meta-review. That said, support groups aren't always easy to find. The National Alliance on Mental Illness hosts groups in some areas of the country, along with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.
Otherwise, experts sometimes recommend that people invest in an area of their life that is meaningful to them, whether it's family, art, volunteering or something else. The goal, according to a model cited by the American Psychological Association, is to eventually meet three criteria:
You feel that your life makes sense and has continuity
You are directed and motivated by meaningful goals
You believe your existence matters to others
If all else fails, take a hot bath. Exposure to hot water does some of the same things as exercise, including lowering stress hormones and promoting dopamine.