Every member of our family finds security and comfort in the familiar ebb and flow of daily life. The predictable patterns of our activities work in sync with our body’s internal rhythms to provide the framework of mental wellbeing. However, when new situations interrupt the rhythms of our life, our biological rhythms get out of sync, or additional stresses pop up, we can find our mental health wavering. We wonder, “How can I keep my family in good mental health through both the good times and the difficult ones?” Here are seven ways to improve mental health within your family so that you can better handle life’s curveballs.
Seven Ways to Improve Mental Health Within Your Family
As any new parent can attest, sleep is vital to one’s mental health. Without adequate rest, our biological rhythms get out of sync. We become irritable, depressed, inattentive, and unfocused. We struggle to regulate our emotions and drag through the day tired and grumpy.
Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can cause mental deterioration, including hallucinations. A disruption in the sleep-wake cycle often heralds underlying mental health conditions. These disruptions may include sleeping too much, too little, or being weighed down by excessive daytime sleepiness. We get grouchy when our hibernation is disturbed.
Sleep is essential to our brain’s ability to store memory, work out the stresses of the day, and to recharge our batteries. Sleep restores our sparkle. Having a set bedtime and a set time to wake up is an essential routine for our family and helps keep our biological rhythms steady. It’s also one of the best ways to improve mental health. There is no substitute for a great night’s sleep. One major milestone of the early parenting experience is when the baby is finally sleeping through the night.
2. Contact Comfort
Physical contact increases the amounts of oxytocin and dopamine in our brains. These two brain hormones have a favorable impact on our mental health. Oxytocin, known as the feel-good hormone, strengthens the bond that binds people to one another. It enhances relaxation, trust, and promotes psychological stability. Dopamine regulates feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. These two hormones help keep our biological rhythms functioning properly.
Babies find comfort in being held, rocked, and swaddled. Studies of orphan children who do not have consistent physical contact have shown that these kids suffer emotionally and psychologically. There is something intrinsically vital to physical contact. Contact comfort is what makes hugs essential. It makes holding hands with a loved one the hallmark of an intimate and trusting relationship. When words fail, hugs work.
Families incorporate contact comfort whenever they engage in appropriate physical touch—hugs, playful wrestling, sharing back rubs, or holding hands while praying. Pets are often integral members of the family and provide both contact comfort and emotional support. The power of pets is evident by the increasing number of emotional support animals. Petting a dog or a cat affects our brain in ways similar to interacting with a cute baby—the interaction releases oxytocin and dopamine into our brains. We relax, and our blood pressure goes down. We take one step closer to peace.
Being held is one of the ways to improve mental health in our families. We need to know who is holding us—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. One of the most significant contributions to improving mental health is a sense of belonging, which forms the basis of how we perceive our self-worth and value. Every member of our family must know that, even during the everyday chaos, we belong.
3. Quiet Reflection and Meditation
One of the ways to improve mental health within our families is to create routines that provide time for quiet reflection and meditation, both as a family and individually. Worshiping God as a family, reading the Bible together, and praying together ground our lives. Within the family unit, we learn how to become resilient overcomers—adept at the art of failing, but without being a failure. We learn how to deal with conflict and to process our emotions, such as anger, grief, disappointment, and fear. We develop emotional intelligence through our family interactions, and that promotes healthy interactions with others.
Individual time spent journaling, memorizing Scripture, and seeking God’s presence are some of the most valuable ways to improve mental health. They develop the fortitude within us to banish the onslaught of negative thoughts that threaten to undermine our family’s mental health.
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4. Spend Time Outdoors
Many families discover that the outdoors offers a sense of tranquility (never mind that grizzly bear over there). It can also provide beautiful adventures for you to share—such as when that grizzly bear decides he wants to join your picnic lunch. The Japanese promote the practice of shinrin-yoku—known as “forest bathing” or taking in the forest atmosphere.
Being out in nature often engages your various senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste), which can be a very grounding experience. This is a fantastic way to improve mental health among your family.
When families are active outdoors, they are also away from the siren call of technology. Cell phone signals can be hard to find the further from home one ventures, which naturally limits screen time. Frequent exposure to screens can upset our biological rhythms.
5. Schedule a Play Date
Consider scheduling a family play date into your routines. Every week, plan a hike up to a waterfall, take a bike ride through the neighborhood, or play badminton in the backyard. Unstructured play allows important time for creative self-expression, enjoying moments together, and forming childhood memories that will last a lifetime. These moments sustain us through the inevitable struggles that life throws our way. Treasure the value of play, laughter, and losing track of time. We may call it “play,” but it also counts as exercise, another one of the ways to improve mental health.
Our body is designed to move! Activity is vital for our mental health. The benefits of exercise go beyond the physical improvements in muscle strength, coordination, balance, and endurance. Playing a sport develops confidence, promotes leadership skills, and provides a sense of accomplishment. Studies have shown that for mild to moderate depression, exercise can promote as much psychological improvement as a prescription antidepressant.
7. Eat Well
After all that play and exercise with your family outside, it’s important to stay well-hydrated. Dehydration can turn a brain from a grape into a raisin. Your brain is much healthier when it is hydrated. Water and food are excellent fuels for our body and our brain.
We all know that certain foods are better for us than others. That’s one of the reasons why parents limit their children’s sugar intake. And why alcohol wreaks so much havoc on the brain. Nutrient deficiencies can impair brain function, and heavy metal toxicity can induce mental derangement. The Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had gone mad due to exposure to mercury used in the process of making felt for hats. Today, mercury poisoning is more likely to occur from ingesting tainted fish.
In many ways, we are what we eat. Choosing nutritious food provides the best building blocks for our cells, including brain cells. Our brains rely on a steady stream of nutrients. When they’re lacking, our brain suffers. When the brain hurts, so does our mental health. We’ve all felt bad after overeating and who hasn’t become “hangry” when we missed a meal? Nutrients help our body regulate its biological rhythms with greater efficiency.
Food Brings Families Together
Food, in its best role, brings families together. Enjoying the routine of eating a meal together is one of the best ways to improve mental health. Working together to prepare a meal enhances family bonds, creates memories of culinary escapades (you can always order a pizza if the souffle falls flat), and allows everyone the opportunity to share what is on their mind around the dinner table.
Food allows us to feel safe by decreasing the sympathetic ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. Instead, our parasympathetic system is allowed to hold sway. We become more open to revealing our inner struggles, discussing our internal conflicts, and confronting life’s challenges. We can connect in ways that re-establish our bonds, reaffirm our sense of belonging, and refute the negative thoughts that we are alone and misunderstood. Having a meal together allows the opportunity to reframe the way we see situations and discover viable approaches to life’s challenges. These skills are great ways to improve mental health.
A Family Affair
Discovering how to improve mental health is a family affair. Enjoy the daily routines through the changing seasons of life. Find rest. Relish the contact comfort of physical closeness and spend time in reflection and worship of the one true God. Respond to the call of the outdoors and spend time there playing and exercising. Eat good food and nourish your body. Nurture your mind. Live well.
© 2020 by Dr. Patricia Landry. All rights reserved.