Mental health does not only imply the absence of mental illness. It also encompasses aspects like the ability to thrive, feel connected, and live a purposeful life. Advice on how we can improve our mental well-being is everywhere — from motivational talks, social media posts, and self-help books.
Without a doubt, there is an increasing demand for what makes us cope with the inherent complexity of life. Yet not all mental health advice is equal. On one side, there are opinions based on anecdotal stories and personal experiments. And on the opposite spectrum, we have evidence-based information that shows us how certain mental health practices can truly make a difference in our mood. Therefore, to help you navigate the increasing abundance of mental health advice, this article will present the interventions we can all apply to support our mental health all year round.
What does neuroscience show us about mental health interventions?
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Neuroscience studies the neural correlates of our emotions, behaviours, and thoughts. By using advanced technologies such as neuroimaging tools, brain science shows what happens in our brains when we engage in certain activities (e.g. exercise) or implement mental health practices (such as mindfulness). But there’s another ground-breaking aspect that neuroscience findings have illuminated in the last few decades: how personality traits and attitudes in life determine our resilience to stress. Therefore, when attempting to enhance our mental well-being, we are now encouraged to look beyond simple behavioural practices that support our psychological well-being. More specifically, neuroscience shows that implementing changes at the level of our personality traits and attitudes can have a strong influence on our mental health.
Leverage your personality traits
Personality influences many aspects of our lives, including how we feel, think, make decisions, and feel about our lives in general. Studies have researched how various personality traits correlate with subjective well-being, the most popular ones belonging to the Big Five Personality Traits Scale (neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, introversion, and consciousness). The negative bias fuelled by high neuroticism has been shown to reduce well-being (Cisler et al., 2009; Eysenck et al., 2007; Gotlib et al., 2004). Having an increased negative bias also increases sensitivity to negative and threatening information and decreases the ability to inhibit distractions.
How can these research findings translate into your daily well-being practices? Despite its theoretical nature, research on the neuroscience of personality traits shows us which aspects hold us back from achieving better mental health. For example, suppose your neuroticism and negative biases levels are high. In that case, you are more likely to benefit from tailored interventions that change your core personality traits rather than, let’s say, breathing practices. There is solid evidence in the psychological literature that shows that optimistic people have better mental well-being (Andersson, 1996; Carver et al., 2010), cope with adversity better (Nes & Segerstrom, 2006), and hold favourable expectancies about their future (Carver, Scheier, & Segerstrom, 2010). If certain personality traits are impacting your ability to enjoy life, work to change them: for example, reduce your negativity biases by keeping a gratitude journal or work with your neurotic tendencies by planning your days and weeks and reducing uncertainty. Neurotic individuals also find that their worries decrease when they implement practices such as:
• Seeing a therapist regularly
• Changing self-talk
• Practising effective problem-solving
Work on your self-esteem
Self-esteem, which refers to one’s overall attitudes towards oneself, is another great predictor of mental well-being. Research shows that when mental health decreases, our self-esteem follows as well (Diener, 2009). Self-esteem might also act as a protective factor against stress: when we feel better about ourselves, we feel more confident in our abilities to handle the difficulties that may come our way. From a neuroscience standpoint, studies show that higher self-esteem is translated into better connectivity between certain brain areas, such as those involved in emotional regulation and cognitive functioning (Pan et al., 2016).
However, this might not sound surprising at all to you — as you might have already noticed that your mental health declines on the days you do not feel so great about yourself. If you feel that self-esteem is a major impediment to better mental well-being, you may want to include daily practices that remind you of your value. Perhaps you want to start seeing a therapist to work on your lack of confidence or surround yourself with supportive people. Or you may want to try journaling the things you did great during the day. No matter how you choose to increase your self-esteem, it might be a change worth implementing for better mental health.
Invest time in your social relationships
Regardless of how much we try to look after our mental health, how connected we feel to other people will still have a strong impact on our well-being. Studies show that the absence of social relationships leads people to feel more unsafe (Cacioppo et al., 2011) and increases the risk of depression. But the need for social connectedness is not just in our minds — our brains have developed certain networks that help us interact, communicate with others and predict their intentions. One interesting finding from neuroscience shows that the brain’s rest state looks very similar to when people are thinking of others and their own relationship with their loved ones. In other words, knowing that we have people to rely on in our lives increases our sense of safety, because we know that we have resources to access in case things go wrong.
Therefore, it should not be surprising that a lack of social relationships and perceived loneliness has adverse effects on our mental well-being. As such, we can safely conclude that one of the most effective things you can do for your mental health is to increase your feeling of connection to your loved ones. In this respect, set yourself some personal goals that are focused on reducing perceived loneliness and increasing a sense of safety in your personal relationships.
Reducing perceived loneliness
Loneliness is linked to psychological states that contribute to increased depression risks and lower emotional well-being. People who feel lonely have enhanced attention to potential threats from the world, feel generally unsafer, and tend to isolate themselves when confronted with stressors instead of looking for support from others. If loneliness is a recurrent theme in your life, seek to reduce it by setting relevant goals, such as:
• Scheduling regular calls and meet-ups with people
• Making a list of people whom you can reach when you feel lonely
• Blocking weekly time for socialising and seeing friends
• Actively seeking opportunities to make new friends and social connections
• Prioritising relationships
Taken together, the evidence presented in this article shows that mental well-being depends on the traits that make up our personalities, our self-esteem, and our degree of social connectedness. Without a doubt, popular practices such as mindfulness training and physical exercise are highly beneficial for mental health; however, we may find that changing ourselves from within by working on our self-esteem and feelings of social safety is the foundation of stable mental and emotional well-being.
If you’re naturally anxious and have low self-esteem, you may find that this combination affects your ability to form social relationships. Together, these three aspects may contribute to diminished mental health. Therefore, to increase your overall well-being, you will need tailored interventions that specifically address the blocks holding you back – in some cases, this might mean working with a psychotherapist, and in others, behavioural and lifestyle changes. No matter what type of change you decide to implement, what matters most is that it works for you.
Cisler, J. M., Bacon, A. K., & Williams, N. L. (2009). Phenomenological characteristics of attentional biases towards threat: A critical review. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 33 (2), 221-234.
Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2010). Optimism. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 879-889.
Andersson, G. (1996). The benefits of optimism: A meta-analytic review of the Life Orientation Test. Personality and Individual Differences, 21 (5), 719-725
Nes, L. S., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2006). Dispositional optimism and coping: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10 (3), 235-251
Segerstrom, S. C. (2001). Optimism and attentional bias for negative and positive stimuli. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(10), 1334-1343.
Diener, E. (2009). Subjective well-being. The science of well-being (pp. 11-58). Springer.
Cacioppo, S., Bangee, M., Balogh, S., Cardenas-Iniguez, C., Qualter, P., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2016). Loneliness and implicit attention to social threat: A high-performance electrical neuroimaging study. Cognitive Neuroscience, 7 (1-4), 138-159.
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