Mental health without psychotherapy
These tried and tested resources for mental health, if consistently followed, are the best way to stay out of psychotherapy. Indeed, many of these approaches are included in standard therapy programs. The eight elements are listed below.
Be kind to other people
A recent study from Ohio State University found that depressed and anxious people in therapy asked to do small acts of kindness for other people each day showed greater improvements in mental health compared to groups who received therapy alone.
There are several reasons why this might be. The most important being that exercising kindness gives us good feelings. Another benefit is that caring for others takes our mind off our own problems. A third is that kindness improves social affiliation. Finally, caring for others develops self-efficacy (see below).
Why not develop the habit of identifying one small act of kindness you can perform each day, with a partner, a friend, a family member, a neighbour, a colleague, or even a complete stranger? It may only take you a few moments to say a kind word.
Practice thought defusion
Thought defusion is a technique through which you first accept, then bypass unhelpful thoughts, before moving on to present moment awareness, and the possibilities available to you in the now. It is not necessary to challenge the bad thoughts, or cover them over with positive thoughts. Doing that only entangles you in junkmind. All that is required is that you be more selective in going with the 6-7,000 thoughts that pass through your mind every day.
The art of thought defusion is closely related to the practice of mindfulness (see below).
Exercise has been shown in numerous scientific studies to improve mental health. A 2022 review of studies carried out during the pandemic showed that most people following regular exercise programs were significantly better off than those who did not.
High tempo exercise is an excellent way to defuse from negative thoughts. In addition to that it improves alertness, physical fitness, and releases endorphins.
Studies have also shown that regular exercise (at least 3x a week) increases resilience, improves mood, boosts cognitive function and aids sleep.
Do one thing each day that makes a difference
Self-efficacy, defined as the expectation that what we decide, say and do can make a positive difference to our environment (social, family, home and work-related) is an important ingredient in mental health. As shown by studies such as this one from 2011 here. Individuals who lack opportunities for self-efficacy, or who avoid opportunities to exercise it, have higher rates of anxiety and depression than those who do not.
Self-efficacy is closely related to personal agency: taking ownership for tasks, and seeing them through to completion. This could be large-scale projects such as launching a new business service, renovating a home, or participating in a charity drive. However, expanding self-efficacy on a daily basis is the key. This could mean making a phone call you’ve been putting off, clearing a room, or having people round for dinner.
Why not make a habit of doing one small thing each day that confirms your power to act?
Creativity is another important source of self-efficacy, and one that relates to your personal genius: your gifts, talents and urge towards self expression. This can be literary, artistic, musical or related to a craft. It can also be expressed through gardening, cookery and interior design.
Art therapists have long recognised the benefits of creativity in promoting well-being. In 2015, Dr Cathy Malchiodi cited several research studies demonstrating the link between creative activity and mental health.
Creativity is not only an indirect channel for the expression of emotion but, also a way to cultivate your inner wisdom. In the long run it is that inner wisdom that keeps you in mental health.
A review of 136 trials involving over 11,000 people in the use of mindfulness published by the University of Cambridge in 2021 concluded that 94% of the trials demonstrated significant improvements in mental health amongst depressed and anxious patients.
One reason meditation works is that it aids thought defusion. Another is that it provides mental clarity, accepting what you can change, and what you cannot.
Most mindfulness approaches include breathing exercises. These also improve mental health, as slowing down the breath sends a signal to the brain to slow down the nervous system, and a further signal to the heart to slow down heart-rate. Thereby relieving stress and anxiety.
Keep your friendships in good repair
Since we human beings are social creatures, affiliation is a vital source of emotional health. Friendships provide us with opportunities to care and share, belong to a group (or at least a social pairing), talk through our troubles, get help, and exercise kindness towards others (see the first item in this list). Social networks are also the main channel through which we discover fresh opportunities in life.
However, friendships are a revolving train. From time to time some friends will drop out of our lives, as new ones get on the train. The time you invest in keeping hold of your old friends, while also looking out for new ones will pay you dividends in terms of mental health.
Connect to Nature
I am fortunate enough to live on the Kennet-Avon Canal, having moved to the area from London nearly forty years ago. Twice a day I walk our dogs up the canal and look at the wild-life: herons, kingfishers, beavers, deer and swans to name a few. Here there are narrow-boats plying up and down the waters, people fishing for trout, and hikers following the trails further west. Here I come to my senses and clear my mind, connecting to a larger consciousness than my own.
Whether fishing, walking. climbing, or swimming is your thing. Or travelling to the sea, the mountains, the forests or the desert further afield. Or spending time with other animals: there is way for you to reconnect to the natural order which will exist whether human beings are there or not.
When you do that you create another space in which your innate, sub-conscious mental health can flourish.