The Importance of Mindful Living Habits Alongside Medication - Humantold

The Importance of Mindful Living Habits Alongside Medication 

Nandini Malhotra, MHC-LP January 20, 2024

There is no quick fix when it comes to mental wellbeing, so let’s explore the importance of mental hygiene practices to avoid becoming overly reliant on medication.

The health and wellness industry has long advertised “quick fixes” for people particularly troubled by their conditions of life and health. These quick fixes, often monikered as “life hacks,” can be presented as easy ways to improve the way we live and the degree to which we feel well. The mental health field has recently become a realm where these narratives have found fertile ground, with self-care being reduced to face masks and warm baths and psychopharmacological medication and healthy supplements getting bucketed as part of such “hacks.” Yet there is no quick fix when it comes to your mental wellbeing, and it’s important for folks to recognize that lifestyle changes are still necessary in order to find sustainable solutions, even with the support of medication. Through this article, we will explore ways in which medication can be used in conjunction with good mental hygiene practices, thereby creating a toolkit for wellness that is robust and actionable.

Before we discuss some of the practices that might be helpful in your toolkit, let’s discuss why we need to think beyond pills when it comes to mental health. I want to preface this by saying that given your healthcare provider writes you a prescription, medication can be tremendously helpful and necessary in the treatment and management of several mental health disorders. There is no taking away from that, and this article does not in any way intend to minimize the importance of medication for some people. However, it is perhaps most beneficial to see medication as an “enabler.” With its help, we are able to access wellness more readily. A majority of psychopharmacological medications target the neural plasticity of the brain, meaning that they can allow the neural circuits responsible for mood, motivation, cognition, focus, reflection, and so on to become more malleable and agile in their adaptation through different life situations and conditions. Simply put, neural plasticity is the mechanism by which we can rewire our brains in response to different experiences. Our brains operate on the “use it or lose it” principle in that the maintenance of the neural plasticity that psychotropic medications can induce requires consistent action and upkeep. 

Additionally, medication does not necessarily help us target the root causes of certain conditions, especially those that are rooted in trauma, negative experiences, cognitive distortions, internalized societal expectations, abusive relationships, and other non-genetic sources. What it does is initiate and sustain symptom management and, as mentioned, increase the propensity for neural plasticity in the brain, so that our mental and emotional faculties can better focus on processing and healing for long-term relief. 

Now, let’s discuss some habits you can integrate into your daily living that can help us move away from potential over-reliance on prescription drugs. 

  1. Sleep, nutrition, and movement 

These are 3 extremely vast categories when it comes to wellness. The basics of taking care of our bodies go a long way in ensuring that we are setting ourselves up for success every day. Whilst individual needs vary, on average, we need 7-9 hours of sleep every night to feel well. Depending on your health concerns, fitness goals, ability levels, and more, being intentional about proper nutrition and adequate movement in the form of exercise is also essential in making sure we are setting into motion mechanisms of restoration and growth. 

  1. Healthy emotional release 

Now, if this sounds vague, it's because it is. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the different micro and macro incidents that can shift us from our baseline of wellness. Before reflection and action can occur, we need to create safety and agency in our experience as well as acknowledge the impact of the incident. Oftentimes, this requires some kind of emotional release, which could involve crying, documenting our unfiltered thoughts in verbal or written ways, seeking social support, or allowing for rest, among other things. Whilst venting and complaining can be helpful in the initial stages of a difficult emotion, it is important that we don’t take actions or make decisions in that headspace, and eventually move beyond those instincts to think in alignment with our values and goals. 

  1. Inquiry into our conscious and subconscious mind

Understanding our conscious thoughts and feelings can be accomplished by focused journaling (writing about a specific day, topic, emotion, or experience) to help clarify our thoughts. You can also use other visual creative methods (scrapbooks, vision boards, collages). Alternatively or in addition to written or visual expression, you can also try to record yourself talking and create a voice memo journal or conduct role play (carrying out a private conversation - either with a version of your own self, or assuming the role of anyone involved in the particular experience you are attempting to process). For the subconscious mind, free-associative journaling is most effective. This means that you are not bound to a specific topic, but are essentially attempting to document your ongoing internal monologue with no filters or adaptations. The flow of thought that is induced from continuous writing with no seeming ‘agenda’ can help us tap into the different narratives, desires, or goals of our subconscious mind. Other methods for inquiry into our subconscious mind can involve art, dream analysis (limited scientific backing, but still possibly helpful in identifying recurring themes), and mindfulness - guided or not. 

  1. Goal-setting + follow-through and behavioral skills 

While we take care of the being, the importance of doing cannot be emphasized enough. It is by setting goals, big or small, and following through with them that we build trust within ourselves, instill hope and self-efficacy, and self-regulate out of overwhelming emotions. When goal pursuit is extended over a period of time, it is easy to lose steam, especially when we are operating from an already diminished emotional state. Hence, setting short-term goals can be helpful. Being able to follow-through is important, so if you need to start off with elementary goals - that’s a-ok. An example could be staying off of our phones for the first 30 minutes after waking.

Behavioral skills are ways in which we can counteract negative emotional states. Opposite action, a DBT skill wherein we do the opposite of what our emotions might be telling us to do, is one such behavioral skill that can help build healthy habits, even if it feels difficult and uncomfortable in the beginning. An example is getting up and going outside for a walk when all you want to do is lay in bed. 

Again, these goals or behavioral skills don’t need to be lofty endeavors. It is ultimately beneficial to start small if we need to so that our efforts can be sustainable. 

  1.  Positive social interactions

One of the most important determinants of wellness as well as longevity is positive social connections. Our interactions with friends, family, mentors, neighbors, members of shared communities, and other loved ones are important, but don’t overlook general positive interactions throughout your day with baristas, cashiers, acquaintances, strangers in public spaces you might occupy, and more. While we are connected digitally more than ever, it is important that a majority of these interactions take place in person to the largest degree possible. 

Of course, talk therapy in conjunction with medication is the gold-standard for most conditions, and can help you identify some of the habits and practices discussed above that are unique to your needs.

As Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist, professor, and podcaster, states, “Better living through chemistry still requires better living”. Linked below is a podcast by him highlighting science-based practices that can help you create a mental health toolkit for yourself. 

Mental Health Toolkit: Tools to Bolster Your Mood & Mental Health

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