Lifestyle Matters: Insights for Supporting Individuals with Social Anxiety
THE MAIN POINT:
The goal of this piece is get you thinking about how lifestyle factors interact with mental health and well-being, which is important for you and for the people you care about struggling with social anxiety disorder. This research review will help you better understand ways that people can increase control over their health using therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLCs) and potentially improve management of social anxiety disorder. This piece can be used as a quick guide to get ideas about how to improve lifestyle with the goal of improving mental and physical health. Read a section that interests you, read them all, or scan for key ideas that stand out to you. If you want to learn more about any of these topics, read more in the full article (Walsh, 2011), talk to your physician or therapist, encourage your loved one with social anxiety to talk with one of his or her clinicians, or search printed or online material for the specific topic of interest to you. Note, the ideas in this article are not meant to replace the treatment plans developed between clinicians and persons with social anxiety disorder; rather, these ideas are meant to help families and friends supporting individuals with social anxiety to find ways to improve their quality of life and to increase their ability to cope with social anxiety.
According to Walsh (2011), all too often we have “underestimated the importance of lifestyle for mental health.” In reality, research has shown that unhealthy lifestyles can be factors leading to or worsening disorders and that healthy lifestyles can be helpful in treating disorders and improving overall physical and mental well-being. This article reviews research on eight well-supported therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLCs) and discusses the benefits and challenges involved in such changes (Walsh, 2011). Sometimes it can seem overwhelming to try and make big changes or to make many life changes at once. It also can be very overwhelming to have someone else encouraging you to make life changes even if that person means well. Try to remember that making even small changes in any one of these lifestyle areas can lead to meaningful improvements in functioning and well-being and that the best you can do to help someone to make such changes is to support the decisions that they make on their own.
What are the eight major therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLCs)?
- Nutrition and diet
- Time in nature
- Relaxation and stress management
- Religious or spiritual involvement
- Service to others
What are the overall benefits to therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLCs)?
- Effective to improve physical and mental health for persons with disorders
- Also can improve well-being in healthy persons
- Cost effective, can be started anytime, and can be done with other treatment programs
- Little stigma and may even lead to positive social effects
- May improve self-esteem and overall quality of life
- May help protect the brain from cognitive declines later
- Benefits of TLCs can be socially contagious – one person’s changes can spark better health in others
What are the main points for each of these therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLCs)?
- Strong evidence that exercise helps prevent, treat, and even reverse many physical health problems, such as heart disease.
- Also, strong evidence that exercise can help prevent and treat psychological problems, such as anxiety, depression, addictive disorders, chronic pain, and cognitive declines.
- Exercise can even provide as much benefit as medication and therapy for some disorders, such as mild to moderate depression.
- How? There are many ways exercise helps through physical and psychological paths. For example, through exercise, changes in neurotransmitters and endorphins in the body and changes in self-esteem and automatic thoughts all can improve mental health.
- Nutrition and Diet
- Food selection is important for mental health. The goal is to eat a balanced diet. For example, this article highlights healthy diets that contain multicolored produce, fish, and lowered excess calories.
- Supplements also might be helpful for mental health under the guidance of a physician. For example, there is evidence for mental health benefits for some people taking Vitamin D, folic acid, SAME (S-adenosyl-methionine), and fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids).
- Given evidence for mental and physical health benefits of a well-balanced diet and good nutritional intake, it may be worth consulting with your physician about helpful changes you might be able to make.
- Spending time in nature will likely improve your physical and mental well-being according to current research. For example, time in natural environments seems to lower symptoms of stress and depression.
- Overall, while most of us are immersed in a digital world, ongoing research suggests that taking a break to unplug and step away from our devices and indoor lives and to step back into nature will provide us great benefits physically, mentally, and spiritually.
- For everyone, meaningful, positive interpersonal relationships, like friendships and family connections, are crucial to maintaining good physical and mental health. For example, good relationships contribute to increased happiness and overall quality of life and reduce vulnerabilities to health problems and to mental disorders.
- For individuals with social anxiety, this task often is quite challenging. However, research on the general health benefits of maintaining positive relationships speaks to how important it is for persons with social anxiety to make such efforts and to be supported in their efforts to build these relationships, both in working to overcome social anxiety and also to foster good overall mental and physical health.
- Recreation and Enjoyable Activities
- Often when faced with constant stress or struggling to cope with a disorder, such as social anxiety, individuals often experience very few positive emotions. These positive emotions provide enjoyment in and of themselves and they also provide important physical and mental health benefits. For example, using humor helps lower stress, improve mood and strengthen immune system functioning.
- Often treatments for mental health disorders focus on reducing negative or distressing symptoms, like anxiety. However, improving mental health also involves building positive experiences and increasing positive emotions, like joy or excitement.
- Seeking out and participating in activities that you find enjoyable can be vital to increasing how often you are in a positive mind state, which in turn, can benefit your health and well-being. These enjoyable activities often can overlap with other therapeutic lifestyle changes, like time in nature or exercise.
- Relaxation and Stress Management
- Although everyone faces stressors in life, few people are naturally skilled at handling ongoing stress. Without good tools in hand, your physical and mental health may be at risk due to the harmful effects of chronic stress.
- Many of the other therapeutic lifestyle changes can be used to manage stress, such as exercise, recreation and time in nature.
- Other specific tools can help with managing chronic stress and can improve mental health. These stress management tools cover a wide range of techniques, including mindful movement, such as tai chi, guided imagery, muscle relaxation, mindfulness, mediation and yoga.
- For example, research has shown that practicing muscle relaxation, mindfulness or meditation techniques can be especially helpful as a treatment component for coping with stress and anxiety disorders.
- Religious and Spiritual Involvement
- Many individuals maintain an active spiritual life through meditation, organized religion or through other individual practices. Much research reinforces the benefits of spirituality, with reductions in stress, improved relationships, and lower rates of mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression. Religious and spiritual involvement also seems related to good health, such as decreased hypertension and mortality.
- Given the benefits often associated with spiritual or religious practice, it may be worth considering how best to strengthen or incorporate this type of practice into your life or to support such practice in others. As part of building a healthier lifestyle, spirituality in a form that works best for you may help you improve your mental health and well-being.
- Contribution and Service
- Giving to others or engaging in altruistic behavior has been associated with positive effects on one’s physical, psychological and social well-being. In essence, providing care or help to others can lead to greater happiness and overall better functioning than focusing solely on oneself. Contributing to others is especially good for you when you do not feel pressured to help or when it does not lead to caregiver burnout.
- For individuals struggling with social anxiety, it may be helpful to find ways to contribute to the well-being of other people, such as family, friends, or the community. Even small acts of giving back can lead to increases in mental and physical health.
Where can I l earn more about this research?
The introduction to the article discussed here can be viewed at this link:
The press release for this article is available at this link:
Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and Mental Health. American Psychologist, 66(7), 579-592.