We are living in tumultuous times, and it can be hard to maintain mental well-being when it feels like the world has been turned upside down. So many things are beyond our control, which can cause us to feel anxious or sad. So, what can we do to support our spirits during difficult times? We can take steps to nurture our emotional selves. From herbs to meditation to learning to set boundaries, there are many ways to support your mental health naturally. Here are some of the methods I’ve found to be particularly effective, both with patients and in my personal life.
Herbs are among my go-to natural mental health remedies; I especially cherish a category of herbs called nervines. A nervine is simply defined as an herb that has some effect on the nervous system. There are three categories of nervines: stimulants, relaxants, and tonics.
While stimulants certainly have their place (hello, coffee!); I prefer relaxant and tonic nervines for soothing my worries. Relaxants have a calming effect, while tonic herbs nourish and support the central nervous system. Here are some of my favorites.
- Passionflower is a wondrous relaxant ideal for those who are anxious and stressed but have a hard time saying no. This stunningly beautiful flowering herb also helps with sleep, especially when combined with valerian and/or hops. MegaFood Herbal Sleep contains all three of these herbs, along with ashwagandha.
- Lemon balm is a relaxant, also known as “heart’s delight,” and “the gladdening herb,” because it promotes a feeling of happiness while soothing the nerves. I love lemon balm for people of all ages who get cranky when they don’t have enough downtime. I love Traditional Medicinals Organic Lemon Balm tea. I drink it iced on hot summer afternoons.
- Milky oat seeds are a classic nervine tonic. I often recommend it for mentally and spiritually tired people who are just spent. I see this a lot in caregivers and healers. Love it in glycerite form. Like meditation in a bottle. HerbPharm Oat Seed (alcohol-free) is my favorite. I put a dropperful directly under my tongue or in a small cup of water, close my eyes, and relax.
- St. John’s wort is one of my favorite natural remedies for mild depression. A 2017 review of 27 international studies suggested St. John’s wort may work as well as standard prescription medications for mild to moderate depression.1 Best for those who are not taking any prescription medications (potential for interaction). I like Nature’s Way and Gaia products.
Saying No and Setting Boundaries
When we look around and see so many people in need, it’s natural to want to do everything we can to help. However, if we neglect to take care of ourselves first, we can’t take care of others! It’s essential to balance our giving so that we don’t end up feeling mentally and emotionally depleted.
Practice saying no when what’s being asked of you doesn’t feel right, or if you’re running on empty and need some time to refill your personal energy tank. Maintaining healthy boundaries is vital to avoiding burnout.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation is such a powerful tool for supporting mental wellbeing, especially when we’re feeling anxious and worried. Mindfulness involves focusing on the sights, smells, and sensations we’re experiencing in the present moment. When we do this, we train ourselves to see our worries for what they are — just thoughts — so that we can let them go.
Want to bring more mindfulness into your life but aren’t sure where to start? Guidance is available online; you can even download meditation apps to your smartphone. Here are a few I like.
- Calm instructs users with sessions ranging from 3 to 25 minutes that emphasize relief from anxiety, stress, and insomnia.
- Stop, Breathe, & Think was born out of Tools for Peace, a non-profit dedicated to teaching the skills of mindfulness and meditation to inner-city teens.
- Headspace features an introductory series called Take10 that can teach you to meditate in 10 sessions of 10 minutes each.
Biofeedback is a science-backed technique for easing anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. With biofeedback, we can learn to calm the body’s “fight or flight” response to stress.
Much like mindfulness, biofeedback allows us to see how our thoughts might be affecting our mental state and will enable us to experience these thoughts without being controlled by them. You can find a list of biofeedback providers in your area here.
4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
Humans have always recognized breath as sacred. In Sanskrit texts, breath is prana, which roughly translates as “life force.” I have found breathing exercises incredibly valuable for centering and calming the mind and body.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is marvelous for relieving stress and supporting a balanced state of mind. Here’s how to do it.
- Breathe in slowly and quietly through the nose for the count of four, letting your belly expand, while your chest stays soft and relaxed.
- Hold your breath for the count of seven.
- Open your mouth and exhale wholly and audibly for the count of eight.
- This is one breath cycle. Repeat three more times for a total of four breaths.
You can learn more about 4-7-8 breathing and watch a guided video of me practicing, here.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves learning new ways of thinking while unlearning patterns of thought and behavior that may not serve us. CBT provides coping skills that can help us cope with tough situations, among other benefits.
This type of therapy is proven to help people with issues ranging from depression and anxiety to addiction and severe mental illness without medication. If you think CBT may be right for you, you can find a therapist here.
Food can be potent medicine when it comes to mental health. Many vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients can help boost your mood. And research suggests a link between poor diet and depression.2
Try adding these spirit-lifting foods to your diet.
- Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids that may act as mood stabilizers, as well as vitamins B6 and B12, which are crucial for mental health.
- Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, a mineral that is important for mental health.
- Dark leafy vegetables are a good source of folate, a vitamin that is associated with supporting healthy levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin.
Prioritize Mental Health
I hope these suggestions help you the next time you find yourself wondering, “How can I feel calmer and happier today?” In a world that sometimes seems to be spinning out of control, it’s important to prioritize our mental well-being. “And remember: You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” The Buddha
- Ng QX, et al. Clinical Use of Hypericum Perforatum (St John’s Wort) in Depression: A Meta-Analysis. J Affect Disord 2017 Mar 1; 210: 211-221
- Ljungberg T, et al. Evidence of the importance of dietary habits regarding depressive symptoms and depression. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(5):1616.