What the health: How do we maintain a healthy headspace

6 October 2022

Mental health is central to every part of our lives: how we interact with loved ones, how productive we are at university or work, and how we feel when we are alone. So here are six things science says you can do to improve your mental health and wellbeing. Trying these things could help you feel more positive and able to get the most out of life.

Move your body

I know exercise is an obvious one – however exercise is one of the most effective ways of reducing depression or anxiety, improving sexual function, raising your self-esteem and maintaining cognitive function.

It doesn’t matter if you’re walking around your back yard or running a marathon – any sort of movement is going to help you. Adhering to an exercise plan can be hard but don’t feel that you have to spend hours in a gym. Aim to identify exercise you find enjoyable, that gets you out socialising, and that allows you to build competence.

Exercise that does any of these things is easier to continue doing than exercise done with the goal of improving appearance.

Connect with others

Social isolation is a better predictor of early death than either diet or exercise, and as strong a predictor as cigarette smoking. Making new social connections improves mental health, and being embedded in multiple positive social groups helps us cope with stress, and is linked to reduced depression and anxiety.

There are lots of things you could try to connect with others and help build stronger and closer relationships. You could organise to have lunch with a friend or family member. Join a sport, recreation or special interest group. Arrange a day out with friends you have not seen for a while. Do not rely on technology or social media alone to build relationships. It's easy to get into the habit of only ever texting or messaging people.

Eat well

The more we learn about the relationship between the gut and the brain, the more evidence we get about the role of nutrition in mental health.

Studies have shown that:

  • People who consume more fruits and vegetables have lower levels of depression than those who eat less fruit and vegetables.
  • Omega-3 fats can improve mental health. These are found in oily fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel, perch, herring, and sardines.
  • Diets high in refined carbohydrates (such as snack foods) can increase the risk of symptoms of depression.
  • Restrictive dieting can be bad for your mental health; and in the long term dieting typically won’t make you lose weight but instead lead to weight gain.

We do not know exactly why diet affects mental health, but it could be due to factors including blood glucose (sugar) levels, inflammation, or effects on the microorganisms that live in the gut (known as microbiome). Research has also shown that a diet without this essential amino acid can effect mood and memory. The ‘happy hormone’ serotonin is made from an essential amino acid called tryptophan which is found in the proteins we eat: for example, in soybeans, meats, dairy, fruits, seeds, and even chocolate.

It is not all about what we eat, however. Alcohol is a depressant. While it can make you feel good for a while, drinking too much alcohol can affect your mental and physical health.

What the Health: Why do we crave alcohol?


Work on self acceptance

People who appreciate their bodies, irrespective of their body size, tend to have better mental health, better sexual functioning (and more orgasms), and happier romantic relationships overall.

Comparatively, people with poor body image typically avoid social outings, physical intimacy, and exercise. Poor body image is also linked to depression, anxiety, and a raft of other mental health problems. Self-loathing does not make us thinner, but it does make us mentally unwell.

Overall, our bodies and ourselves (with all that encompasses: our hopes and dreams, our mood, our vitality) are inextricably linked. In fact, many argue they are one and the same. We can make sure that we are at our happiest and healthiest by eating joyfully, to fuel our wonderful bodies, and ensure that we are getting the right mix of foods (and potentially coffees) for us.

An illustration of a plant "Be gentle with yourself"

Reduce screen time

So how will you make time to exercise? Reducing screen time is one answer. This doesn’t mean you have to give up your favourite show – without Schitt’s Creek or Only Murders in the Building things rightly seem bleak. But excessive screen time is linked to poor sleep quality, as well as depression. Screen time should be part of a happy life, not a substitute for it.

Pay attention to the present moment (mindfulness)

Paying more attention to the present moment can improve your mental wellbeing. This includes your thoughts and feelings, self-acceptance, personal growth, meaning and purpose in life and positive relationships with others.

Some people call this awareness "mindfulness". Mindfulness is the process of focusing attention and awareness on present moment experience with an open, curious and accepting attitude. In recent decades, a mountain of research has shown mindfulness is broadly effective for relieving symptoms of psychological suffering like anxiety, depression, and stress.

Check out: How online mindfulness training can help students thrive during the pandemic (uq.edu.au)

Seek help if you need it

We often shroud mental health problems in a cloak of invisibility, hiding them from sight, and assuming we’re going to be able to “snap out of it” by ourselves. The truth is sometimes we need help, and the smart, strong decision is to seek it. Visit your doctor and get on a mental health plan, or go to Beyond Blue, or call Lifeline (13 11 14).


Fiona BarlowAUTHOR: Associate Professor Fiona Barlow is a social psychologist who studies intergroup relations, prejudice, and discrimination. Her research aims to understand how experiences of discrimination can disrupt people’s lives, and how to best combat discrimination. Prejudice can focus on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or appearance – but in every case social connection and support, as well as political action, can buffer people from its harmful effects.

Sources: New Year’s resolutions for better mental health
Published: January 2, 2018 9.37am AEDT, The Conversation, Author: Associate Professor Fiona Barlow, The University of Queensland