A Look Behind the Science of Habits and Mental Health

Will McMichael

Contributing Writer


Mental health has taken a sharp decline since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between fear of sickness and increased isolation, people are still recovering from the pandemic’s peak days. As we are transitioning to colder weather in Ohio, as well as coming up on finals, it is critical to be aware of our mental states. There are a number of habits you can develop which have been proven to improve mental health, and there is science behind each one.

Stress is a factor which has consistently been shown to increase depressive symptoms and cause a decline in mental health. In scientific studies, it has been shown that stress reduces serum levels of a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Low BDNF levels are associated with depressive symptoms and high BDNF levels are associated with positive mental health. BDNF is not only responsible for antidepressant effects but is implicated as a key modulator for depression when taking certain antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, more commonly known by their acronym SSRI. Because medication is not always the right fit for an individual, there are a number of daily life changes which can be utilized, in conjunction with medication or not, to robustly support mental health. A 2013 meta-analysis confirmed that exercise is moderately more effective than the control as an aid for depressive symptoms. This is further supported by literature indicating that serum BDNF levels can be drastically increased by exercise, where the intensity of the exercise positivity correlates with the increase in expression of BDNF. 

So what does this mean? These findings suggest that, for some people, exercise alone may be an effective route for aiding mental health. It also suggests that the more intensely you exercise, the more likely it is that you will reap its positive mental health benefits. 

Other than exercising, there are several daily life changes which can further increase BDNF levels, thus having the potential to aid a person’s mental health. For example, chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to consistently increase stress in individuals. This increase in stress can, in turn, lower BDNF levels and hurt prospects of positive mental health. It is no surprise that having healthy sleeping habits may make you feel better. Indeed, chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce expression of BDNF in a brain region known as the hippocampus (a brain region commonly associated with memory), thus giving us one possible mechanism which may explain negative mood onset after chronic sleep deprivation. 

Social interaction is another factor which can aid mental health. Studies have found that staying socially isolated can greatly increase the chance of developing negative mental health habits. It is hypothesized that this is in part due to the effect isolation may have on the immune system. In the literature, it is clear that loneliness has negative effects on mental health, and that one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to make important connections with people close to you.

         Another potential avenue for increasing your mental wellbeing is through diet. Westernized diets that are high in sugars, saturated fats and processed foods are not simply negative for your physical health but also for your mental health. Processed food, processed sugars and saturated fats may lead to increases in inflammation and are also associated with lower levels of BDNF. Eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, dark leafy greens which contain antioxidants, coffee and spices with polyphenols, and beans and nuts with fiber all contribute to you feeling better physically and mentally. While indulging in your favorite junk food may cause transient increases in dopamine, making you feel happy for a short term, the science makes it clear that healthy foods are a more sustainable path towards positive mental health and better brain functioning.

The last habit is mindfulness. Through mindfulness exercises, you can watch your thoughts without judgment and let them passively enter and exit your mind. This facilitates a strengthening of emotional recognition and control, leading to less impulsive decisions and better mental habits. Meditative mental exercises have also been shown to significantly increase serum BDNF levels.

         So where does this leave us for protecting our mental wellbeing as we become more isolated and stressed as it becomes colder and final projects and tests are underway? Out of all the factors mentioned, it is clear that it is most important to stay socially engaged and participate in meaningful relationships. Additionally, don’t discount the value of sleep. Not only is sleep needed for your memory, but it is critical to avoiding excess stress. If you are feeling overwhelmed, taking a walk or spending an hour in the gym can greatly improve your mental and physical wellbeing. Although tempting when feeling down, avoiding excessive sugar and processed foods in favor of something rich in nutrients can be an additional avenue for aiding your mental health. Last but not least, spending some time doing mindfulness exercises can improve emotional regulation and prepare you to sit down and focus on your studies. Scientifically, only engaging in one of these habits is not sufficient or necessary for positive mental health depending on the individual. All of these habits lead to a better quality of life, and greatly benefit your physical and mental health—two aspects of life which are so intricately connected.