In the age of COVID-19, we’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about our physical health. As important as the efforts to protect society from the ravages of the infection, though, it has been easy to forget about our mental health needs.
Unfortunately, the failure to prioritize mental health can have devastating consequences. This was true before the pandemic when rates of mental illness were already on the rise. It has been estimated, for example, that nearly 1 in 5 Americans, or around 47 million people in the US, had experienced some form of mental illness.
In the wake of the pandemic, though, those numbers have skyrocketed, As of January 2021, 41% of adults were experiencing the symptoms of anxiety disorder. In June of 2020, 13% reported a new or relapsing substance use disorder, while 11% stated that they had experienced suicidal thoughts in the wake of the pandemic.
To be sure, the epidemic of mental illness did not begin with COVID, nor will it end with it. However, the profound lifestyle changes associated with the pandemic catalyzed a surge in mental health disorders, illuminating the powerful link between mental health and lifestyle.
Indeed, as will be shown, there is a deep and inseparable connection between how and where you live and your mental health.
The way you live and the experiences you have faced in your life can have a deep influence on your mental well-being.
A history of trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, addiction in the home, or even financial struggles or parental divorce, can leave enduring scars and increase your risk for developing an array of mental illnesses, from depressive and anxiety disorders to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction.
However, you don’t have to have experienced trauma to face mental illness relating to your lifestyle and environment. For example, if you take pride in being the quintessential workaholic, if you’re someone who never takes a sick day, never goes on vacation, and always stays late at the office, then you may well be setting yourself up for a mental health crisis.
Indeed, the symptoms of burnout and depression frequently overlap and can often derive from the same sources. When you’re under constant stress, and you never take time out for a “mental health day,” time to rest and recharge, your mind, body, and spirit alike will suffer the consequences.
Your brain will flood the body with stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Your body will be trapped in fight or flight mode. That can leave you feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, which can open the door not only to physical illness but also to depression and other mental health disorders
Your mental well-being isn’t impacted by lifestyle and life experiences alone. Your physical environment can also have a significant influence on your mental health.
For example, if you live in a highly populated city where crowded stress and unremitting noise pollution are the order of the day, your mental well-being could be substantially compromised. You may experience insomnia or anxiety, for instance, which can lead to other mental health challenges, such as substance use disorder (SUD).
On the other hand, certain environments can actually be conducive to mental health. Studies show that communities that offer lots of green spaces and lots of opportunities to spend time outdoors can significantly decrease your risk of depression and anxiety. Water-front communities, such as lake or beachside towns, can be quite calming, provided there’s not a heavy tourist population.
It’s also helpful if you can find an environment with a strong sense of community and support. Tightly-knit neighborhoods can provide a sense of belonging and connection that will help ward off loneliness and the depression that often accompanies it.
Participating in or even founding neighborhood support groups dedicated to talking about and nurturing residents’ mental well-being can be a particularly beneficial way to build an environment tailored to the mental health and happiness of community members.
Ultimately, environments that offer ample opportunities for residents to spend time in nature and to connect with and support one another are also environments that help to nurture residents’ spiritual well-being. Research has shown that spiritual wellness is highly beneficial in reducing your risk of mental illness, particularly the development of anxiety and depressive disorders.
Mental health isn’t just a matter of genetics, the outcome of some biological predestination. Your mental well-being can be significantly impacted by where and how you live. A history of trauma, for instance, may well increase your risk of developing some forms of mental illness, such as anxiety disorders and depression. If you build a lifestyle that doesn’t prioritize mental health, you may also be putting yourself at risk. Likewise, your environment can either support or undermine your mental well-being. A chaotic, stressful living environment may harm your mental health, whereas an environment that enables you to bask in the tranquility of nature and the support of your community may be exactly what you need to live the healthy, happy life you deserve.