So much of my work, whether in individual counseling with clients or directing the day-to-day programming of their clinical experience in rehab, has been about the business of helping people in recovery improve their mental health.
More than a decade of work in the field of addiction treatment has reinforced, for me, that taking care of your mental health is a critical component in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. It is one of the most important factors in achieving long-term sobriety and living a happy and fulfilling life in the process.
What Is Mental Health?
But if mental health is so important to recovery, what is it really? Mental health refers to the state of our emotional, psychological and social make-up — the interrelated thoughts, feelings and behaviors that heavily influence our life choices and experiences, the way we handle stress and our relationships with others.
In this sense taking care of our mental health is a whole lot more complex than other forms of physical hygiene that are good for us, like washing hands before meals or taking a daily multi-vitamin. Here are some pointers for how to take care of your mental health when you’re in recovery.
3 Tips for Good Mental Health in Recovery
1. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
It may sound like a no-brainer when so many of us grew up hearing similar advice from our mothers. We could recite the key ingredients of a healthy lifestyle in our sleep if we had to: a healthy and nutritious diet, regular cardiovascular exercise, and at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
But even the most mundane common sense can be harder to put into practice in the midst of daily stressors. That makes Mom’s advice worth re-emphasizing. Recent findings from addiction science have not only validated that connection but also revealed the surprising extent to which sleep, diet, and exercise are intimately related to our mental health:
- Research at Harvard has shown a connection between sleep issues like insomnia and common psychiatric disorders, and has shown how lifestyle modifications that make for more and better sleep also significantly improve mental health.
- Certain nutrient deficiencies such as thiamine (vitamin B1) have been proven to adversely affect mood and energy levels, which are key indicators of mental health or a lack thereof. (Depression is a “mood disorder,” for example.) A 2015 study at Columbia University found that junk food, especially a diet high in empty sugars and carbohydrates, raised the risk of depression. On the other hand, a well-balanced diet that includes lean sources of protein, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, healthy fats and low-fat dairy products, is good for mind and body.
- The manifold mental health benefits of regular cardiovascular exercise, such as running, have now been found to be true in numerous studies — so much so that the American Psychological Association has encouraged integrating exercise in therapeutic interventions.
2. Take Your Medication(s) as Prescribed and Get Regular Doctor Checkups
Coexisting medical conditions, be they an acute injury or a chronic condition like diabetes or bipolar disorder, can be relapse triggers that complicate or disrupt recovery.
Research has also shown that substance abuse frequently coexists with other mental disorders. The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 30% of Americans age 18 to 25 who suffered from substance abuse in the previous year had a co-occurring disorder [COD], such as anxiety or depression. For these individuals and for others with CODs, one of the best ways to safeguard both mental health and recovery is to stick with a doctor-prescribed medication regimen and get regular doctor checkups, ideally with an addiction-certified psychiatrist.
For anyone in recovery, though, preventative healthcare measures are an important dimension of good mental health. That means scheduling an annual wellness visit with your primary care provider and getting evaluated by a licensed mental health provider (a psychologist or psychiatrist) at least once annually.
3. Prioritize positive and meaningful connections with yourself, with family and friends, and with others in recovery in your community.
In addition to your health there are at least three other dimensions of recovery, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s working definition of recovery. They are home, purpose, and community. These three elements all share one aspect: healthy human connection. You can have this connection with several types of people:
- With family and/or close friends (home)
- With oneself (and a greater sense of life meaning and purpose for existing)
- With a community (neighbors, workplace, recovery group, etc.)
Most of what qualifies as “good mental health” involves relationships and, more specifically, positive and meaningful connections that open you up to a purpose and meaning greater than yourself. This grounds you with a sense of security, love, and acceptance.
The more you can give yourself to this priority, the more your mental health — and in turn your recovery — will thank you.
Linda Williams is the Executive Director of Beach House Center for Recovery. She is also a seasoned clinician with specialization in addiction and trauma.