Five daily habits could be key to good mental health

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Professor Nick Titov, a psychology professor at Macquarie University and the director of the MindSpot digital mental health service, has a unique goal: to help people manage their mental health so well that they no longer need his services.

To achieve this, he and his team developed a program called The Big 5, which promotes five types of activities strongly linked to good mental health when done regularly.

The Big 5 Activities

These activities vary for everyone, but research in Australia and Canada shows that people who maintain healthy thought patterns, plan for the future, engage in meaningful activities, have healthy routines, and connect with friends and family at least four times a week have better mental health.

  1. Healthy Thinking: This involves thinking realistically about oneself, the world, and the future, and treating oneself with respect, especially in tough situations.
  2. Healthy Routines: Examples include cooking and eating healthy meals, having a regular bedtime, and exercising regularly.
  3. Meaningful Activities: Activities that give a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, or joy.
  4. Planning for the Future: Setting goals and making plans to achieve them.
  5. Connecting with Others: Spending time with friends and family at least four times a week.

Professor Titov and his team conducted a study to understand the impact of these activities on mental health. They asked 26 mentally well people to reduce their Big 5 activities under supervision and then resume them, to observe the changes in their mental health. This study was published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy.

In physical health research, scientists often understand the triggers and deterioration patterns of diseases, which helps in developing treatments.

However, in mental health, this understanding is limited. To bridge this gap, the study aimed to see what happens when people stop doing things known to improve mental health.

The study initially aimed to include 26 participants but was reduced to 12 due to the pronounced effects observed.

Participants were asked to restrict their Big 5 activities by at least 25% for four weeks. They had regular phone check-ins with Professor Titov or a colleague and completed weekly self-assessments of depression, anxiety, and how often they engaged in their Big 5 activities.

After just one week, one participant’s mental health declined so much that they were moved to the recovery phase. After two weeks, only four participants remained in the healthy range for depression symptoms; the rest showed mild to moderate symptoms. When participants resumed their usual Big 5 activities, their mental health improved, but recovery took longer than expected for some.

Key Findings

  1. Significant Impact: Reducing Big 5 activities led to a notable drop in mental well-being.
  2. Recovery Takes Time: Getting back to baseline mental health took longer for those who restricted their activities the most.
  3. Routine Disruption: Participants reported that their daily routines were disrupted, leading to further mental health challenges.

Professor Titov plans additional studies to explore the Big 5 model further and apply it to other conditions like eating disorders and social anxiety. Based on the study’s strong results, MindSpot is developing a free SMS prompt service to help people maintain their Big 5 activities and improve their mental health. This intervention program will be available to therapists and clinics in Australia and overseas.

This study highlights the importance of daily habits in maintaining mental health. Just like physical fitness, mental fitness requires regular activities to stay strong. By understanding and promoting the Big 5 activities, Professor Titov and his team aim to help more people achieve and maintain good mental health.

If you care about mental health, please read studies about 6 foods you can eat to improve mental health, and B vitamins could help prevent depression and anxiety.

For more information about mental health, please see recent studies about how dairy foods may influence depression risk, and results showing Omega-3 fats may help reduce depression.