Life-style Changes that Affect our Teens’ Mental Health

Published on February 15, 2024 by Rose Strawser

If you have a teen dealing with depression or anxiety and stress, I am sure that you often wished there was a scientific step by step process to cure your teen’s suffering.  Unfortunately, there is no magic 1,2,3 step to make this happen.  However, there are a few rather easy life-style changes that have been scientifically proven to make a difference in the mental health of teens.

1.     Sleep.

Getting enough sleep has been proven to help with our mental health and, in fact, is shown to have the greatest impact on decreasing depression compared to other health life-style behaviors.  Brain scans during sleep have shown that sleep-deprived people have increased activity in the brain’s emotional center and decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex of our brain.  These brain activities are the same as people who have depression.  When an obstacle or negative situation occurs, people who are lacking sleep become more distressed than those who are well rested.  Although we often assume younger children need more sleep than teens, this may not be a wise assumption. A Columbia University study found that depression was 24% more common in teens whose parents allowed their teens to go to bed at midnight or later compared with teens who went to bed by 10 pm.  This study has also proven that teen “night owls” are 20% more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

2.    Exercise.

Exercise may lessen the symptoms of depression or anxiety due to the release of feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins.  It also helps by allowing you to think of something other than the problem or worry that is keeping you in a negative thought pattern.  Even achieving small exercise goals or challenges will help boost your self-confidence and give you a better sense of self-esteem.  If you want to choose a healthy coping strategy, such as exercise, to lessen your depression and anxiety symptoms, the US Department of Health recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week.

3.    Diet.

A new field, called nutritional psychiatry, is looking at the ways diet and nutrition affect our mental health.  It does seem to make sense that our diet would have an affect not just on our physical health but our mental health as well.  Our gastrointestinal system, or our “gut”, is actually closely connected to our brain.  Living microbes that have many functions in our body, live in our gut.  These microbes send chemical messages to the brain to regulate our sleep, pain, appetite, mood and emotion.  Studies show that the Mediterranean diet may lessen our depressive symptoms by 10%.  The mediterranean diet limits fried food, processed and red meats, baked goods, sweetened beverages, and focuses more on  fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, and legumes.  Even just a shift in adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet has shown less worry, lower tension, and greater life satisfaction.

4.    Social Connections.

Some of us are extroverts and some of us are introverts.  Although the number of social interactions we crave can vary by our personality, we do all still need some level of social connections.  The benefits of social connections include lower rates of anxiety, depression, greater empathy, and improved self-esteem.  Having strong, healthy relationships in life has also been proven to strengthen our immune system and lengthen our life span.  In contrast, loneliness has been shown to lead to an increase in antisocial behavior, depression, and suicide.  Loneliness is more about how you feel than being alone.  You may be perfectly content being alone, but feeling lonely is a negative state.  Studies have shown that increasing our social connections will end up improving not just our physical health such as cholesterol, blood pressure, etc., but our mental health as well.  Stretch yourself to meet new people and make new friends – start a conversation with someone new at school, or someone you see regularly at the gym, or join a new hobby group, sport, or book club.

5.    Limiting Social Media.

When we spoke of social connections in #4, we were not referring to Facebook or Instagram.  Social Connections mentioned above relate to old-school face-to-face interactions.  Although current social media can be a way to keep connected to friends who live far away or who you haven’t seen in a while, it can also be a cause for concern.  Adolescents are particularly prone to using social media to compare themselves to others who “appear” perfect on screen, or seeing negative comments or bullying that affect their mental health.  Social media can also end up becoming a mindless activity of just scrolling on our phone, keeping us from doing more healthy activities such as exercising, healthy sleep patterns, etc.  A 2016 study showed that an increase in social media use correlates to an increase in anxiety and depression.  This study recommends limiting social media to between 10 to 30 minutes per day in order to reduce teens’ depression and loneliness symptoms.

6.    Sunshine

Sunshine is a great source of vitamin D, which plays a role in helping us to decrease depression and regulate our mood.   Studies show that low vitamin D levels may lead to fibromyalgia symptoms, tiredness, aches and pains, anxiety, and depression.  Adolescents, elderly, those with chronic illnesses, and obese people are the most prone to having a vitamin D deficiency . . . they are also at a higher risk of depression.  Some research suggests that as little as 5 or as much as 30 minutes per day of sun exposure is all that is needed to gain sufficient vitamin D levels.

In addition to life-style changes, there are many programs available to help our teens improve their own mental health.  One of those programs is the Blues Program, geared specifically for teens aged 14 – 19.  This six hour program helps teach emotional resilience, reducing low mood, anxious thoughts, and substance abuse.  And, as we always recommend, please don’t hesitate to contact professional help when needed.

Rose Strawser

Contributing to this article is Blues TOT Trainer Holly Hardin, MA; written by Rose Strawser.