Guidelines for Prevention of Mental Health Difficulties

A good first line intervention for maintaining a healthy emotional balance in your life is to consistently engage in behaviors known to promote stability and prevent struggles.  The following behavioral interventions are a good place to start addressing mental health from a stance of prevention (and/or maintenance):   

1) Food

The brain’s main energy source is glucose, more colloquially known as blood sugar.  When glucose is low the brain preserves energy for important tasks required to keep the body living; emotional control becomes less managed. Thus, maintaining one’s glucose level is a first preventative step to maintaining emotional stability:

  • Consume your first meal 30 minutes after waking.  Eat a small portion every two hours thereafter.
  • Balance your nutrition.  Even small portions can consist of a balance between whole grains, protein, fat and natural sugar.  A slice of whole wheat toast with peanut-butter and banana may be an exemplary choice.
  • Pay attention to how nutrition and specific foods affect your mood.  Did you know that caffeine is clinically proven to elicit and exacerbate anxiety?   Or that deficits in B6 can be related to depression and anxiety?  Learning how eating patterns affect emotional stability can be helpful improving mental health.
  • Children’s behavior is impacted by food as well.  In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that dietary intervention can be effective for some behavior concerns.  Research supports removal of food dyes, preservatives and the addition of fish oil supplements in effecting behavioral change1.  
  • Changing your diet and that of your children requires a family approach.  Creating a food list, shopping together and keeping unhealthy or trigger foods out of the pantry is more effective than relying on “will-power”. 

2) Sleep

Getting the right amount of sleep can be paramount to mental health.  Consider the following guidelines for proper sleep per age group:

  • Children 1 to 2 years of age: 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps) 
  • Children 3 to 5 years of age: 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps) 
  • Children 6 to 12 years of age: 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours 
  • Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age: 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours2
  • Adult 18 to 60 years: 7 or more hours 
  • Adult 61-64 years: 7-9 hours
  • Adult 65+: 7-8 hours3

Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep can be troublesome.  Try the following behavioral interventions before talking with your doctor about the use of Melatonin or sleep aides:

  • Sleep routine – the most frequently given, and overlooked, advice regarding sleep.  Establishing a consistent routine trains your brain to prepare for sleep through cues.  Once your routine begins, your brain produces melatonin naturally and prepares for sleep.  Consider the following when creating a routine to stick to:
    • Your routine actually begins in the morning!  Expose yourself to natural light as soon as you wake thereby establishing a “wake time” for your circadian rhythm.  This will help start the clock counting down to “sleep time”.
    • Stay cool.  Did you know a warm shower may actually stave off sleep as it works to cool itself down?  Low temperatures in your body and environment are best for aiding sleep. 
    • Self-soothe.  Progressive Muscle Relaxation, white noise, calming sounds or music may help to settle the body and the mind before sleep.

3) Exercise

Aside from aiding in sleep, exercise aids mood management in numerous ways. Common exercise recommendations include:

  • Exercise at least 30 minutes every other day. 
  • Mix aerobic and anaerobic exercise.
  • Mix up your exercise routine to keep it interesting!  Swimming one day, jogging or biking the next, even playing a round of fetch with your favorite pet can count!  

4) Social Engagement and Self-Care

  • Humans are social creatures by design so it’s no surprise that staying connected with friends and family can be a good outlet.  Talking, venting, and sharing experiences with friends can be cathartic and/or distracting.  Knowing when to plug into interpersonal opportunities and where healthy boundaries are needed will promote emotional stability.  Perhaps a 1:1 situation is best for you at this time, maybe one friend is a better support than another, or possibly spending time with a group who will keep the dialogue light and respect boundaries around uncomfortable topics is a better fit at certain times.
  • Self-care, although thought of as cliché and many times undervalued, is noted in research as invaluable to both physical and mental health.  Self-care is more than just manicure and massages, although those can be fun ways to engage!  Self-care has been defined as:  “…what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness….”4
  • Self-care research has identified seven pillars that uphold well-being.  These include personal health literacy, mental well-being/self-awareness and agency, physical activity, healthy eating, risk avoidance, good hygiene, and products and services.  Boiled down, self-care means understanding your personal wellness assets and needs and engaging in activities that promote well-being, within your personal limitations.  

Research supports the understanding that focusing on nutrition, sleep, exercise, social interaction and self-care promotes emotional well-being and prevents mental health struggles from developing or worsening.  Whether you are feeling good and want to maintain, in the midst of a mental health journey and want to establish good habits to aid progress, or want to find ways to improve or prevent struggle, following one or all of the above guidelines may help.  As Benjamin Franklin encouraged us with the classic phrase: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


Michelle McDonald, Ph.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist


  1. Always consult with your physician or child’s pediatrician before using intake interventions.
  2. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 6, 2016