Feb 152020

Mental illness accounts for approximately half of all illnesses, but receives a fraction of the funding that physical illness does. In addition, treatment options are limited in their effectiveness and mental health in the general population is not ideal. Hence, there is a great need for beneficial and cost-effective interventions, with the situation dire in third world countries and even first world countries with unevenly spread mental health resources. But what might qualify as an option?

The answer is activity, particularly appealing given how natural and positive it is! In the realm of physical health physical activity is well established, but the notion of activity for mental health is still lacking. Interestingly, activity plays a much greater role in mental health than physical health, due to how for the latter it is really all about physical activity, while for mental health diverse types of activity play a role. As a psychiatrist treating a wide-range of conditions, I have seen first-hand the benefit of activity and routinely apply it to clients. Furthermore, I practice behavioral activation treatment (BAT), an intervention that is at least as effective as medication for severe depression. Furthermore, in my own life I have been highly active noting the benefits for mental health. This background and experience led me to research the spectrum of activity to reveal the evidence and uncover the reasons for why activity is so beneficial.

The resulting book, Activity For Mental Health(Academic Press) explores activity in general, and specific forms of activity—physical, social, nature, cognitive, art/hobby, and music. Two key reasons for why activity in general characterizes mental health are requirements derived from human evolution and the value of absorption in positivity. In contrast to our tree-dwelling higher primate relatives, humans had to be active walking about in search of food, water, safe resting sites, and other valuable resources. Consider our two-legged (bipedal) form of motion and how difficult this would be for chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. These primates actually do quite fine in limited spaces, without the physical and mental costs that humans incur. In other words, we evolved to be active and this is expressed in the requirements for health. Regarding a positive focus, negative distractions are ever present and weigh us down psychologically. Absorbing oneself in a positive focus, such as that inherent in activity, removes a person from negativity fostering positive mental health. Absorption in positive foci represents a form of adaptive dissociation.

Beyond activity in general benefiting mental health, physical, social, nature, cognitive, art/hobby, and music activity each have an impact. In this day and age of “evidence-based” interventions, it is important to establish whether or not and to what extent the various forms of activity both treat mental illness and advance mental health in the general population. On a 1-5 scale with 1 the highest level, the evidence does not fall below 3 and is typically in the 1-2 range. The impact and reasons for why each form of activity is beneficial for mental health in brief consists of:


Various forms of research conclusively demonstrate that physical activity advances mental health. Improved physical self-perspectives and associated changes in self-concept appear to play a significant role in the psychological benefit. At a biological level, physical activity does appear to increase blood flow to the brain and neurogenesis meaning the growth and survival of neurons.


Humans evolved in hunting-gathering groups instilling a social brain, in contrast to tigers for instance that are quite fine on their own. We require social contact and in a world that is becoming more and more socially fragmented, isolation and loneliness contribute to mental illness. It turns out that the impact is greater for loneliness than isolation per se. With social and emotional support, mental health is advanced.


Given the beauty and serenity of natural settings it “naturally” follows that nature is beneficial for mental health, but certain safety related issues actually influence this outcome. The evidence is strong that nature activity can enhance mental health, even though the role of physical and social activity in nature has to be teased out. Regarding why nature activity seems to work, it induces relaxation responses thereby reducing stress responses. Several very interesting features of natural settings seem to align with how the brain is structured to achieve this outcome.


Although it would seem that mental activity enhances mental health in terms of mood and the like, very little research focuses on this, with the vast majority addressing the impact of cognitive activity on cognitive functioning, such as with dementia. The intriguing role of so-called negative symptoms is explored revealing the powerful impact on mental health and illness. One outcome that appears clear is cognitive activity predicting cognitive health and not the reverse. Pertaining to mental illness such as dementia the benefit is greatest in the early phases.


I note that few people have a real hobby while many can benefit from acquiring one. Research backs up this perspective demonstrating how such activity both treats mental illness and advances mental health in the general population. This outcome arises from diverse studies conducted in many regions of the world. Several psychological benefits including empowerment and motivation flow from art/hobby activity.


This form of activity might seem to fit into the art/hobby category, but it is very distinct. The history of music and mental health is entertaining with the good, bad, and ugly all well represented. Ultimately, it appears all good based on how music activity resonates with emotions due to amazing similarities. In addition, music appears to activate and stimulate many brain regions. The evidence for music activity enhancing mental health is very strong, and it appears to have a profoundly positive impact on elderly people.

Consistent with my clinical work, I cover how behavioral activation treatment works to reveal the power of behavioral activation. However, the focus is on informal activity to treat mental illness and improve mental health in the general population. Activity including the specific forms of physical, social, nature, cognitive, art/hobby, and music, represents a robust, cost-effective, and easily accessible mental health intervention. Treat yourself to activity therapy in the ways discussed, and expand the degree of involvement and diversity of options to the benefit of your mental health.

See the Books section of this website for more information and links to sellers.

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