Mental health self-care
Taking good care of yourself doesn’t stop at diet and exercise. Your overall wellbeing includes mental health, too, and there are things everyone can do for it on a daily basis. Here’s what you should add to your routine to boost mental health.
Wake up to your goals
How you start your morning “sets the tone” for the rest of the day, according to Patricia Harteneck, PhD, senior psychologist at the Seleni Institute. And one of the best ways to start the day on a positive note is by focusing on your goals and tasks for the day. By consciously setting goals, you’ll feel more of a drive to accomplish them, and when you cross each one off your list, you’ll feel successful and in control.
Commune with nature
Outdoor breaks and fresh air are great, but you need to see some green, too. By being around grass and trees, such as during a short walk, gardening, or even a run, you’re helping “alleviate that intense attention strain that many of us experience because we’re basically at a seated job the whole day,” says Ada Pang, a psychotherapist. In fact, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that you only need to spend five minutes in nature to improve your mood and self-esteem. It could be in part because sun exposure helps your body release vitamin D, which hikes levels of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin in your brain.
Get out of your chair
Studies have shown time and time again that exercise makes you feel better, particularly because it causes your body to release endorphins, those feel-good, stress-busting chemicals. There’s no need to train for a triathlon, but do make sure to get your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes a day. Bonus if it can serve as a mental break from your usual busy routine. “Not everyone is an athlete, but you still want to be able to get some physical exercise,” says career counsellor and coach Lynn Berger. “For some people, it’s walking up the stairs.”
Hit the sack already
How much sleep we need varies from person to person. But if you don’t log enough Zzz’s for your brain and body to function optimally, you run the risk of not only feeling exhausted but also being unproductive and anxious, according to the National Sleep Foundation. To optimise your mental health, make a conscious effort to listen to your body and recognise when you’re more tired than usual. On those sleepier days, acknowledge how much (or how little) sleep works for your body, and aim to snooze that long every night.
Count your blessings
“We all have a tendency to take things for granted,” Dr Harteneck says. But instead of focusing on the negative, take a moment every day to feel thankful – for the tank of petrol that lasted your whole trip, for fresh raspberries at the grocer’s, for the warmth of bright sunshine on your face. Research from 2019 in the Journal of Positive Psychology has found that gratitude boosts your hope and happiness. And it takes literally one second. Dr Harteneck likes the idea of putting a little index card next to your computer or your nightstand to remind you to jot down why you’re grateful.
Create a bedtime routine
You know you need to power down devices with screens that emit blue light – smartphones, tablets, computers – at least an hour before bed. But that doesn’t mean unplugging and then directly hitting the sheets. Dr Harteneck suggests that you prepare mentally for sleep by listening to an inspirational speaker, meditating, or reading a book. What’s key is that the activity helps you “disconnect from daily stresses,” so you can quiet your mind for sleep.
Take time to try something different
Too often we’re so consumed with running from place to place that we don’t even realise what’s happening around us. “We’re so busy, we’re like robots,” Dr Harteneck says. To help you be more present, take the time to slow down by doing something familiar in an unfamiliar way, such as soaping your body with your non-dominant hand or sitting in a different seat to eat lunch. “It’s in the discovery of these simple movements and moments that you learn to appreciate how rich life can be,” Pang says. “Having that perspective will put you in a better place to deal with life’s stressors.”
Don’t rush to react
As we go about our routines day in and day out we develop expectations for how things are supposed to go. But when a certain activity doesn’t go as planned, we react instantly and, in doing so, cause stress hormones to kick in, according to Pang. If this sounds familiar, instead of responding to situations reflexively – cursing rush-hour traffic or a slow Internet connection – take a deep breath and a mental step back. Allow yourself to assess the situation calmly and rationally, potentially improving how you experience similar situations in the future.
Connect with others
It’s not enough to scroll through and like Facebook posts or Instagram photos – we need to make meaningful contact, even virtually, with live people during our days. According to Dr Harteneck, human beings have historically needed to feel like they “belong to a tribe or a group.” Checking in with supportive friends and family, whether you chat on the phone or use Facetime or Zoom, will make you feel included and involved, which puts your mental health in its evolutionary happy place.
Utilise your sense of touch
Research has shown that a hug as short as 10 seconds releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, according to Pang. If you can’t physically touch someone, even simply putting one hand on top of the other, for example, or over your heart for about a minute, instils a sense of compassion that helps you relax. Take a moment before or after work, when stress levels may be high, to soothe yourself. And don’t forget about your furry friends, too. Petting your dog or cat counts as well especially since a 2019 study in Aera Open found that just 10 minutes of interaction reduces the stress hormone cortisol.
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