When people talk about mental health, they are often referring to a disorder – such as anxiety or depression – that may require professional support and treatment. But mental health is much more than a diagnosis. Mental health includes your overall psychological well-being, such as the way you feel about yourself and others as well as your ability to manage your feelings and deal with everyday difficulties.
And although taking care of your mental health can mean seeking professional support and treatment, it also means taking steps to improve your emotional health. Making these changes will pay off in all aspects of your life, including boosting your mood, building resilience, and adding to your overall enjoyment of life.
Tell yourself something positive. Research shows that how you think about yourself can have a powerful effect on how you feel. When we perceive our self and our life negatively, we can end up viewing experiences in a way that confirms that notion. Instead, practice using words that promote feelings of self-worth and personal power. For instance, instead of saying: "I'm such a loser. I won't get the job because I tanked in the interview," try saying something like: "I didn't do as well in the interview as I would have liked, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to get the job."
Write down something you are grateful for. Gratitude has been clearly linked with improved well-being and mental health as well as happiness. The best-researched method to increase feelings of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal or write a daily gratitude list. Generally contemplating gratitude is also effective, but you need to get regular practice to see a long-term benefit. Find something to be grateful for, let it fill your heart, and bask in that feeling.
Focus on one thing. Being mindful of the present moment allows us to let go of negative or difficult emotions from past moments or experiences that are weighing us down. Start by bringing awareness to routine activities, such taking a shower, eating lunch, or walking home. Being aware of the physical sensations, sounds, smells, or tastes of these experiences helps focus your attention. When your mind wanders, just bring it back to what you are doing.
Move your body. Your body releases stress-relieving and mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins before and after you work out, which is why exercise is a powerful antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression. Look for small ways to add activity to your day, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or going on a short walk. To get the most benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise daily, and try to do it outdoors. Exposure to sunlight helps your body produce vitamin D, which increases the level of serotonin in the brain, and spending time nature is a proven stress reducer.
Eat a good meal. What you eat nourishes your whole body, including your brain. Carbohydrates (in moderate amounts) increase serotonin, a brain chemical that has a calming effect on your mood. Protein-rich foods increase norepinephrine, dopamine, and tyrosine, which help keep you alert. And vegetables and fruits are loaded with nutrients that feed every cell of your body, including those that affect mood-regulating brain chemicals. Include foods with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in fish, nuts, and flaxseed) because research shows these can improve mood and restore structural integrity of the brain cells necessary for cognitive functioning.
Open up to someone else. Knowing you are valued by others is important for helping you think more positively and overcome the negative aspects of life. There is also evidence that being more trusting can increase your emotional well-being because as you get better at finding the positive aspects in other people, you become better at recognizing your own. Forgiving someone is another way to reduce your stress and anxiety. Yes, it can be hard to do, but holding onto anger can eventually lead to anxiety and depression and keep you stuck in the past.
Do something for someone else. Research shows that being helpful to others has a beneficial effect on how you feel about yourself. Being helpful and kind – and valued for what you do – is a great way to build self-esteem. The meaning you find in helping others will enrich and expand your life.
Take breaks. In those moments when it all just seems like too much, step away for a moment. Do anything but whatever was stressing you out until you feel a little bit better. Sometimes the best thing to do is a simple breathing exercise: Close your eyes and take ten deep breaths. For each one count to four as you inhale, hold it for a count of four, and then exhale for another four. This works wonders almost immediately.
Go to bed on time. Sleep restores both your mind and body. Your immune system repairs itself, and your brain rests and recharges while you sleep. Without enough good sleep, your system doesn't function as well as it should. A large body of research has shown that sleep deprivation also has a significant effect on mood. Try to go to bed at a regular time each day, and practice good habits to get better sleep. These include shutting down screens at least an hour before bed, using your bed only for sleep or relaxing activities, and limiting caffeinated drinks to the morning hours.
Start today. You have the power to take positive steps to improve your resilience and emotional health. Don’t wait until you are in crisis to make your mental health a priority. It is easier to form new habits when you are feeling strong, and then you will have them in place when you need them most. Pick something from this article that resonates with you and try it. Then try something else. Slowly putting in place routines, habits, and regular patterns will help you feel better through gradual change.