31 Jan 8 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Mental Health
The ongoing pandemic has put many of us under considerable strain. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the state of mental health in America continue to deteriorate at alarming rates, with more than 50 million Americans living with at least one mental health condition. The report showed that almost a quarter of the people who need services are not receiving the care they need, and roughly half receive no care whatsoever.
While improving access to care needs to be a top priority for healthcare professionals, politicians, and public service workers, these existing statistics show just how important it is to take charge of your own mental health. Regardless of whether or not you are under the care of a clinician or other behavioral healthcare provider, there are always things that you can do to improve your own mental wellbeing.
8 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Mental Health
Here are some of the habits and behaviors that have been shown to make the greatest impact on our daily lives.
Get good sleep. Sleep has a huge impact on our mental health. Sleep deprivation or poor sleep habits have been linked to a variety of serious health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Chronic sleep problems affect between 10% and 18% of the general American population, but when you look at individuals receiving psychiatric treatment, that number jumps to 50% to 80%. Mental health concerns often make it hard to sleep, but poor sleep is a contributing factor to these conditions.
Good sleep hygiene is extremely important, as improvements in this area have been shown to have a beneficial impact on mental health. You can improve your sleep habits by setting aside time to wind down before bed every night, and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. Avoiding stimulants like alcohol and caffeine in the evening will help, as will dimming your lights and setting aside screens for at least an hour before bedtime.
Exercise and stay active. In addition to helping keep our physical body healthy, exercise has beneficial effects on our mental health as well. It helps to relieve stress, which in turn can have a positive effect on conditions like depression and anxiety. One study found that even something as simple as running for 15 minutes a day can reduce our risk for major depression by 26%.
You don’t necessarily have to take up running. Walking, jogging, team sports, yoga, or any other moderately intense physical activity releases endorphins that help us feel calmer, more alert, and more energized.
Maintain a healthy diet. The food that we feed our body matters. If we can eat healthier food regularly, we’re offering our body a much-needed source of important nutrients that will keep our physical and mental health in check.
Food influences our thoughts and emotions. The connection between diet and emotions stems from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract, often called the “second brain”. Keeping this area stocked with good bacteria positively affects your neurotransmitters, leading to an elevated mood. Filling up on junk food can lead to inflammation, increasing our risk for conditions like strokes and dementia, so it’s best to completely eliminate, or at a minimum, keep those types of food in check. To improve your diet, focus on eating lots of whole foods, including vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.
Manage your stress. There are lots of ways to manage your stress and avoid burnout. For some people, this may mean taking a step back from work, or learning how to disengage from stressful situations. Some people manage stress by taking walks, exercising, or simply making sure to eat well and get enough sleep. If you’re short on time, you can even just take a few moments to take some deep breaths and relax any tense muscles. However you do it, know that these actions are essential in prioritizing and improving your mental health.
Pick up a new hobby. Taking time for hobbies is another great way to connect with yourself and build more pleasure into your daily life. Whether you play sports, pursue creative projects, build new worlds in a video game, or regularly walk in nature, these hobbies can help lower your cortisol levels, improve your mood and focus, and boost your overall well-being. If you don’t have any current hobbies, start by creating more space in your schedule, and try some new things! You’ll never know what you might enjoy.
Plan social time into your schedule. Humans are social creatures. Social interaction is critical for our mental health and can help improve our mortality risk and physical health as well. Many of us have struggled in this area over the last two years, as the pandemic has made seeing friends and family in person quite difficult. If you aren’t regularly making time for social interaction, it’s time to rethink that habit. Even now, there are ways to meet people safely. You can take a class online, walk with friends in a park, or join a book club.
Try Meditation. Meditation is an age-old mindfulness technique that has been shown to have many benefits for our mental health. Even practicing meditation for a few minutes a day can help lower stress, improve concentration, and reduce negative emotions. Anyone can practice meditation. Plus, it’s simple to do, it’s inexpensive, and it doesn’t require any special equipment. If you don’t know how to start, there are plenty of online videos for adults and kids that can help guide you, or you can try an app like Calm or Headspace.
Volunteer your time and talents. Giving back to your local community is a great way to improve your mental health. Not only does it make you feel good about yourself, but it often involves social interaction, hobbies, and even exercise. Volunteering has proven benefits for improving mental health, as seen in one long-ranging study with nearly 70,000 participants from the United Kingdom. Overall, people who volunteered reported being more satisfied with their lives and showed a noticeable improvement in their mood over time. If you’ve never volunteered before and don’t know where to start, check out this list of 25 things you can do.
Need More Help? Seek Care from a Qualified Professional
While there are many things that you can do to improve your mental health on your own, it’s important to note that receiving care from a qualified mental health clinician can also be a critical part of your journey. You can start by getting a referral from your doctor, a local mental health advocacy group, or even a trusted member of the clergy.
It can take some effort to find an available clinician that you trust, but assembling a qualified team can often make a difference in how you manage your mental health, leading to a more positive outlook and improved quality of life.
The actions that we take on a daily basis matter a great deal. Even something as simple as eating a healthy meal or getting enough sleep can make us feel better.
Want to learn more about improving your mental health? We offer plenty of resources on our blog, or you can explore the information offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.