Mental and emotional health are not the type of thing you achieve, check the box, and move on to other things. Much like physical health and any other aspect of life, they require continuous daily maintenance.
If you ever suffered from any mental illness, you are probably well-aware of the drive to keep moving forward and not drift back to old, mentally unhealthy habits and attitudes. The news these days isn’t exactly spreading joy, and stressors cannot always be removed.
Fortunately, mental health is built on many small things you can do on a daily basis, and all of them are fairly simple. Some of those are physical habits, while others are tenants of positive psychology, which is exactly what it sounds like. Keep them in mind, and they can protect your mental health and help you lead a happier life!
1. Practice gratitude
The importance of gratitude as an integral part of mental well-being cannot be stressed enough. Taking things for granted is a downward spiral no one should walk into, as it hides the inherent positive value of everyday things. And yet, it is so very easy to take them for granted.
This is where being actively grateful can make a difference. When you wake up in the morning, you should take note of the fact that waking up to a new day is something quite extraordinary. When someone smiles at you, that is quite special. The taste of the first cup of coffee deserves taking a moment to appreciate.
The idea is not to stop and say thank you for every single thing that happens, but to do so more frequently overall. A popular method is to keep a gratitude journal, in which once a day, you take a moment to write down a few things you are grateful for. It is the attitude of looking for and recognizing existing positivity in your life that matters.
2. Take care of your basic needs
The needs of a person can be visualized like a pyramid, with the basic needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization (reaching your full potential as a human being) at the top. However, just like any pyramid, the base must be stable for anything else to be built on top of it.
If you are starving or sleep deprived, it becomes difficult to focus on whether your love life is where you want it to be. This means that skipping meals is not a viable option for mental health, and neither is pulling all-nighters for work. Sleep and nutrition must always maintain a high level of priority.
Proper sleep means making sure you set aside at least 7 hours for the night, and trying to maintain healthy sleep hygiene — relaxing before going to sleep and doing what you can to wake up at about the same hour each day. Taking care of your nutrition means eating all meals of the day, but also eating well: less sugar, fats, carbohydrates, and caffeine, and more fruits and vegetables. Don’t forget to drink lots of water to always stay hydrated!
3. Breathe deeply
The average person breathes quite shallowly: not a lot of air gets in when inhaling, and the inhale itself is fairly short. Shallow breathing makes you miss out on some great benefits provided by breathing deeply. Those include a more efficient exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen, reduced heartbeat, more stable blood pressure, and as a result of all of these — a more relaxed state of mind.
The reason for that is that breathing deeply helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of you that’s in charge of the “rest and digest” process, which requires relaxation. In other words, breathing deeply shifts your gears into relaxed mode, so why not just always be breathing deeply?
While doing so can feel somewhat unnatural (as we are used to breathing shallowly), it is very easy to do. You can try it now: take a deep breath and count to 3. Feel the air feeling your stomach, then let go of it for another few seconds. Repeat. That’s all there is to it!
4. Limit your screen time
It would be nigh impossible in this day and age to cut off all screen usage entirely, especially for those whose work requires them to be in front of one for most of the day. However, the negative effects of being too long in front of a screen on your mental health are not to be ignored. Those include disruptions to your sleep cycle due to being exposed to the light they emit, as well as being more prone to both anxiety and depression.
The first thing you can do is simply not bring your phone with you to the bedroom when you go to sleep. It can be tempting to grab it and take a look at something, but making sure you get a good night’s sleep is of higher importance. And if your phone is also your alarm clock, consider getting an alarm clock.
The second thing you can do, and this is especially important for people who work in front of screens, is to limit your screen time outside of working hours. Opt for activities that don’t require a screen, such as hanging out with others, exercising, and spending time in nature. This doesn’t mean you can’t use your phone and computer in your free time — just try to use them less.
5. Be playful
Mental illnesses have the natural tendency of making things gloom and dour. One way to keep them at bay is being playful. This means goofing around more often, not taking everything so seriously, and having a laugh every now and then. Being light-hearted.
Playfulness can manifest in a multitude of different ways. Watching a funny video, looking up puns and jokes, and watching the clouds go by as you make out what shapes they have are all good examples of that.
The core idea is that not all things have to be serious, and fun is not more of a luxury in life than vegetables are in a balanced diet. Having fun is part of mental health, and finding fun in your everyday life is a wonderful skill to try and practice.
6. Don’t compare yourself to others
With the advent of social media, our view of the life of others has become a curated exhibition of highlights rather than the holistic, often disorganized flow that it is. But even before we had social networks, we would still compare ourselves with others a great portion of the time. They have a bigger house, or a higher salary, or better looks. It would seem like there is always someone who is better than us in some way.
But that view can only persist if we ignore the objective truth: that there are also plenty of people who have smaller houses and lower salaries than us (or none at all), as well as those who make the same amount as us each month, and live in more or less the same kind of house as us. We don’t often compare ourselves to those people, which means our comparison is biased against us.
Yes, chances are that someone makes more money than you. Maybe you are better at cooking than them, or maybe you are a kinder friend than they are. And maybe when they compare themselves to you, they see themselves as lesser because of that.
Being a human being has more metrics and parameters than anyone could measure, so why laser-focus on a few particular ones as though they were the only ones that matter? The kind of person you want to be is, for the most part, up to you. You get to choose your own standards for yourself, but it is important to be realistic about them, and not fall victim to biased, fruitless comparisons.
8. Be a good friend to yourself
In a similar vein to comparing ourselves to others, we are often more perfectionist about, critical of, and have higher standards and expectations for ourselves than for others. If a friend comes to us saying that they feel useless, chances are that we’ll try to encourage them and tell them that they aren't. When we feel useless, we do not provide the same friendly counter-argument to ourselves.
Wouldn’t it be nicer if we treated ourselves the same way we treat our friends?
Nothing is really stopping us from doing so other than the habit not to, which means that the habit of being a friend to ourselves is something we should practice until we get used to it. If you begin today, soon enough you will have a supporting voice in your head, safeguarding you from dubious, negative thoughts instead of doubling down on them. When you are kind to yourself, you foster the mental fertile ground for feeling happy.
9. Engage in activities that bring you joy
There are many things we have to do every day that seem to drag us down emotionally and clog up our mind. Work, chores, and getting from one place to another don’t leave a whole lot of time left, but the time they do leave us is precious — which is why we should make sure to use it well.
Engaging in activities that bring us joy is a great way to spend your free time. These could be hobbies, hanging out with people you like to be around, or developing a skill you feel is important or rewarding. When you do so, your brain is too busy enjoying itself to worry, ruminate or get stressed.
Creative activities are of particular note, as it helps develop problem-solving skills, allows for emotional expression, and helps alleviate stress. Can you think of the last time you were really into doing something creative and were stressed about it? It is quite a challenge.
10. Live in the present moment
To live in the present moment is to engage in mindfulness: focusing on what you are experiencing now, as opposed to something that already happened, or something that may happen later on.
A not-insignificant amount of negativity and stress comes from ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. If we practice mindfulness, however, we can come to understand that the past is already gone and the future is entirely unknown — so there is less to ruminate over and less to worry about.
A very useful way to practice mindfulness is to meditate. This does not mean sitting cross-legged with fingers held together and emptying our mind. It means to focus on something that is here and now. This can be our breath, the flickering of a candle’s flame in front of us, the rustling of the leaves on a single branch of a tree outside our window, and so on.
11. Continuous therapy
There is the pervasive idea that therapy is some sort of last resort that only people with severe mental illness reluctantly undergo. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The ability to talk with a therapist on a regular basis is not something you should only start doing when everything feels horrible — it is something everyone could do in order to not end up in a spot where everything feels horrible.
Seeing a therapist in that sense is not equivalent to going through surgery or seeing a specialist for chronic pain. It is more like taking vitamin supplements and making sure your health is doing alright. The practice of continuously cultivating mental health and happiness is therefore greatly benefited from regularly talking with a therapist.
This is why at DoMental, we provide the ability to do so in an affordable and accessible manner — so that you will have a friendly professional always ready to help you keep your mind healthy, and yourself happy. Want to learn more about us? Read Health Insider's review of DoMental to find out more.