Mental health is a critical component of overall health and wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel, and act. Maintaining positive mental health allows us to enjoy life more, cope effectively with stressors, be productive, and have healthy relationships. While 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year, there are many things we can do to improve our mental health.
Stress is an inevitable part of life. How we respond to stressors can impact our mental health. Chronic stress harms mental health by keeping the body in a constant state of arousal. Finding healthy ways to manage and reduce stress is essential.
Identify Your Stressors
The first step is identifying sources of stress. Common stressors include:
- Health issues
- Major life changes
Reflect on situations or circumstances that make you feel stressed, overwhelmed, or emotionally drained. Understanding your personal stressors allows you to address them effectively.
Practice Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques activate the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body and mind. Try:
- Deep breathing – Inhale slowly through your nose, feel your belly expand. Exhale slowly through pursed lips. Repeat.
- Progressive muscle relaxation – Tense and relax muscle groups throughout your body. Notice the sensation of releasing tension.
- Guided imagery – Picture a peaceful scene in your mind. Engage your senses – see the colors, hear the sounds, feel the environment.
- Meditation – Focus your attention on something repetitive like your breath, a mantra, or visualizations.
Aim for 10-20 minutes of relaxation practice daily. Apps like Calm or Headspace can guide you.
Make Time For Self-Care
Ensure you have time set aside for restorative activities:
- Get adequate sleep
- Take breaks throughout the day
- Do light exercise like yoga or walking
- Enjoy hobbies and creative activities
- Spend time outdoors
- Practice mindfulness
Taking care of your needs builds resilience against stress.
Don’t cope with stress alone. Connect regularly with family and friends who uplift you. Share what’s worrying you and ask for help when needed. Having people to turn to for encouragement can buffer stress.
Table 1: Relaxation Techniques To Reduce Stress
|Deep Breathing||Inhale deeply through nose, exhale slowly through pursed lips|
|Progressive Muscle Relaxation||Tense and relax muscle groups throughout body|
|Guided Imagery||Visualize peaceful scene, engage senses|
|Meditation||Focus on something repetitive like breath or mantra|
Regular exercise positively impacts both physical and mental health. Along with improving cardiovascular health and fitness, exercise stimulates brain chemicals like serotonin and endorphins that elevate mood and reduce anxiety.
Aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, like brisk walking or swimming. This can be broken into short 10-minute sessions. Mixing cardio with muscle strengthening and flexibility training provides additional mental health benefits.
How Exercise Improves Mental Health:
- Reduces stress & anxiety – Physical activity lowers stress hormones and induces relaxation.
- Boosts self-esteem – Meeting exercise goals creates a sense of accomplishment.
- Enhances sleep – Aerobic exercise reduces sleep disruptions and improves quality.
- Elevates mood – Exercise stimulates neurotransmitters like serotonin which stabilize mood.
- Provides social interaction – Group classes or activities create social connection.
Build regular cardio, strength training, flexibility, and balance exercises into your routine for optimal mental health gains. Take group fitness classes, walk with a friend, or work with a trainer if motivation is lacking.
Spend Time Outdoors
Humans are inherently connected with nature. Being in natural environments has measurable benefits for mental health:
Benefits of Being Outdoors:
- Reduces stress & anxiety – Exposure to green spaces lowers cortisol and induces relaxation.
- Enhances mood – Sunlight exposure increases serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter.
- Improves focus – Natural environments replenish attention and reduce mental fatigue.
- Promotes overall wellbeing – Nature has restorative and therapeutic effects.
Aim to spend 20-30 minutes outside daily. Ideas include:
- Walks, jogs, or bike rides through nature.
- Sitting and relaxing in a park or your yard.
- Eating lunch outside.
- Gardening or working in your yard.
- Camping and hiking on weekends.
Increase outdoor time as much as possible for the best mental health effects.
Foster Social Connection
Humans are social beings. Loving relationships and feeling connected with others are fundamental human needs. Social isolation and loneliness are linked to poorer mental health outcomes including depression and cognitive decline.
Spend quality time interacting with people who uplift you. Set aside dedicated time for genuine social connection:
Strengthen Your Social Ties:
- Call, text, or video chat with supportive friends and family regularly.
- Schedule video calls to feel more connected face-to-face.
- Meet a friend for coffee or a walking date. Focus on the conversation.
- Share laughter and fun – this bonds people. Tell jokes, watch comedy, play games.
- Join groups that align with your interests – book clubs, recreational sports teams, volunteer organizations.
- Use support groups for shared experiences – new parents, caregivers, health conditions.
- If you don’t have an established social circle, develop one. Take classes, join a faith community, or use MeetUp groups.
Nurturing close relationships provides meaning, joy, and comfort in life. Prioritize cultivating your social wellbeing.
Cultivating thankfulness through gratitude practices strengthens mental health and resiliency. Gratitude shifts perspective from lack and negative focus to appreciation for what IS present.
Benefits of Gratitude:
- Increases happiness – Focusing on blessings boosts dopamine and serotonin.
- Improves sleep – Gratitude thoughts calm the mind before bed.
- Boosts self-esteem – Reminds us of gifts and talents we possess.
- Reduces anxiety & depression – Hard to stay stuck when recalling reasons to be grateful.
- Strengthens relationships – Expressing gratitude deepens bonds with others.
Integrate gratitude practices like:
- Keeping a gratitude journal – write 2-3 things you’re grateful for daily.
- Reflecting on 3 good things before bed each night.
- Telling someone why you appreciate them.
- Sending thank you notes.
- Saying grace or expressing gratitude before meals.
Gratitude shifts perspective from lack to abundance. Make it a daily habit.
Seek Professional Help When Needed
For some mental health conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, or bipolar, professional treatment is necessary. Mental health issues require compassionate care from providers like:
- Psychiatrists – Prescribe and manage medications.
- Psychologists – Provide talk therapy and counseling.
- Licensed therapists – Treat mental health disorders using interventions like CBT, DBT, EMDR.
- Primary care providers – Initial stop for mental health concerns, can provide referrals.
Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if:
- Your symptoms significantly impact work, relationships, or day-to-day life.
- You experience major changes in sleep, appetite, mood, or energy levels.
- You have ongoing feelings of hopelessness, fear, anxiety, or emotional distress.
- You have thoughts of harming yourself.
Treatment can help manage symptoms and improve your quality of life. Reach out to providers covered by your insurance.
1. I’m struggling with my mental health but can’t afford therapy. What should I do?
There are some lower-cost options for mental health support including:
- Support groups – Free peer support for shared issues like grief, addiction, trauma.
- Pastoral counseling – Meet with a pastor or clergy member for counseling.
- Community health clinics – May offer counseling on a sliding scale fee based on income.
- University counseling centers – Provide low-cost counseling from graduate students supervised by licensed professionals.
- Online counseling apps – Offer text, phone, or video sessions, some have financial assistance.
Check out resources at your local community mental health center as well. Don’t let limited funds deter you from getting help.
2. I try practicing self-care but often end up feeling guilty. How can I avoid this?
It’s important to let go of guilt when doing activities that nourish you. Remind yourself that dedicating time for your mental health is necessary – it’s not selfish.
When feelings of guilt arise, pause and reflect on how the activity is benefiting you. Consider keeping a gratitude journal just for your self-care practices. Jot down how they make you feel afterward – relaxed, recharged, centered. Look at it when you need motivation.
Make self-care a scheduled priority, just like other obligations. You deserve this time to rejuvenate so you can better care for others.
3. My job is very stressful. What are some quick stress relief strategies I can use during work?
Finding brief ways to calm your mind and body during hectic work days is important:
- Take 1-2 minute breathing breaks to relax. Inhale deeply, exhale slowly.
- Stand up and stretch periodically to release muscle tension.
- Listen to calming music with headphones for a few minutes to slow racing thoughts.
- Step outside for some fresh air when you can.
- Do desk exercises like shoulder rolls or ankle circles.
- Chat with a positive coworker for an emotional boost.
- Declutter your workspace to create a mentally soothing environment.
- Look at uplifting photos or inspirational quotes for a quick perspective shift.
Little breaks to calm your body and mind go a long way in reducing work stress.
4. How can I motivate myself to exercise when I’m feeling depressed?
When you’re depressed, getting motivated to exercise can be very difficult. Some helpful tips include:
- Choose easy exercises like walking, which boost your mood. Gradually increase intensity.
- Exercise first thing in the morning – you’re less likely to skip it.
- Schedule it like any other activity – put it in your calendar and honor it.
- Invite an upbeat friend to join you – socializing helps motivation.
- Listen to favorite upbeat music, podcasts or books while exercising. It makes the time pass quickly.
- Focus on how much better you’ll feel after even just 10 minutes. The mood boost is guaranteed.
- Remember that every little bit counts. Some activity is better than none.
Be patient and compassionate with yourself. Any amount of exercise is a victory when dealing with depression.
5. I want to improve my sleep habits. What are some good practices?
Here are some beneficial sleep hygiene habits to optimize rest:
- Keep a consistent bedtime and wake time, even on weekends. This stabilizes your circadian rhythm.
- Make your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Block out light and muffle sounds that disrupt sleep.
- Avoid electronic screens for 1 hour before bedtime. The blue light inhibits melatonin production.
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, and heavy meals before bed.
- Limit alcohol which reduces sleep quality even though it makes you sleepy initially.
- Do relaxing activities before bed like reading, stretching, journaling or meditation.
- Go to bed when sleepy. Don’t toss and turn for prolonged periods. Get up briefly until tired if you can’t fall asleep.
- Exercise earlier in the day as evening exercise can delay sleep.
Good sleep quality is crucial for mental health. Be consistent with healthy sleep habits.