This is the time of year many people resolve to take better care of themselves. Join a gym, eat healthier, cut down on alcohol – you know the drill. But improving physical health isn’t the only resolution to consider. We can all resolve to improve our mental health, too. And research has proven that certain strategies really do improve mood and reduce the risk for mental illness. Here are 10 relatively easy changes you can make that will have a big impact on your mental well-being in 2020.
Get more sleep.
We are a sleep-deprived nation. Some people consider lack of sleep a badge of honor, but poor sleep habits contributes to depressive symptoms. People with anxiety often aren’t able to sleep. There are concrete steps to improve sleep. “The top way to improve sleep is to have a consistent bed time and awake time,” says Patricia Thornton, a psychologist in New York City. “Don’t sleep in on weekends. Don’t try to catch up on sleep with naps.” You should strive for a consistent seven to eight hours a night. “That will go a long way to helping people feel better,” she explains.
There is a preponderance of research that shows how exercise is good for mental health. One landmark study found exercise to be as effective as an antidepressant in relieving mild to moderate depression. That’s the good news. The bad news is that getting exercise is hard for many people, especially those already suffering from the lack of motivation and energy that often come with depression. The solution is to make getting more exercise easier. Forget joining a gym or buying a weight set – just go for more walks. “I prescribe exercise for all my patients,” Thornton says. “If I could bottle exercise, I would give it to my patients.” Exercise can also help improve sleep, as long as you don’t exercise too close to bedtime.
Get a hobby.
There are two types of resolutions, says Kathariya Mokrue, chair of the department of behavioral sciences at York College of The City University of New York. One is to promote a sense of pleasure, and the other to build mastery in something. Finding a new a hobby – or going back to one you’ve let slide – is a great way to do both. “Take up a hobby that helps you feel good about yourself,” Mokrue says. As you get better at it, your self-confidence will also get a boost.
Put down your Smartphone.
“Take a social media holiday,” Thornton says. Many of us only get more depressed and anxious from our social media feeds. “All those people having wonderful times, comparing your life to theirs, theirs always looks better,” she says. Take breaks, even if it’s for limited times. “No one will do a full week – we are too addicted to our phones,” she says. Instead, resolve to check your feeds once every two hours. And stop altogether after 6 p.m. “Realize that you don’t have to constantly compare yourself to others,” Thornton says. “That is so detrimental to how we feel about ourselves.”
Learn how to meditate.
Meditation can help in a variety of ways, Mokrue says. “Research suggests that meditation reduces stress levels. It helps you be more effective in getting things done. And it can get you out of time (pressures) and help put a pause on the moment. That helps you realize what is really important and allows you to slow things down.” There are numerous apps available online to teach you how to meditate, such as Headspace, The Mindfulness App and 10% Happier. It only takes 10 minutes a day, and if you stick with it, it can offer long-lasting mental health benefits.
Get a planner.
You know how you feel when you have too much to do? “Keeping too much in your head makes you anxious,” Thornton says. Her tip: Get it out of your head and onto paper (real or digital). “Write it down, so you don’t keep thinking about it.” Make a log and track the time it takes to do various tasks, then plan for what the day or week will look like. “Most of us procrastinate about something, and many of us are procrastinators in general. With a planner, you can check things off and have a sense of accomplishment. Don’t just sit and spin your wheels. Keep moving,” Thornton says.
Keep a journal.
This is not the same as your day planner. Use a personal journal, Thornton says, to “discharge your worries by writing them down.” Rumination, which is the process of thinking obsessively about some negative feeling or emotion, is often a symptom of anxiety and depression. And many people ruminate at night, lying in bed. “If you have a worry journal to write down those negative thoughts – for no more than 15 minutes max – then you’re done. You can close the book, and then try to sleep.” This can also be done throughout the day, she says.
“Helping others is a great a way to get out of your own head, your own troubles, and connect with other people and cultivate relationships,” Mokrue says. Perhaps the single strongest predictor of happiness, according to social science, is called prosociality – connecting with and to others. Helping is a wonderful connector. It doesn’t mean you have to volunteer at a soup kitchen, though that would be great. Simply helping your friend carry a heavy bag or a co-worker clean snow off her car or the proverbial old lady across the street can generate those beneficial feelings of social connection.
Studies show one of the simplest ways to feel happier is to practice gratitude by reflecting on the good things in your life. A 2012 survey conducted by the John Templeton Foundation found that most people value gratitude and see themselves as quite grateful – but at the same time, they see the world around them becoming less grateful. Try keeping a gratitude journal or saying out loud something you are grateful for at the end of every day.
“They don’t have to be monumental,” Mokrue says. “They can be simple things, like, I caught the train on time or the commute was easy or I got the coffee I wanted. This is difficult for many to do, but it’s very helpful in promoting a sense of well-being. If you can end each day recalling two or three good things that can carry over to the next day and serve as a buffer to the stressors that may come up.”
Be nicer to yourself.
Give yourself a break. Chances are your life won’t change for the better overnight. Jan. 1, after all, isn’t that different from Dec. 31. Don’t try to add all these tips at once or make them so onerous that they become more burdensome than helpful. “It can feel overwhelming to have a long list of things to do differently, so start with two or three,” Mokrue says. Develop concrete plans, jot them down, monitor how they are working – or not working – and then re-evaluate after a couple of weeks. “If you need to tweak them, give yourself time to do that,” Mokrue says. “Don’t give up. Try it a new way.”
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