Easy Habits That Can Improve Your Mental Health
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Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on August 20, 2021
Bust the Blues
Sometimes you need a mental lift. There are some simple steps you can take to build a “happiness habit” that may help get you through a tough spell. These pick-me-ups aren’t meant to replace treatment for serious depression, acute anxiety, or other clinical issues. If you need help, tell your doctor or a trusted friend or family member.
It just sits there doing nothing. And that’s the problem. Studies have found that when you’re surrounded by stuff, the visual chaos goes straight to your brain. It distracts you and gets in the way of your ability to process info. Other research has shown a cluttered home amps up the stress hormone cortisol, especially in women. Make a plan right now to banish or sort your clutter. Then call a charity to set a date for pickup.
Buy Yourself Something Nice
It doesn’t have to be a spree for fancy electronics or a new designer wardrobe. Sure, the something nice can perk you up for the moment. But research shows the real magic of so-called retail therapy is the sense of control you have over your environment when you make your own choices. So try a little smart shopping to help snap you out of short-term sadness. Just make sure your picks fit your budget, too.
Ticket to Read
The fastest ticket out of a bad mood is still the simplest: a riveting read. Studies have linked reading to improvements in depression symptoms, as well as mental flexibility and brain function. Make sure it’s a pleasure read — not the news, your computer manual, or even your latest book club pick. Find a book you’ve wanted to check out or a juicy magazine. Sock away at least 30 minutes every day to read in peace.
Pet a Furry Friend
In one study, college students who chilled for just 10 minutes with a good-natured dog or cat had sharply lowered cortisol, a major stress hormone. Many college campuses have started “pet-to-de-stress” programs. You don’t need to be in school to get these warm fuzzies, though. Spend extra quality time with your own pet, or volunteer at a shelter or adoption event to make some new furry friends to cuddle and play with.
Catch a Groovy Beat
Yes, classical music can relax you and ease tension. But what if your listening tastes are more high-energy? An Italian study found quick tempos can help calm you, too. It just happens when the music stops. After listening to fast-paced songs, the subjects’ blood pressures and heart rates mellowed. So whether your jam is Mozart or classic rock, crank it up.
Pile a Power Plate
A healthy dish can banish the blues, with fast and lasting results. One study looked at young adults with diets rich in fruits, veggies, and lean meats over just a few weeks. They reported less depression than a group that didn’t eat as well. Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet, which counts grains and olive oil as staples, can ease depression in older adults. (Exercise and sharing meals are key parts of this diet, too.)
To practice this ancient Chinese healing art, you press certain spots on your body to release tension. It can lessen anxiety and improve your blood flow. Try this simple move called yin tang, which refers to the middle point between your eyebrows. Sit back and relax. Place your thumb or forefinger between your brows. Press in small, gentle circles for 5 to 10 minutes. Repeat several times during the day.
Find Your Flow
“Flow” is your state of mind when you do something that challenges and fulfills you, without too much pressure on your performance. Note the highlights of your day or week. When did you feel “in the zone”? Hint: Passive entertainment like bingeing a TV show or playing computer games aren’t flow. Think dancing, cooking, painting, even housecleaning — pursuits that absorb you and put your worries aside. Make plenty of time for them.
Walk in Nature
Ecotherapy explores how quality nature time eases stress, anxiety, and depression. A 2015 study found people who take nature walks have lower activity in the parts of the brain where negative thoughts can spool. Start with a stroll close to home or an easy trail for about a half-hour several times a week. If you’re game, build up to longer-term “forest bathing” (the Japanese take on nature immersion). It works if you take a friend, too.
Find Nature Stand-Ins
Even if you’re stuck inside or the weather’s crummy, natural stimuli can have a similar calming effect. A study found that it can lift your spirits to listen to nature sounds and even just look at pictures of pretty outdoor settings or dream destinations. Researchers think it’s the literal “outside” focus that can bust a mental funk by taking your mind off negative things.
There’s an App for It
In the ever-evolving world of electronic mental health tools, you never need an appointment. An app on your smartphone can’t diagnose or treat a condition like depression or anxiety. But it may make you aware of your emotions, which can help you manage them. You can download uplifting podcasts, audiobooks, and apps for pick-me-ups while you drive, wait in line, or take a walk.
Keep Up Your Support System
When you feel down, it’s easy to think others should know how you feel. But you need to be the one to keep the lines open. Make time for friends and family. Offer to help them out when you can — some research suggests it can be more uplifting to give support than to get it. And while some experts say it’s best to meet up in person, don’t hesitate to draw on electronic tools like Skype, online chat, and texts to stay close if needed.
Find Something Funny
Whether you get tickled by silly videos of people falling down, witty British comedy, or a friend who tells hilarious stories, find the things that make you laugh. Humor essay books, funny podcasts, or jokes from magazines are great sources, too. Studies show laughter — and the distraction it brings — is one of the best mood lifters around.
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