Written by Margarita Tartakovsky
Mental health is a widely discussed concept, these days. You might notice discussions about mental health online, in conversation, on your favorite show, or any number of other places.
But widespread, frequent use of any term can lead the meaning to become blurred, if not misinterpreted entirely. So, if you come across the term often but still have some uncertainty around exactly what “mental health” refers to, you’re definitely not alone.
“Mental health is about the functionality of your brain and all that impacts it,” says Oludara Adeeyo, a psychiatric social worker and author of “Self-Care for Black Women.”
In a nutshell, mental health includes your psychological and social well-being. It also encompasses your emotional health, or your ability to name, address, and regulate your emotions.
Many factors play a part in mental health, some of which you can’t control, such as genetics, life experiences, and family history.
But you do have influence over a wide portion of your mental health, notes KC Davis, a licensed professional counselor and author of “How To Keep House While Drowning.”
The ability you have to influence your mental health is key, because your mental health matters, quite a lot.
What makes mental health so important?
Mental health helps determine how you handle stress, relate to others, and make choices, explains Alison Seponara, a licensed professional counselor and author of the book “The Anxiety Healer’s Guide.”
Seponara goes on to say that caring for your mental health can lead to:
- improved mood
- reduced anxiety
- clearer thinking
- deeper relationships
- improved self-esteem and confidence
Nurturing your mental health can also help you manage health conditions that are worsened by stress, like heart disease, says Seponara.
Your mental health can impact everything about your life, Adeeyo says, including the ways you view and move through the world and your ability to handle the things life throws at you.
That’s why building habits for better mental health can make a big difference in your day-to-day life.
As you explore new behaviors and begin incorporating them into your routine, aim to frame these changes as self-kindness, not self-punishment. Maintaining a gentle, kind attitude toward yourself can do a lot more to improve your mental health and overall outlook than criticism and negative self-talk.
“Work on your mental health from a place of care,” Davis recommends.
1. Get restful sleep
Sleep isn’t just a nonnegotiable for physical health. It also plays an essential role in mental health.
One 2021 studyTrusted Source included data from 273,695 adults in the United States. The researchers found that people who averaged 6 hours of sleep or less per night were about 2.5 times more likely to report frequent mental distress than those who averaged more than 6 hours of sleep.
The quality of your sleep matters, too: Disrupted sleep can contribute to mental health symptoms.
To get enough high quality sleep, try starting with these habits:
- Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.
- Try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day.
- Make your bedroom into a quiet, relaxing, clutter-free space.
- Aim to keep the temperature in your bedroom somewhere around 65°F (18.3°C).
Healthy sleep habits can be harder to build on your own if you have a sleep disorder.
If you think your sleeping issues may relate to a sleep condition, a sleep specialist can offer more information about helpful evidence-based treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.
Know, too, that mental health concerns can also lead to poor sleep. So, changes to your sleep environment and nighttime routine might not make a lasting difference. If you don’t notice much improvement, connecting with a therapist may be a helpful next step.
2. Cut back on social media
“Constantly consuming information about other people’s lives may cause someone to compare themselves and promote feelings of low self-worth, which increases feelings of anxiety and depression,” says Adeeyo.
To spend less time on social media, try to:
- keep your phone in a drawer or outside your bedroom while sleeping
- make a list of alternate, more meaningful activities to replace your usual scrolling sessions
- turn off notifications or delete social apps from your phone
3. Strengthen your relationships
Humans are social creatures, and strong relationships can have a positive influence on your mental health in various ways.
Friendships, for example, can:
- ease feelings of loneliness
- make it easier to get emotional support
- add meaning to your life
You have plenty of options for cultivating positive connections and nurturing your friendships:
- Keep in touch by checking in regularly, even with just a quick text or funny meme.
- Meet up for a morning walk or breakfast.
- Call for a short chat during your lunch break.
- Schedule biweekly or monthly dinner dates.
Making a point to catch up when you do spend time together can make a difference, too. Research from 2018 suggests catching up and joking around in person predicted closer bonds above and beyond the number of hours participants spent together.
Short on meaningful relationships? Find 7 ways to make friends as an adult.
4. Move your body on your own terms
Exercise offers a range of mental health benefits, including:
- relieving stress
- lifting mood
- helping you fall asleep faster and sleep longer
- helping you manage symptoms of depression and anxiety conditions
Movement can involve something different for every person, and it doesn’t have to mean going to the gym — unless you genuinely want to. Instead, make movement enjoyable for you by opting for physical activities that work best for your body, health, and preferences.
To get started, experiment with a range of physical activities and keep doing the ones that resonate with you.
Enjoyable movement could include:
- joining a running or walking club
- taking a slower-paced restorative yoga class
- trying seated exercises
- throwing a dance party
- taking stretching breaks every hour
- gardening or doing other work in your backyard
- a weekend family hike or walk along the beach
In other words, you don’t have to do a vigorous workout to support mental wellness.
“Taking a few minutes to stretch can make a huge difference for your overall mental health. Stretching will help with blood flow and get more oxygen through your body, which can help you feel more relaxed and happy,” says Christopher S. Taylor, PhD, LPC-S, founder of Taylor Counseling Group, author of “My Digital Practice” and host of the “For Self-Examination” podcast.
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