Engaging in healthy habits can lead to better mental health and emotional equilibrium by helping us feel better, calmer, and more confident. Becoming more conscious and skillful in our choice-making is something we can practice every day. Pressure to change too much at once can have an adverse affect by making us feel overwhelmed. Consider making small adjustments slowly over time. Small changes in one area can lead to significant changes in other areas. Push hard enough to make progress but not so much that it is unsustainable.
To-Do: Small Goals
When we experience small amounts of success, our brain releases dopamine; a "feel good" neurotransmitter connected to learning, working memory, motivation, cognition, and emotion. When we cross off a completed task on a to-do list, our brain gets rewarded and becomes a more willing participant in future activities we do. We begin to feel more organized, more productive, and decrease the chances of procrastination. We also earn a sense of accomplishment and feel better about ourselves each time we complete a goal. Make a habit of creating a to-do list first thing each morning or the evening before. Incorporate small, attainable goals into daily routines. Daily to-do lists vary but here is an example:
Wake up at 6:00
Make the bed
Refer to the list often and stick to it as much as possible. Cross off each task when it is done and celebrate every small goal accomplished! Use a bullet journal, yearly planner, or basic spiral notebook to help prioritize activities, set bigger personal goals, and complete long-term projects.
Self-talk is the inner dialogue we use to speak to ourselves. It impacts self-esteem and contributes to our mental health. Do you talk and support yourself the same way you would to a good friend? We can become a better friend to ourselves by countering self-defeating language with positive, self-supporting statements such as:
I don't have to be perfect to be loved.
I love myself just the way I am.
I have many great qualities.
I am doing the best I can.
I can do this.
Relaxation techniques help us feel better by inducing a general state of calmness, balance, and well-being through a mind and body connection. Deep relaxation techniques offer multiple benefits such as a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and increased analytical thinking. We may also notice improved concentration, memory, and reduction of insomnia and fatigue. When performed correctly, deep relaxation produces a distinct feeling that is opposite to the way a body reacts under stress, worry or during a panic attack. Common forms of deep relaxation methods include:
Passive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation
Guided imagery and visualization
A daily practice of one form of deep relaxation for twenty minutes can produce, over time, a generalized feeling of relaxation in our life. Pick a favorite method and schedule it into the day. Make sure to enjoy it!
Exercise is excellent for our health and boosts brain power and good hormones that decrease depression and anxiety symptoms. Increases self-esteem, energy, and promotes a more peaceful sleep at night. Aim to workout four times for 30 minutes per week. If this isn't possible, make consistent attempts to exercise regularly whenever possible and alter your behavior by taking the stairs, parking further away, dancing during chores, and taking a walk outside with a pet.
Eventually, when confidence and curiosity grow, try a free yoga, kickboxing or Pilates class. Start a workout club with friends to help stay dedicated. We are more likely to want to keep doing something joyful, so incorporate more fun into working out.
Moods and Food
It is estimated that 90% of serotonin production happens in the gut. That means our G.I. Tract and brain communicate with each other. Science tells us that what we eat can indeed change how we feel and function. Processed foods, refined sugar, excessive alcohol, and caffeine affect mood, sleep, and health negatively. According to researchers, we can reverse serotonin deficits by switching to a nutrient dense diet. That includes eating more plant-based foods like fruit and vegetables, fish, and limiting red meat intake.
Individual nutritional needs and food allergies vary, thus a proper nutritional assessment by a registered dietitian may be necessary to help us determine if we are following appropriate dietary guidelines. We can actively create more self-awareness with the use of a food journal. Track moods and food and see if there is any relation. Opt for wiser food choices that body and brain respond favorably to.
Mindfulness consists of silently observing our thoughts, moods, and physical reactions without making judgments about them. Cultivating mindfulness is the process of creating a fundamental shift in our relationship with our own inner experience. When we pay attention to our ongoing experiences through the day, we start to notice that we frequently judge things or have “thoughts” about things. Our thoughts, however, are not always correct. It is essential to learn not so much to stop judging but to gain distance from the habit of it. Merely observe thoughts without adding judgment or any meaning about them, then practice letting them go. That will help us develop a non-judgmental attitude that in turn helps us navigate the ups and downs of everyday life better. Through mindfulness, we can learn to acknowledge moods and circumstances while remaining centered.
Sleep and mental health are intimately connected. According to Harvard Health, "sleep deprivation affects your psychological state and mental health". Melatonin is a hormone produced during overnight sleep and it is necessary to recharge and power the immune system. Lack of quality sleep can affect neurotransmitters, stress hormones, and wreak havoc in the brain by impairing thinking and emotional regulation. Individuals with mental health problems are more likely to have insomnia or other sleep disorders. Treating the sleep disorder may help alleviate some symptoms of the mental health problem.
Aim for 8 hours of sleep! Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including on the weekends. Get a sleep mask to block out the light. Avoid television, computer, and phone 30 minutes before bed. Monitor sleep and moods better by tracking them in a sleep journal. Spot trends and make adjustments as necessary.
Cognitive therapy is one form of psychotherapy or “talk therapy” practiced in the world. CT helps people to learn useful self-help skills that help change the way we think, feel, and behave. It has been used to help people with panic-disorders, phobias, anxiety, depression, relationship problems, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, stress-related issues, and other challenges that bring people to therapy.
Write It Out
Writing allows us to explore the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Rely on words and personal notes for support when emotions are running high or when there is no one to talk to or listen. Alternatively, use a journal to express gratitude or document personal progress. This allows the mind to focus on positive things that help spark pleasurable feelings such as happiness and contentment.
Too much time on social media can sometimes induce negative feelings like jealousy, frustration, and insecurity. When being online makes us feel less than the loving, competent, beautiful human being that we are, it's time to consider a digital detox. Shift the mood, log out, and log into a real connection and conversation with a good friend or loved one and be sure to include big-belly laughs!
Volunteering time to help others produces positive feelings such as joy, a sense of belonging, and purpose in life. Check a local cities website for opportunities to donate time or skills to help others. Contact a non-profit organization like Spreading The Love that supports mental health awareness or offer help out at church. Volunteer Match is another excellent resource to sign up with as they will periodically email matches that meet a skill set or particular interest.
In conclusion, habits impact our physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. While engaging in healthy habits paves the way for better mental health, some mental health conditions require more attention through psychiatry, psychotherapy or group treatment programs. It is essential to understand there is no shame in seeking the support, care and help we deserve to feel better. Ultimately we choose the path we want to take but it is comforting to know we are not alone in our quest for better mental health.