When it comes to caring for our physical health by exercising, maintaining a healthy diet, and scheduling check-ups with our doctors, most of us are pretty on point. But, for whatever reason, our mental health seems to be something that too few of us realize requires the same amount of care and consideration. “Our mental wellness is as crucial as our physical health, but it’s so often overlooked because it’s not as tangible as our physical well-being,” says Ellie Cobb, PhD, holistic psychologist based in New York City. “If we have a sinus infection or rash, we’ll likely take steps to address the symptoms, but if we feel chronically sad or irritable, we often ‘just push through.’” This is a vicious cycle that takes a toll over time, she adds.
It’s true that mental health issues are harder to describe (and prescribe) than those related to our physical health, because the latter we can see. But just like the body, we need to exercise, feed, and rest the mind for better mental health. Here, experts share the small things we should be doing daily to keep our minds in good shape.
If you’re the kind of person who says “yes” to everything or has trouble turning down a social engagement, it’s time to get used to saying “no.” “Sometimes people are afraid to say ‘no’ because they think they won’t look like they’re a capable winner or they’re afraid people won’t like them, but making yourself a doormat won’t win you any votes either,” says Aimee Bernstein, psychotherapist, mindfulness-in-action teacher, and author of Stress Less, Achieve More. She recommends staying true to yourself by saying no when your personal boundaries are invaded.
In the fast-paced world we live in, it can be hard to remember to take the time to unplug from all the pressure and expectations. If you fail to relax, though, you’ll find yourself incapable of ever “catching up” on it all. “Taking downtime lets you hear your internal voice, which allows you to spot clues formerly unseen that will help you travel the inner road to your new improved self,” says Bernstein. “Taking a bit of downtime every day will also keep you connected to yourself when others are harried.”
Hang out with positive people
Have you ever noticed that you feel uplifted when you are with positive people, but when you’re in the presence of negative ones, you feel drained? Bernstein explains that these experiences aren’t merely coincidental: “Just one toxic, always-complaining, negative friend can be dangerous to your well-being,” she says. “If, after talking with your friend, he/she won’t change or refuses to get help, it’s time to move on.”
Embrace intimate relationships
Research backs up the theory that quality over quantity is key when it comes to relationships — and experts say that having close pals helps bolster mental wellness. “When we connect with ourselves, others, nature, a greater power or the universe, we are more resilient to life’s challenges, more joyful, and more fulfilled,” says Dr. Cobb. As far as that close relationship you have with yourself, you can foster this through meditation. “Setting aside even a few moments a day to breathe, reflect, and rejuvenate allows our brain and body to function optimally from a cellular level to an interpersonal level,” Dr. Cobb adds.
If, like most people, you sit behind a desk for the majority of the week, it's important to sneak in some exercise, ideally outside. “Exercise of any kind, even a short walk, encourages the production of serotonin, which is a mood enhancer,” explains Kathryn Smerling, MD, clinical psychology instructor at Mount Sinai. “Exercise also increases the secretion of dopamine, which stimulates positive thoughts and reduces anxiety.”
Limit time on social media
As tempting as it is to sit and scroll through Instagram, time spent on social media is thought to be responsible for increases in the likelihood of depression and anxiety, says Risa J. Stein, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Rockhurst University, in Kansas City, Missouri. “Studies suggest that simply having one’s cell phone in the proximity increases blood pressure and decreases concentration and attention to tasks and other people,” she explains. “The algorithms and reinforcement paradigms employed by many social media sites, alter brain chemistry in a way that makes their use addictive.”
Add appreciation to your to-do list, and you just might see an improvement in your mood. As Dr. Cobb explains, when we chose to pay attention to the positive parts of our life, our mental wellness increases over time. “Cultivating thankfulness on a daily basis literally rewires the brain to be more sensitive to noticing the good in life, which boosts happiness levels overall,” she adds.