Only you truly know the unique triumphs and travails of living in your own head. If you experience ongoing depression, anxiety or other symptoms, “Seeking professional help as early as possible, rather than waiting, can be critical,” says Dr. Robert Klitzman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City. However, you needn’t be diagnosed with a mental health condition to benefit from taking steps to improve your psychological well-being. Here are some ways you can get a mental edge. The payoff could include everything from a happier, healthier, longer life to better relationships.
You might not want to sit down for this. “Physical exercise is very important in preventing or reducing mental health problems,” Klitzman says, which include depression. “When we exercise, our body releases endorphins – natural opiates that improve our mood and make us feel good. Exercise can also help cognitive functioning – how well we think.”
Watch your weight
Being sedentary, by contrast, can prove a double whammy, since we don’t get the mental jolt from exercise – and we’re more likely to pack on pounds. Putting on extra weight, research shows, can weigh down our mental health, too. Obesity and diabetes increase the risk for depression, says psychiatrist Dr. Mahendra Bhati, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Be careful what you consume
Your diet – whether predominantly plant-based with healthy greens, nuts and other lean proteins (good), or laden with saturated fat, processed foods and sugars (not so good) – can impact mood and anxiety levels. So, too, can other things we put in our body to get by in the moment, from tobacco and alcohol to recreational drugs. Better to avoid the feel-good momentary fixes, Klitzman says, and spare yourself the crash later
Stay in the moment
We all sometimes seek to avoid uncomfortable situations, either by physically removing ourselves or checking out mentally. “That’s normal … it’s just that when you do that very chronically and habitually, it could develop into significant problems with anxiety and depression,” says psychologist Brandon Gaudiano, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Experts recommend practicing mindfulness instead to help deal with difficult circumstances and emotions. “It’s paying attention to the present moment and what your experience is,” says Gaudiano, noting that approaches vary. “Bringing awareness, acceptance, self-compassion, curiosity and just noticing non-judgmentally those internal experiences as they’re arising.”
Meditate about the ones you love
Want to get even more from that wonderful vacation or visit with family? Focus your mind on it. In researching different forms of meditation, Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, has found that so-called kindness meditation or loving-kindness meditation can improve a person’s emotional well-being and reduce symptoms of depression; she adds that other researchers have found it eases anxiety. “It’s a very simple meditation based on … sending well-wishes to yourself or others,” Fredrickson says, describing it as somewhat similar to mindfulness meditation.
Keep a journal
Just as mindfulness can help a person recognize and cope with difficult thoughts and emotions in the moment, experts say it’s important to have outlets to process complex experiences. Journaling, or expressive writing, allows a person to put negative thoughts, feelings, aspirations and anything else that might be going through their mind to paper – and, Gaudiano says, to get some mental distance from those experiences. “It has been [shown to be] very helpful in some of the research I’ve done as well for [addressing] anxiety and depression,” he says.
Stay socially connected
Social support plays a vital role in helping optimize our overall mental well-being, Klitzman says. He recommends “surrounding ourselves with supportive people – loving friends and family – and avoiding, if we can, ‘difficult’ people who may bring us down.” By contrast, a lack of social connectivity can put us at risk for health problems that affect body and mind and contribute to premature death. “Lack of socialization is … the leading cause of geriatric depression,” Bhati says.
Prioritize – and schedule – positivity
Pay bills, do work, spin wheels. Check, check, check. Lunch with a friend? Not on the list. “Basically when people make their ‘to-do’ list, they are often thinking of achievement, as opposed to scheduling something in their day that they know is a boost to their positive emotions and their mood,” Fredrickson says. But her own research finds those who prioritize positivity, such as allotting time to visit loved ones or engage in a beloved hobby, tend to be mentally healthier.
Assess your stress
Avoiding high levels of stress and finding ways to cope can make a big difference. “Many times, we can actively avoid difficult, stressful situations,” Klitzman says, When we can’t, “framing our experiences positively, and trying not to worry (especially about things you can’t change) can also be beneficial – focusing on the positive, not stewing about the bad things that may occur.” Under such circumstances, he adds: “Mindfulness – relaxation or meditation – can also help.”
Sleep on it.
Whether you’re wrestling with serious mental anguish or just smelling the roses, it’s important to get ample rest and practice proper sleep hygiene – room-darkening blinds in the bedroom, TV out. “Poor sleep wreaks havoc on the brain and circadian rhythms, [and it can] alter brain function and gene expression,” Bhati says. In short, whether you’re predisposed to mental health issues or not, skimping on shut-eye can awaken psychological problems that make it even harder to function during the day
Just as making time to visit with friends can change the complexion of a day, mental health experts say doing something meaningful and finding purpose can ground a person in psychologically beneficial ways. “Engaging in activities that give us meaning in our lives can further aid us,” says Klitzman, in terms of improving mental health. That might include volunteering to help others, engaging in hobbies as well as doing other things we enjoy, he adds. Bhati echoes that doing things with a sense of purpose or meaning is a proven way to improve mental health.
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