The World Health Organization defines health as more than the absence of disease, it is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Physical, mental, and social health requires strength building, flexibility training, and maintenance.
Training for a half-marathon a decade ago will not produce long-term physical health benefits if all physical activity has stopped since training. Additionally, going on a big trip with friends a few years back will not lead to complete social well-being if you haven't reached out to your friends since.
So why do we expect that working on our mental health intensely one time or for a few months in therapy will keep us mentally strong and flexible forever? It is the little things done daily that can strengthen and improve your mental health.
Here are 7 everyday things you can do to improve your mental health today. Try one every day this week!
1. Have a Glass Half-Full
Seeing the glass half-full has plenty of benefits. For instance, optimism has been linked to a decrease in the development of heart disease in men and it promotes happiness for everyone. However, it's not just seeing the glass half-full that's helpful, having a glass (or 16) half-full is also extra juicy for the body and mental health.
Babies are born about 75% water and we lose more and more water as we grow older. Dehydration has significant negative effects on heart health and concentration levels. Drinking more water is key for healthy body functioning including decreasing headaches and migraines and improving overall mood.
Practice tip: To avoid having to get up and pee all night, practice drinking water early in the day and throughout the afternoon. Have a glass of room temperature water ready in a sealed mason jar to drink after waking up. If you hate the taste of water, try flavoring it with raspberries, lemons, or mint.
2. Create a Sleep Routine
The amount of sleep required for a person is very individualistic and can take some practice to find the optimal hours of zzzs. But while the exact time might be up in the air, having a regular sleep schedule and routine are proven ways to help maximize the time spent in bed.
Sleep strengthens and supports the immune system, boosts cognitive functions, improves memory formation and connection, balances hormones, and helps the body look and feel its best. Impaired sleep quality has been linked to irritability, decreased attention span, fatigue, headaches, slowed metabolism, increased blood pressure, and depression.
Practice tip: Try to wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends and regardless of what time you go to sleep. If you want to practice yoga in the morning, it is recommended to wake up before the sun (~1-2 hours before sunrise) to practice, especially beneficial at that time is to flow through Surya Namaskar (sun salutations).
3. Take It One Step at a Time
While it is beneficial to take each moment as it comes, it's still important to make time to exercise to improve mental health. If possible, try to connect the feet to the earth to connect to nature when walking outside or sitting in the grass.
Researchers found that a 90-minute walk in nature decreased brain activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex which is active when ruminating over negative thoughts. While 90-minutes a day in nature may be impossible, researchers have also found that five minutes a day in a green space can boost self-esteem. This is probably why gardening is also extra beneficial for improved mental health.
Practice tip: Buy some greens for your place and put them around your yoga mat. Extra points for mantra practice breathing in the fresh oxygen from your plants and exhaling out helpful carbon dioxide for them!
4. Practice a Digital Detox
With research findings that 1) social media can promote narcissism, 2) smartphones cause insomnia, and 3) college students are significantly less empathic in the presence of digital communication, what keeps us connected to technology?
Some theorize that the phone is the adult teddy bear, it seems to momentarily decrease our anxiety and give us something special to carry around in the big bad world. The practice of a digital detox paired with mindfulness practice helps improve memory, improve posture, and promote more efficient sleep.
Practice tip: Pair a digital detox with a new adventure, join a meditation club or yoga workshop to help shut off technology and learn new grounding techniques while building community.
5. Respect Your Gut
Modern culture often focuses on sucking in and shaming the belly, but it is the home of an amazing community of microorganisms called gut flora (also, letting your gut relax helps with breathing).
Yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, and picked veggies are examples of fermented foods with active cultures and probiotics (healthy bacteria) that reduce anxiety, balance hormones, lower stress levels, and positively impact the neurotransmitter GABA which slows brain activity and relieves depression and other mental disorders.
Probiotics are also good for the development and function of the immune system, promote a healthy body weight, and are important for improved mental health.
Practice Tip: Start your morning right with a three-part parfait: layer yogurt between your favorite granola and in season fruit. This is the perfect post-yoga breakfast or general kick start to a healthy day.
6. Practice the Art of Ownership
Take responsibility and ownership for what you can, and realize that some things are out of your control. In your control are your opinions, aspirations, values, morals, and actions. NOT in your control is how others act, think, or behave, as well as the family and body type you were born with.
It doesn't take any money to take ownership of your life, but it does take a great deal of courage and hard work. The art of ownership also includes that challenge of avoiding other people’s gossip and drama and focusing on your own life. It's both powerful and challenging to realize that you can take ownership of your mental health, and that it is something you can work on today.
Practice tip: Write a list of ten things you can control and take ownership of, that way you have something to help remember your strengths when life feels out of control.
7. Consider Talking to a Professional
Therapy can be a life-changing experience where layers of unconscious conditioning and inherent wisdom can be unearthed to support your growth and change.
Therapy comes in many different shapes and sizes; sometimes people see a therapist individually, with a partner, or even with their whole family. It can be brief or long-term, and some therapy styles may focus more on solutions while others may focus more on being comfortable with the present.
Not every therapist is for every person and some therapists might work for your friend but not for you. Just because it does not feel right with one therapist doesn't mean you are the problem—it might just mean that relationally, it's not the right match...just like how you find it easier to work with some people compared to others.
Practice tip: If you've never been to therapy before, try to meet with a few therapists either with a brief phone call or one-on-one and let them know you are new to therapy and trying to meet people to figure out what works best for you. Be open to talking to your therapist about any goals or fears for therapy itself. It can be scary to try something new, but it is overall rewarding!
Change is hard even when there is motivation and desire to change. The more set in a habit, pattern, or way of thinking, the harder it is to change. This is not the journey of instant gratification, this is the journey of accepting that lasting and worthwhile change takes time, discipline, and trust in the process.
While the goal will be to try these things every day for improved mental health, it is human nature to slip up and take steps back—that is when it's most important to realize this is a process. And just because you can do these things every day doesn't mean they will always get done every day, just do what you can and give yourself credit for your hard work.
Image credit: Stephanie Birch