Since the height of the pandemic, there has been a cultural shift in the way we talk about mental health. It’s as if years of isolation and uncertainty have helped us understand how vital our emotional needs were to our overall well-being.
Now that we pay more attention to our inner lives, it is also essential that we take action. Fortunately, there are a number of things everyone can do to nourish their mental health and find moments of joy.
Here are some of our favorite tips from the past year as we prepare to enter 2024.
1. Try a proven way to sleep better.
Experts say getting enough sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our mental health. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, studies have found that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, is as effective as using sleep medications in the short term, and more effective in the long term. CBT-I. helps people address anxiety about sleep and find ways to relax. To find a provider, try the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Society directory.
2. Learn to know if your anxiety is protective or problematic.
It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time. In fact, having some anxiety can be helpful. Experts say that an internal alarm system can improve our performance, help us recognize danger and even encourage us to be more conscientious. So we asked Dr. Petros Levounis, president of the American Psychiatric Association: How much anxiety is too much?
“If you start to notice that worry and fear are constantly present, it’s a sign that you need help,” she said.
Other signs to watch for include restlessness, feelings of fear or doom, increased heart rate, sweating, tremors, and difficulty concentrating.
3. Stop the worry cycle.
If you have a tendency to ruminate, there are some easy ways to curb the habit. The first is to distract yourself: Research shows that distractions can help you take your mind off what’s stressing you out. Try playing a word game or listening to music, paying close attention to the lyrics.
Other times, it’s best not to fight the urge, but that doesn’t mean you should let your thoughts get out of control. Set a timer for 10 to 30 minutes of time spent ruminating and allow yourself to mentally reflect on things. When the timer goes off, it’s time to move on.
4. Practice ‘5 things of order’.
When you’re struggling with your mental health, basic tasks like washing dishes or doing laundry can seem impossible. But living in the midst of chaos can make you feel even worse. KC Davis, licensed professional counselor and author of “How to Keep Your House While You’re Drowning,” advises focusing on function rather than aesthetics: Your house doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be livable.
An effective way to keep things from getting out of control is to practice what she calls “five things to tidy up.” She tackles the five main categories of clutter (garbage, dishes, dirty clothes, things with a place, and things without a place) one at a time to make cleaning more manageable.
5. Accept gratitude.
Gratitude is a positive emotion that can arise when you recognize that you have goodness in your life and that other people (or higher powers, if you believe in them) have helped you achieve that goodness.
To truly reap the benefits of gratitude, experts say, it’s important to express it whenever possible. That might include writing thank you letters or listing the positive things in your life in a journal. Thanking friends, romantic partners, and even coworkers can also boost your relationship.
6. Be optimistic about aging.
Research shows that mindset really matters when it comes to health and can even prolong life. A classic study found that people who were optimistic about aging lived seven and a half years longer than those who had negative perceptions about it.
To adopt a more positive perspective on aging, shift your focus to the benefits of aging, such as better emotional well-being and greater emotional intelligence. Also look for aging role models: older people who stay physically active and engaged in their communities, or those with traits you admire.
7. Participate in the arts.
The notion that art can improve mental well-being is something that many people intuitively understand but don’t necessarily put into practice.
It doesn’t take talent to try, experts say. Writing a poem, singing, or drawing can help improve your mood, no matter how creative you consider yourself. One of the easiest ways to get started is to color something complex: Spending 20 minutes coloring a mandala (a complex geometric design) is more helpful for reducing anxiety than free-form coloring for the same period of time, according to research.
8. Seek a little wonder every day.
Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to connect with the physical world around us. Enter the awe walk.
Choose a place to walk (whether new or familiar) and imagine seeing it for the first time. Then pay attention to your senses. Feel the wind on your face, touch the petals of a flower. Just look at the sky. It can be more restorative than you might expect.
9. Take a tech break.
If you have trouble concentrating, it’s not just you. Research has found that over the past two decades, the amount of time we spend on a given task has dropped to an average of just 47 seconds, compared to two and a half minutes. Technology is usually the culprit.
To regain control of concentration, Larry Rosen, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, suggested a strategy he calls “tech breaks.” Set a timer for 15 minutes, then silence and put your phone aside. When the time is up, take a minute or two to check out your favorite apps (that’s your tech break) and get back to work for another 15-minute cycle. The goal is to gradually increase the time between your tech breaks, until you reach 45 minutes (or more) away from your phone.
10. Breathe deeply.
One of the quickest and easiest ways to calm your mind and body is by breathing slowly and deeply. Doing so helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the counterbalance to the “fight or flight” stress response), lower blood pressure, and regulate heart rate.
One breathing exercise that can be particularly helpful in alleviating fear and anxiety is 4-4-8 breathing, in which you inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, and exhale for a count of eight.