By Kimberly Zapata
Whether you struggle with a physical illness, a mental illness, act as a caregiver, or simply have a hard time handling the many day-to-day pressures we all face, one thing is clear: most Americans neglect their mental health. Of course, it is no wonder why. We live in a society which reveres those who are “strong” and “independent,” and which looks down on those who ask for help. We live in a country where mental health care is costly — so costly many Americans cannot afford to seek treatment and therapy. And we live in an on-demand world, a world in which we are constantly “connected” but have never been more disconnected from ourselves and our own minds. And while you may try to exercise, eat right, spend time with friends and even go to therapy, when deadlines rear their ugly head or family matters require our attention, our priorities shift to the immediate and, more times than not, this means our psychological and emotional needs fall to the wayside.
The good news is that there are several things you can do to improve your mental health, most of which are free. Some take just five minutes of your time. And while I understand that — for some — five minutes may seem like a lot, trust me: it is time well spent because investing in your own well-being won’t just make you a better person, it can actually improve the mental health of those around you.
1. Start Your Day Your Way
This may seem so obvious, and so easy, but as a mother — the mother of a toddler who often wakes me well before dawn — there is a lot to be said for starting your day YOUR way. So how can you wrestle control back from your alarm clock (or your child) and make the most of your waking moments? Easy. Schedule a few minutes of “me time” every morning. You can take a cool bath, a warm shower, meditate, go running, or simply sip on a cup of coffee. It isn’t what you do, it is that you do something which grounds you, gives you time to breathe, and allows you to be present.
2. Take Care Of Your Body
Taking care of yourself physically can improve your mental health. This means eating right and working out, avoiding alcohol and cigarettes, and attempting to get enough sleep
3. Honor Yourself, Your Feelings, Your Thoughts, And Your Mind
Of all of the concepts on this list, this may be the hardest concept to grasp. Why? Because, as children, we are taught to calm down. Suck it up. Brush it off. And stop crying. We are taught to swallow our feelings and smile. Unfortunately, in doing this our feelings get stifled and buried; not only do we neglect our emotional needs, we ignore them; and we actually discredit those feelings.
I should be thankful. I should be happy. Why am I not happy?
Instead of fighting against ourselves and struggling to feel what we think we “should” feel, I propose we honor our thoughts, our feelings, and ourselves: even if those feelings are ones of jealousy, anger, moroseness, or rage.
4. Treat Yourself
Go to the movies, plan a road-trip, take a long walk — along the beach, on a nature trail, or through a local park — or head out to dinner. Again, the point isn’t what you do but that you do something special to change things up and alter an otherwise monotonous and tedious schedule.
5. Turn Off The Phone And Tune Out Of “Life”
I know, I know: to many, the idea of turning off the phone sounds torturous — not to mention entirely impractical — but the truth is that while we have never been more connected, we have also never been more alone. Sure, we have access to all of our “friends” at the push of a button, but with 24/7 connectivity comes 24/7 fears: this on-demand society has made us more anxious and self-conscious than ever. (Not to mention overburdened and overworked.)
Consider picking a time of day — every day — when you can turn your smart phone off; disconnect from constant emails, alerts, and other interruptions; and spend time doing something fun with someone face-to-face.
6. Write, Write, Write
Did you know that writing about upsetting experiences can actually reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety? It’s true; according to Laurie Nadel, author of Zen and the Art of Windsurfing, “journaling allows you to dialogue with parts of your psyche that are frozen in time. It allows you to tap into deeper reserves of creativity and problem-solving. By keeping a journal, you can get a flash of knowing and awareness that you haven’t seen before.” The good news is that this strategy can be applied to any stressful situation, not just one related to a mental health condition. So when you find yourself lost, angry, upset, or downtrodden, just write. (Seriously, I’ve written in journals, on my computer, in iPhone “notes,” and on half-used napkins and scraps of receipt paper.)
7. Play With Pets
I know it may seem silly to suggest walking a dog or petting a cat, but spending time with animals lowers your stress levels and boosts the release of oxytocin, which stimulates feelings of happiness. Don’t have a pet? No problem. Hang out with a friend who does have one, or volunteer at a shelter.
Added bonus: playing with pets — especially dogs — will get you moving and outside, both of which have positive effects on your mental health.
8. Don’t “Fake It Until You Make It”
This mantra can be a good thing when it comes to your job or social status, but when it comes to your mental health, “faking it” may actually mask your pain and do more damage than good. So instead of slapping on a smile, acknowledge where you are and what you feel today — in this moment, even if it isn’t “great.” Even if you aren’t “good.” And then….
9. Ask For Help
It is important to remember that, while we can do a lot to improve our own mental health, sometimes we need “more.” Sometimes we need help. Seeking help is not a sign of failure or weakness; in fact, knowing what you need AND not being afraid to ask for what you need is one of the strongest things you can do. Whether you turn to supportive family members, friends, a therapist or support group, focusing on you and your mental health needs IS what matters.
A version of this post originally appeared on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.