Since the height of the pandemic, there has been a cultural shift in how we talk about mental health. It’s as if the years of isolation and uncertainty have helped us understand how essential our emotional needs are to our overall well-being.
Now that we are paying more attention to our inner life, 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 method 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 shown that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I., is as effective as using short-term sleeping pills – and more effective long-term. CBT-I. Helps people manage sleep-related anxieties and find ways to relax. To find a supplier, try Behavioral Sleep Medicine Society phone book.
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 an internal alarm system can improve our performance, help us recognize danger and even encourage us to be more aware. So we asked Dr. Petros Levounis, president of the American Psychiatric Association: How excessive is anxiety?
“If you start to notice that worry and fear are constant, that’s a sign that you need help,” he said.
Other signs to watch for include restlessness, a feeling of fear or doom, increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, and difficulty concentrating.
3. Stop the worry cycle.
If you tend to ruminate, there are some simple ways to curb the habit. The first is to distract yourself: Research shows that distractions can help you forget 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 spiral out of control. Set a timer for 10 to 30 minutes of dedicated rumination time and give yourself permission to mentally think about things. When the timer goes off, it’s time to move on.
4. Practice “5 Things to Tidy Up.”
When you have mental health issues, basic tasks like washing the dishes or doing the laundry can seem impossible. But living in disorder can make you feel worse. KC Davis, licensed professional counselor and author of the book “How to Keep a House While Drowning,” advises focusing on functionality rather than aesthetics: Your home doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be habitable.
One effective way to keep things from getting out of hand is to practice what she calls “five things to put away.” Tackle the five main categories of clutter – trash, dishes, laundry, things with a place and things without a place – one at a time to make cleaning more manageable.
5. Embrace 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 rewards of gratitude, experts say, it’s important to express it as much as possible. This might include writing thank you letters or listing the positive things in your life in a journal. Thanking your friends, romantic partners, and even work colleagues can also strengthen 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 take a more positive view of aging, focus on the benefits of aging, such as better emotional well-being and higher emotional intelligence. Also look for aging role models: older people who remain physically active and engaged in their community, or those who have characteristics you admire.
7. Participate in the arts.
The idea that art can improve mental well-being is something that many people understand intuitively but don’t necessarily put into practice.
You don’t need talent to try it, experts say. Writing a poem, singing, or drawing can all help improve your mood, no matter how creative you are. One of the easiest ways to start is to color something complex: spending 20 minutes coloring a mandala (a complex geometric design) is more helpful in reducing anxiety than free-form coloring for the same amount of time , according to research.
8. Seek a little respect every day.
Sometimes we need to remember to connect with the physical world around us. Enter the stunning promenade.
Choose a place to walk (new or familiar) and imagine that you are seeing it for the first time. So pay attention to your senses. Feel the wind on your face, touch the petals of a flower. Just notice the sky. It may be more restorative than you think.
9. Take a technology break.
If you’re having trouble concentrating, it’s not just you. Research has shown that over the past two decades, the time we spend on any given task has fallen to just 47 seconds on average, compared to two and a half minutes previously. Technology is often to blame.
To regain control of your focus, Larry Rosen, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, suggested a strategy he calls “technology breaks.” Set a timer for 15 minutes, then go silent and put your phone aside. Once the time is up, take a minute or two to check your favorite apps (this is 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, up to 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 to take slow, deep breaths. This helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system – the counterbalance to the “fight or flight” stress response – and lower your blood pressure and regulate your heart rate.
One breathing exercise that can be particularly helpful in alleviating fear and anxiety is 4-4-8 breathing, where you inhale for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, and exhale for eight counts.