We’re fans of the big things you can do to boost your mental health—therapy, deep breathing, delegating calling the cable company to someone else. But there are plenty of little moves that can help improve your mental health as well. Any of these 20 little moves could have a big impact on your well-being and help relieve anxiety, keep you connected, release frustration and improve your resilience.
1. Notice 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Anxiety is about the future (will I hit this deadline?) and the past (did I screw up that ask?). To anchor yourself to the present, former monk Jay Shetty, author of Think Like a Monk, recommends running through five simple numbers when your mind starts racing:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
2. Astound yourself
Research has found that when you experience something awe inducing, your own problems may seem less important. These Instagram accounts hit that. Check out:
@babaktafreshi, a National Geographic photographer who captures the patterns and drama of the night sky.
@chrisburkard, an outdoor photographer who’s always somewhere you wish you were, surrounded by nature’s power.
3. Troubleshoot pre-trouble
It’s not worrying; it’s strategizing. If you prepare for difficulties and preemptively think through how you’ll handle them, problems are less likely to throw you off, explains Emily Balcetis, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at New York University. Athletes do this—they train for how they’ll recoup if they fumble a ball or drive a golf ball into the rough.
4. Use the 10-10-10 Rule
When you’re in an anxiety whirlpool about a decision you need to make, Suzy Welch, author of the book 10-10-10, recommends that you ask yourself what the consequences of your decision will be in: →
- 10 minutes
- 10 months
- 10 years
This can keep your right-now emotions from ruling your decision, and can clarify your priorities—which lets you make a decision and move on—which definitely boosts your mental health.
5. Turn off the news already
Even just an hour of news could have a negative effect on your mood and mental health. In one study from the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, when college students watched the news for only 15 minutes, it heightened anxiety and mood disturbance unless immediately followed by a short relaxation exercise.
6. Step out
A 90-minute walk in nature, if you’re a city dweller, has been shown to reduce rumination or repetitive negative thoughts, which are linked to depression. To help your mental health, find a trail on AllTrails, which has maps of nearly 65,000 trails in the U. S. Get a Pro membership and you can download the map in case you lose service.
7. Check your mental playlist
“What are the top five feelings on your emotional playlist?” asks Oren Jay Sofer, a meditation teacher who appears on the Ten Percent Happier app. Are you frustrated, angry, judgmental? Acknowledging what you’re feeling and how strong that feeling is can help you see it for what it is. And that can help you get less caught up in your emotions and manage them with more ease.
8. Hear people out, even when it’s hard
When you’re dealing with someone difficult, tell them, “I hear you,” says Bill Eddy, L.C.S.W., cofounder of High Conflict Institute. You don’t have to say they’re right, but you should sincerely acknowledge their frustration even if that’s the opposite of what you want to do. Showing that you’re listening can calm people down, which helps you feel less stressed.
9. Be less routine
A little change to your daily habits may lead to a happier life, suggests a study in Nature Neuroscience. Novelty drives dopamine release, which boosts your mental health by making you feel good. Go small: Try reversing your workout (start with cardio!) or take a spin around the block before you sit down to work. Want to change up your cardio routine? Start here.
10. Spend some QT with, uh, yourself
DIY sex doesn’t have the connection of the real thing, but an orgasm still gives you a rush of dopamine, says Ashley Ertel, L.C.S.W., a therapist for Talkspace. You probably knew this. But it can’t hurt to point it out.
11. Get your game on
Behavior coach Mari Verano, L.F.M.T., recommends a game called Hunt a Killer to help build communication and camaraderie. In this subscription-based game, you and your friends trace clues that lead to the killer.
12. Listen to something different
“Listening to the voices of people from other races provides [you] with an important opportunity to better understand their experience,” says Babita Spinelli, L.P., a psychotherapist in the New York City area. That elicits greater sensitivity and empathy, which helps you move to a more shared experience, understanding others and yourself in a new way. These podcasts are great places to start:
- United States of Anxiety: Links current events and history about social, racial, and economic injustice in a way that makes you see all of it more clearly.
- Black Boys and Men: changing the narrative: Explores heavy topics like the school-to-prison pipeline.
- The Latinx Mental Health Podcast: Interviews therapists, researchers, artists, and activists about mental health and the Latinx experience.
- On Being Project: This interview show ties philosophy, spirituality, and practicality together in a curious and nonpartisan way.
13. Give a little (or a lot)
It’s well documented that doing good things for others can make you feel good. “It can alleviate anxiety, depression, and pain,” says Leela Magavi, M.D., of Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California. But so can donating to an organization such as:
The Confess Project, which helps boys and men of color and their families connect with mental-health resources via barbershops.
The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which aims to increase mental-health support in urban schools and provide scholarships for Black college students seeking a career in mental health. It also provides free mental-health services to Black men around the issue of COVID-19.
14. & 15. Discover what makes well-being work, and then work it
Log in to the online-learning treasure trove Coursera, for the Science of Well-Being class, offered by Yale (which made it free at the start of the pandemic). Taught by psychologist Laurie Santos, Ph.D., it’s the most popular class in the university’s 300-year history. One highlight: identifying and building on your character strengths via a test at viasurvey.org. It ranks all 24, and Santos recommends looking at your top ten and choosing one, such as kindness or curiosity. Each day for the following week, try to use this strength in a new way.
16. Lowball your sleep (for a while)
If you’re having a hard time getting shut-eye, reset your system by cutting your sleep window to between 5.5 and 7 hours a night, suggests Annie Miller, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in the Washington, D. C., area. This helps get your sleep drive working again. When you start falling asleep more easily, gradually increase time in bed. (But if it’s bedtime and you’re not tired, don’t try to sleep.)
17. Get dreamy
If you can’t get back to sleep in the middle of the night, try to remember a dream, says Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. We’re programmed for wakefulness—the state of awareness during the day. Recalling a dream helps you let go of this daytime consciousness. “The memory of a dream will take you into dream consciousness, and then you’re on the bridge to sleep,” he says.
18. Tap the power of peaches
Read Eat a Peach, the new autobiography in which celebrity chef David Chang boldly and wisely discusses how his bipolar disorder impacted his life and his business—and how he still struggles.
19. Get meta and eat a peach while reading Eat a Peach
The IRL peach may help your mood as you read about Chang’s—a 2020 Nutrients review of studies found that eating more fruits and vegetables (at least five servings a day) may protect against depressive symptoms and boost optimism.
20. Tell someone how you really are
Designer Kenneth Cole is betting it’s been a while since you told someone how you really are, which is why he and a coalition of mental-health organizations launched HowAreYouReally.org, an initiative to get people talking about mental health. There, you can watch testimonials from frontline workers, celebrities, and many others discussing mental health, and add your own story.
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