The term mental health includes our emotional, cognitive and social well-being. It’s how we feel, what we think and how we behave — therefore not just controlling our present life, but also our future. For instance, if you think everyone’s out to get you, you’ll behave in a way that reflects that.
“Our mental health can have a significant impact on all areas of our lives and how we handle daily stresses,” says Bethany Howsley, a psychologist at digital mental health company Lysn. “It can also impact upon our decision making and how we show up in our relationships.”
Improving our mental health then can have a positive impact on almost all areas of your life. You’ll be better able to enjoy your life, work and relationships. It can also improve your self-esteem, physical health, as well as your ability to cope with difficult times in both personal and professional lives.
So, what are some practical things we can do to improve our mental health? Ahead, Howsley shares five of them.
Acknowledge Something You’re Grateful for Every Day
Research has shown that gratitude is strongly associated with greater experienced happiness, allowing us to feel positive emotions as well as relish and savour positive experiences.
“Practicing gratitude can help us build a better mindset whereby we can acknowledge the goodness in our lives, experience more positive emotions and remain optimistic about life,” says Howsley. “Refocusing our attention to positive thoughts, sometimes referred to as affirmations, is a popular technique that is sometimes used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.”
Howsley explains that this focuses on replacing existing thoughts that may be untrue and/or detrimental to mental health, with thoughts that positively affirm one’s self-worth and their values. A more grateful state of mind can help us to achieve a greater sense of happiness, health and more resilience in the face of adversity.
Continually Bring Yourself Back to the Present
“Often our brains can be so distracted, thinking about the past or the future that we can completely miss the beauty of the present moment and what exists right in front of us that we are taking for granted,” says Howsley.
“Try to create regular opportunities to focus on the here and now, rather than thinking about what has happened or what might or might not happen. The more often you practice something, the quicker it will become a habit, so just keep going until you can master what works best for you.”
Engaging in mindfulness allows us to practice being ‘present’ in our lives and helps us to celebrate moment-to-moment experiences, says Howsley. This is linked to gratitude as well, where we are able to appreciate what already exists in our lives, rather than always feeling like we need to work for more, do more, and be more.
Move Your Body Every Day
Howsley notes that there’s a large body of research showing that exercise improves both our physical and mental health, including anxiety and depression and that people who exercise are also less likely to develop particular mental health diagnoses, such as anxiety.
“The reason for this is because exercise increases some of the brain proteins that help us know that we are safe and can fully relax within ourselves and in our environment,” she says. “Just 30 minutes of exercise can help us to release feel-good endorphins and dopamine which will, in turn, improve our mood, and can also improve the quality of our sleep.”
The important thing is to exercise in a way that can be maintained over time. The best goal is one that gets you moving — so be specific, realistic and most importantly make the goal achievable, she says.
Do Something for Someone Else
“While it can seem almost counter-intuitive to do something for someone else when you yourself are struggling, doing things for other people can actually help shift your mood,” Howsley says. “Serving others can help to create a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation, whilst also strengthening our social connections.”
There are so many ways we can be of service to others — whether that be offering to mentor a junior colleague, donating to a charity that is close to your heart, helping another mum with school drop off, or volunteering.
Make Sure You Get Enough Sleep
And finally, sleep is arguably one of the most important ingredients for our psychological wellbeing. It is usually not until we have problems with sleep that we begin paying attention to its impact on our lives.
“Adequate sleep is required for good physical health, repairing injuries and illness, restoring energy, work performance, concentration and memory, emotional well-being and getting along with others,” Howsley says. “Difficulties with sleep can render a person more prone to mood swings, to experience difficulties with concentration, memory and attention, impair their decision-making skills and impact creativity levels.”
Research suggests most adults require between 6-8 hours of sleep per night. People can generally sense how much sleep they require to feel well-rested for the next day so it’s helpful to understand your individual needs and create the space for enough sleep each night.