Sunday Scaries

Here Are 5 Low-Lift Ways to Boost Mental Health

The more we commit to daily habits for small actions, the more likely we are to see the payoffs.

Lais Borges/Inverse; Getty

If you found the last three years exhausting to the point of feeling emotionally tapped out, you are not alone. Millions of people had mental health issues before Covid-19 arrived on the world stage in 2020, but the pandemic exacerbated these problems and brought new mental health challenges to the fore for many more. But there is a silver lining: The stigma around talking about one’s mental health is lessening. And people are increasingly asking for support.

More often than not, people know what will help their mental health, but struggle with how to do it, Fallon Goodman, an assistant professor of psychology at George Washington University, explains to Inverse.

For some, traditional mental health services like therapy and support groups are helpful. But there are other lower-lift, overlooked, and accessible actions you can take that can boost your well-being now, enabling you to take that first step along your mental health journey or support yourself through more specialized treatment.

This is where habit-building comes into play, Goodman says. The more we commit to daily habits built around small actions, the more likely we are to see the payoffs, she says.

“You can’t exactly buy happiness, but you can build it,” says Goodman.

Five simple things to try that can improve mental health

Small moments of mindfulness can have a large effect.

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5. Try journaling

“If you find yourself overthinking, it’s likely that you’re putting more mental effort into solving a problem than you need to,” says Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist.

“Whether it’s ruminating over past setbacks, worrying about a future threat, or trying to remember all that you need to do — if you’re spending more than a few minutes doing mental work like this, there’s a good chance it’s unproductive,” he explains.

Instead, it’s more helpful to take your thoughts and express them in writing, which studies show can help people manage their worries.

Minden explains that expressive writing can help you clarify thoughts, identify potential solutions, or come to terms with things you can’t change.

He says a good way to start is by identifying a goal, like an upcoming challenge or internal conflict you want to solve. Then list “all the thoughts you’ve been kicking around in your mind.” Consider what you want to accomplish — and write until you’ve run out of concerns and plans to solve them. Don’t be afraid of revisiting these thoughts if you find yourself wrapped up in them again — you can always write some more.

“This strategy of replacing overthinking with writing is a nice way of setting a personal boundary on the time and energy you devote to mental work,” Minden says. “This can be particularly helpful if mental noise makes it hard for you to focus on other tasks.”

4. Try mindfulness

At this point, you’ve probably heard of mindfulness — but have you actually tried it?

Mindfulness is awareness of how you feel and what you’re sensing in the present moment. In a way, it’s an effort to pause and retrain the mind to accept your thoughts without critique. It’s a time to consider the now rather than the past or future.

For just one to five minutes a day, you can practice brief mindfulness, explains Karthik Gunnia, a clinical psychologist and professor at New York University. You can try this out in the small, quiet moments of your day — taking a shower, listening to a song, or drinking a cup of coffee.

“When the mind wanders, practice bringing it back to the present without judgment,” Gunnia says.

3. Try sticking to a schedule

Another simple way to set yourself up for mental health success is to pick and stick to a schedule for eating and sleeping, explains Melanie Badali, a psychologist. Essentially, this boils down to being consistent about the time you wake up. Further, it can be helpful to have healthy meals at the same time every day.

Sleep routines are especially helpful, Badali adds.

“The reason why it is helpful to have a routine is that we all have an internal clock,” she explains. “If cues for that clock are regular, sleep will be better — and we know that good sleep has a host of benefits for mental health.”

Badali says that once you’ve figured out and committed to your schedule, you can get mental health bonus points for making the time for regular exercise, time outside, and socializing.

2. Try gratitude

When you experience gratitude, you count your blessings. Studies have found a link between feeling grateful and a host of benefits, including a greater chance of engaging in healthy behaviors, less anxiety, and better emotional stability. Gratitude also motivates people to engage in behaviors linked to self-improvement.

A good way to practice gratitude is to write down three things you’re grateful for, Gunnia says. These can be big but it’s also just as helpful to consider the small things you appreciate. Consider how nice it feels to sit in the sun, the smell of cookies, or a movie you like. These are moments to be grateful for too.

1. Try small steps

If you tend to be self-critical, it can be easy to get stuck in an internal debate, Minden says. But instead of arguing with yourself over stresses and worries, remember that behavior drives cognition. The best way to move forward is by taking a plunge.

For example, let’s say you have a mental hurdle over paying your bills. The task feels daunting, and you feel like you don’t have your act together enough to do it. Instead of thinking about the chore as a whole, try dedicating just 15 minutes to it. That small start can break down some serious mental barriers.

“With that small shift in your behavior, you might find that your original thought doesn’t seem so believable — that you have more confidence in your ability to do something that’s difficult but important and a new motivation to prioritize this change for the future,” Minden says.

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