Updated: Dec 10, 2021
Mental health is an essential part of life that often gets overlooked. It can be hard to identify what mental health means or how to improve it, but with this article you will have some basic information on the subject and what you can do to be more mentally and emotionally healthy.
It's true that as a society we are making strides to better accept, and treat, our mental health needs just like any other physical health need we may have. We are also reducing the stigma associated with mental health needs. As we watch those around us: friends, family, co-workers, and others, we all know multiple people or are dealing with or suffer from the effects of depression, anxiety, addictive behaviors, and more. With suicide on the rise with our youth, active military, veterans, and others, we are all well aware of the need to address these issues head on. While this list isn't the end all be all for addressing our mental health, they are very actionable things the majority of us can do on a daily basis.
Get enough sleep
Getting enough sleep is crucial to maintain a healthy mind and body. When you don't get the right amount of sleep, not only does it affect your mental health but your physical health as well. If you don't get the right amount of sleep, you may find yourself slow and unable to focus. So, before you go to bed, make sure you aren't consuming caffeine or any kind of stimulant. You should also be winding down and relaxing before going to sleep because stress will keep your brain awake.
Unfortunately, we treat sleep as an afterthought in the course of our day, week, month and life. It is rare for us to say, "I know I need seven hours of sleep so I better get in bed by nine so I can read and relax for an hour before turning off the light at ten so I can get my seven hours in and be up by 5am and go to the gym and start my day." What we do tell ourselves is "I have so much to do and I'm only going get to five hours of sleep tonight." And because we go to bed tired and stressed, those five hours really end up being only 4.5 hours. Lack of sleep has a trickle-down effect that impacts our day, our work, our relationships and more.
Remember this... If you aren't getting enough sleep, you aren't getting enough.
Hours per Day (including Naps)
0 - 3 Months
14 - 17 Hours per Day
4 - 12 Months
12 - 16 Hours per Day
1 - 2 Years
11 - 14 Hours per Day
3 - 5 Years
10 - 13 Hours per Day
6 - 12 Years
9 - 12 Hours per Day
13 - 18 Years
8 - 10 Hours per Day
18 - 60 Years
7 Hours or More per Night
61 - 64 Years
7 - 9 Hours per Night
65 Years +
7 - 8 Hours per Night
The above information was shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with reported information from the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Exercise is a great way to improve mental health but it's also the best thing that you can do for your physical health. Exercise releases endorphins, which are hormones that make you feel good. Not only does exercise improve your mood but it can also help treat depression and anxiety.
Clearly something is better than nothing. So, if you aren't currently exercising on a regular basis, you just need to start. For some people that will just be walking three times a week. For others, it is increasing the duration or intensity of your workouts. If you're working out three days a week, make four or five days. I think most people understand and agree that working out six days a week is ideal. However, life will continue to throw you curveballs during your weekly schedule and you won't be able to make it. Fine. Don't beat yourself up. Count it as an extra rest so your body can recuperate and know you can go back the next day and push it just a little harder. To whatever extent you are (or are not) exercising, take a step forward and stretch yourself. Remember cardio is great for strengthening your heart and lungs. Weightlifting is great for your muscles and bone density. The older you get the more you should stay active. Make it a part of who you are and your normal day. Some people like to work out alone, while others need a partner to make it happen. Do what works for you!
Eat a healthy diet
Eating a healthy diet is important for both your mental and physical health. Eating unhealthy foods will not only make you feel sluggish and sick, but it will also have a negative impact on your mental well-being. Eating healthy foods, on the other hand, will make you feel energetic and spry. Some of the best foods to eat for mental health are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
I think it goes without saying that most of us could improve in the food consumption department. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to make those decisions at the right time, while for some, it is thrust upon us. For some it's diabetes, for others it's heart disease or cancer. For me it was MS. But as I came to understand my disease better, I came to know the things I should and shouldn't eat. For example... I know now that I should eat little to no sugar because it causes inflammation in my body and exacerbates my systems which inevitably leads to discomfort or pain. A healthy diet is vital for my ongoing health and wellbeing. I'm good most of the time but every once in a while, I indulge. We all gotta live a little, right?!
While most people aren't dealing with autoimmune issues (even though they are on the rise) we all need to watch what we eat. It's clear we aren't getting our thirteen servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Not to mention the reduced nutritional value of fruits and vegetables due to mass farming, soil depletion and more. But those are discussions for another day. What we need to focus on is that one simple change. For some it's reducing the amount of sugar, fried foods, or other less than ideal things we consume. For others it may be deciding to eat vegetarian food one day a week. And for others it may be just increasing the good things they already eat. Whatever it is, take that one step.
The better we eat, the better we feel. The better we feel, the better we eat. See what I did there? Do what works for you but start today!
Socializing is important for both mental and physical health. Staying social can help improve mental health by providing a sense of support and community. It can also help reduce stress levels and boost self-esteem. Additionally, socializing is good for physical health because it helps you stay active.
Since the development of Covid as an ongoing part of our lives, we have undergone a major social experiment. Unfortunately, it has developed into a lack of socializing and social connection. As mentioned, social connection is good for us both mentally and physically. Being able to talk with others via the phone or Zoom is great but real connection happens when we are together, when we can shake hands, hug, put our arm around a friend and laugh or cry together. It has also been interesting to watch an entire generation grow up with cell phones and the disconnection or de-socialization of Generation Z. As we seem to be moving into a post pandemic state, it is time for us to reconnect. Get together with family and friends. Have business meetings and lunches in person when possible. Focus on things that bring us closer together and not things that would keep us apart. Even those who are a bit more introverted still need connection with other humans. Let's make it happen!
Getting organized can be helpful for improving mental health. When your life is organized, it gives you a sense of control and reduces stress. There are many ways to get organized, so find one that works best for you and stick with it.
The funny thing about this is that some people have the ability to organize and some people don't. For those natural organizers (like my mom) it makes perfect sense as to what goes where and why. Everything has its place. Then there are the rest of us who strive to follow some sort of organization, which oftentimes gets off track, and then have to refocus our efforts to get reorganized and keep pressing forward. Then there are those who are negatively or emotionally impacted by disorganization. These are people who are somehow paralyzed by mess or clutter and can't seem to think straight until things are tidied back up to a point where they can focus on all the other things at hand. I would have to agree that a tidier, neater, less messy environment makes it easier to get things done and stay on track. I guess you'll just have to figure out where you are on the organizational spectrum, how it may or may not affect you and what you need to do to stay healthy, happy, organized and productive.
It's important to take breaks throughout the day to give your mind and body a rest. When you're constantly working, you're not giving your mind or body a chance to relax and rejuvenate. Taking breaks allows you to do just that. So, make sure you're taking some time for yourself every day.
The interesting thing about this idea of taking breaks is that it is actually hard to do for some people. Since Covid, I have been working from home. The great thing is I have a two-minute commute from my bedroom to my office. The problem is I have a two-minute commute from my bedroom to my office. I can easily sit down at my computer at 6 or 7am and not get up for hours. Technically I'm productive as it relates to work but it's not necessarily good for my mind or body. I recently read some research out of Great Britain which suggested we should get up from our desks every twenty minutes. While this sounds like a good idea, I know there are times when I get into a groove and can really get some work done. Taking a break every hour or so seems perfectly logical. Get up. Stretch. Go outside. Get some fresh air and something to drink (ideally water). Breaks are good, there is no doubt about it. You'll have to decide what is best for you and your situation.
Connect with nature
Connecting with nature can be beneficial for mental health. Spending time outside in nature can help reduce stress levels and improve moods. Nature has a way of calming and grounding us, so try to spend some time outside every day.
For some of us, this is easy. We live around nature, and we like being out in it. For others who live in the city, they might need to make some additional effort or find a more unique way of communing with nature within a cement jungle. There are now more rooftop gardens where people go to relax or meditate, there are large city parks where people go to play and do their Tai Chi. Or like many of us, you just may have to get away and get immersed in nature. Go hiking, biking, kayaking, scuba diving or whatever way you find peace and enjoyment through nature. I'm not telling you to go hug a tree, but you never know, it just may help. For me it's the water... the ocean, the lake, the river. Listening to the waves. Hearing the running water. It soothes me, calms my spirit. As much power and destruction that can exist in nature, there is also tranquility and a grounding influence that exists there.
Whatever it is for you, find it! Relive it. Allow yourself to go back often and let it have a healing effect in your life.
Practice meditation or mindfulness
Meditation and mindfulness are great ways to improve mental health. These practices allow you to focus on the present moment and clear your mind of distractions. This can be helpful in reducing stress levels and increasing self-awareness. These practices can also help you sleep better at night, so they are perfect for improving your mental health.
If you have ever tried to clear your mind from all thoughts, you know it isn't easy. It takes practice. It is said that we have from 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day. Taking the time to learn how to clear your mind can take a bit of effort. As you strive for a clear mind you'll be interested in the thoughts that actually come into your head. This is something I have tried and a practice I need to get back to. In my efforts to clear and calm my mind I have had thoughts pop in and think "where did that come from?". Or sometimes I don't even realize I have been swept away in a tangent of thought I didn't even realize had engulfed me. But when this happens, we bring ourselves back to center and start over again. Most will probably never become a Buddhist Monk or reach the levels of meditation or mindfulness which is possible, however we should all take time in our day to slow down, calm our minds, and allow ourselves to get centered.
There are lots of tools on the internet. Some are free, like Smiling Mind out of Australia, while some like Headspace can cost. I'm sure there are lots on YouTube as well. Just as a side note, Smiling Mind has a good app and Headspace has a few programs on Netflix. I do really like Headspace. Whatever you find that works for you, try to make time each day for mindfulness and meditation.
Multitasking is not recommended if you want to improve your mental health because it has been linked to increased stress levels. It's important to limit multitasking and focus on one task at a time. This will help you stay focused and stress-free.
Now, I'm not ADD but I can say that I get distracted now and then. Maybe a bit more now than then if I'm being honest. With all the great ways technology simplifies our lives, it also can be a great distraction from what we may be choosing to focus on at a given moment. How many times have you been working on something and see an email or text come in and think, "I need to get that now "? Then we find ourselves trying to have a conversation through text while writing a report. Or we come home and feel like we need to get to dinner, do the laundry, help the kids with homework, and remember all the things we need to do later that evening. It has been proven that multitasking really doesn't work. Less gets done and we end up feeling a bit frustrated. Do one thing, get it done and move one. You'll stay focused, less stressed, and far more productive. This will be good for you and those around you.
Seek help if needed
If you're struggling with your mental health, it's important to seek help from a professional. There is no shame in getting help and it can be the best thing for your mental and emotional state. A professional can provide you with the tools and resources you need to improve your mental health.
Thankfully, the stigma around our mental health needs is diminishing. As a society, there is a growing understanding around seeking and using the professional help that exists through professional therapists. This could be in person or even online for those who are comfortable with that type of solution. There is, not should there be, any shame in needing or wanting to find professional support for our social, emotional, and mental needs. This is something I have done in the past, and even something other friends and family do now. Even if you have someone in your life who is a great listener, someone who is professionally trained to listen, understand, and help you unravel what you may be dealing with can be so valuable in your everyday life. It can give you great perspective and context on things you may be dealing with and the contributing factors that may have led you to where you are today.
Finding the right professional isn't always a quick and easy process. If you have insurance that may cover an expense like this, you may need to see who is included as part of your plan. Once you find someone, you may need to see if they are a fit for you. Therapists are not a one-size fits all. Many of them focus on certain types of needs, so you may have to shop around and visit a few until you find someone with whom you are comfortable. Don't worry. There are a lot of great therapists in your community. If you have this type of need there is definitely someone out there to help.
Improving mental health can seem like a daunting task, but by following these tips, you can make small steps in the right direction. Remember that it's important to be patient and take things one step at a time. If you ever feel like you're struggling, don't hesitate to seek help. Until then, focus on the other nine ways to improve your mental health and track what you feel works best for you.
About the author: Paul Feyereisen is the Chief Impact Officer of IM and an all-around good guy. He has seen that effects of depression in his teenage years and the lives of those around him. He works daily to bring forth Wellness Centers and other solutions into schools across the United States which help address the emotional wellness issues which plague our rising generation.