Five simple ways to improve your overall mental health and well-being

Nancie A Vito, MPH, CHES

The World Organization acknowledges that there is "no health without mental health." Even if we are not suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health condition, it does not necessarily mean we are mentally healthy.

I like to think of mental health as being on a continuum. There is almost always room for growth when it comes to moving towards flourishing and improving our overall well-being. 

Sometimes even people who are mentally healthy get burned out or find themselves in a rut. If you feel you could use a boost, here are five things you can do that could help move your overall well-being up the spectrum a bit:

  1. Express gratitude.  According to Robert Emmons, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis and expert on gratitude, keeping a journal of that which you are grateful - even just listing 5 things per week - can have physical, psychological and social benefits.

    Those who express gratitude regularly can cope with negative thoughts and emotions more easily than those people who do not practice gratitude on a regular basis. With research suggesting outcomes such stronger immune systems, decreased blood pressure, lower perceived pain levels, feeling more refreshed upon wakening, being more resistant to stress, and feeling more alert, the benefits of gratitude are plentiful.
     
  2. Focus on what went well.  Oftentimes we humans tend to focus on the problems, and ruminate on what we feel has not gone well. One practice you can implement immediately is to think about what well at the end of each day, instead of worrying about what you feel did not go as you had hoped that day.

    Martin Seligman, Ph.D. of University of Pennsylvania suggests carving out 10 minutes each night to write down three things that went well, and why you feel each went well. These do not need to be major events; they can be seemingly minute occurrences that come to mind as you review your day. The exercise will help you retrain your brain to shift your focus and boost your overall happiness over time.
     
  3. Do something you enjoy doing.  Recall what truly brings you joy, and make a point to add it back into your life if it’s currently missing. When we do something that brings us joy and pleasure, it can trigger a natural high. Natural highs actually stimulate chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the brain. They prompt the release of endorphins, which can help bring an overall feeling of well-being. An endorphin is a type of neurotransmitter that is released by the pituitary that can block pain receptors (yes, reduce pain!).

    So think about that which you enjoy doing, find pleasurable, and/or are interested in. If starting up a hobby seems overwhelming, take one step that you feel could nourish your soul. It can be as simple as having a good belly laugh, sitting in the sun, listening to music, walking in nature or eating by candlelight. Physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise such as running, can produce a similar feeling.
     
  4. Practice living in the present.  Life seems less stressful when we're not worried about the future or dwelling on the past. When we practice mindfulness, we pay attention on purpose to the present moment, without judgment. Practice catching yourself on “autopilot” going from one moment to the next. Notice your thoughts and begin to focus on your breath. Become mindful of the in breath, the out breath, and any body sensations.

    You can also make a point to pay attention to the details of what you are doing instead of thinking of something else. For example, you can slowly and thoroughly taste every bite of food as you chew, or feel every sensation of washing dishes. When we become more aware, we can also notice and enjoy the simple pleasures of life more. As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn notes, “The little things? The little moments? They aren't little.”
     
  5. Unplug.  One cause of stress and burnout can be the lack of an end to our workday. I personally do not find it very relaxing to constantly check email or respond to texts, instant messages and social media requests. We need time to replenish and recharge our batteries.

    Researcher YoungAh Park, PhD of Kansas State University reports that people who unplug after work hours solve problems in a more proactive manner and are more engaged at work. A ripple effect can occur as the company or organization itself can benefit when employees feel more refreshed. Furthermore, John Pencavel, PhD of Stanford University recently reported that people who work 55 hours per week are actually more productive than those who work 70 hours per week. Given that unplugging is best for your well-being as well as your job performance, my vote is a resounding YES for this one.

These are just 5 of the many things we can do for self-care to enhance our overall well-being and increase positive mental health. While these tips are not meant to replace treatment and healing if you are suffering from grief, depression, or a serious mental health condition, they can improve your overall well-being if practiced consistently. Oftentimes happiness takes a conscious effort.

What is one step you would like to take to boost your own happiness factor?


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