Feeling stressed? Here are 7 simple actions to improve your mental health

It’s not just you: Many people report being overwhelmed by stress. The Covid-19 pandemic, inflation, politics and social divisions all contribute to our collective bad mood. Mental health is taking a hit – and people want solutions.

If you feel that your mental health has changed, you should talk to your health care provider about your options. Mental health didn’t have a “one size fits all” solution, and what works for one person may be less helpful for another.

Therapy and medication can definitely benefit some people, but other mental health interventions can also ease your cognitive load. For nearly four years, this column has explored different strategies to support the mind and body. Here are some of the best takeaways to date.

If you want to boost your mental health, try these 7 proven tips:

Therapy and medication can definitely benefit some people, but other mental health interventions can also ease your cognitive load.Getty Images

7. Build a “coping toolbox”

Experts say coping strategies should fit the person and the moment. In turn, your coping “toolbox” should contain skills that align with different types of coping. Problem-solving coping strategies, for example, involve contact with the outside world. Emotion-coping strategies are inward-looking. Both help people become more resilient. There is also proactive coping – this includes actions such as visualizing your dreams and how you would like to achieve them. This helps reduce the chance of future stress.

6. Try out expressive writing

If you’re experiencing poor mental health, one of the best things you can do is find a way to express what you’re feeling in a healthy way. You can do this in several ways: therapy, talking to a friend, or keeping a journal. While any journal can help, it is very helpful to think about challenges and what is going well in your life. The benefits of expressive writing aren’t limited to mental health: studies on this suggest the practice helps manage stress and strengthen the immune system.

5. Get into a power state

A “flow state” is a mental state in which you are completely absorbed in an activity. It is seen as an experience to be so absorbed in an enjoyable activity that you lose sight of the external environment. Furthermore, experts say that most activities can turn into a “flow activity” if they check two boxes: the activity should push you and you should be able to track your progress. But most importantly, they should ask you to zoom in rather than turn off – that’s why scrolling through your phone doesn’t count. Meanwhile, getting into a flow state pays off: Research suggests the experience reduces anxiety and makes periods of waiting easier.

4. Experience nature

The benefits of being in green and blue spaces have been documented in many, many studies. Being outdoors helps us to revitalize ourselves psychologically and physically. Even a short time outdoors can boost well-being — and hearing the sounds of running water and birds can elevate mood, reduce stress and improve cognitive performance. Nature is so beneficial that some psychologists offer a new form of treatment: garden therapy.

3. Enjoy your free time

While it’s tempting to make yourself feel bad for not being busy, it’s also critical to set aside some time to relax. People who say they feel guilty about free time are also more likely to report depression, anxiety, and stress. But almost ironically, one of the best ways to deal with those challenges is to allow yourself some restorative moments. Furthermore, research suggests that when people pause themselves, they become more productive in the long run. “If we always associate productivity with tasks and don’t give ourselves room for downtime, we can get burned out,” Jennifer Newman, a clinical psychologist, told me. “And when we feel dissatisfied and overwhelmed, that adds stress and slows us down.”

2. Stop scrolling

Social media can amplify or diminish positive feelings, depending on how it is used. Texting a friend or looking at old photos can generate positive emotions because they remind us of our social connections. However, the passive use of social media – such as a seemingly endless scrolling through Twitter – is associated with decreased well-being. Passive use of social media also means you’re more likely to come across terrifying news. While it’s important to stay informed, experts say it’s better for your brain to actively choose which stories to read rather than stumbling upon them by chance.

1. Recognizing that you matter

While it may sound cheesy, it’s true. Matter is a source of resilience and joy – and when you’re going through a crisis, the experience can help you adapt and survive. Gordon Flett, a professor at York University who studies matter, told me there’s evidence that people who feel like they don’t matter are more likely to have negative mental and physical health. In turn, people can grow their sense of belonging through a variety of actions, including reading stories about people who have done incredible things and reminding themselves that many people have had similar experiences.

“People are hit hardest when they convince themselves that they are the only ones in the situation they are in and no one else knows how they feel,” says Flett. “But they have plenty of company in terms of others feeling that way. It’s not just a cliché to emphasize to someone ‘you’re not alone’.”

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