Let’s strip mental health down to brass tacks — your brain is constantly processing information, even while you’re asleep. Doesn’t that just sound tiring in itself? Because of this constant input, the health of our mental state needs maintaining; we don’t want those gears to get gunked up or rusty.
Mental health plays as much of a role in our day-to-day as our physical and spiritual health. But there’s a lot that can affect your mental state and it differs for everyone, so we’ve broken down this complete guide into key topics.
The buzz around the word “self-care” hasn’t worn off yet and for good reason. Take a note from any flight attendant: you have to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. You must take care of your own mental health first.
“(Mental health) all starts with recognizing that you’re worth taking care of,” said Dr. Julia Hogan, MS, LCPC. You are enough — which means you are worth the effort because each of us is a unique and irreplaceable part of the human family. Regardless of our gifts and talents, flaws and imperfections, each and every one of us are deeply loved. So self-care is not selfish — it is simply being a good steward of the gift of life that we’ve each received. In fact, taking care of your mental health through self-care is paramount to taking care of the rest of yourself and others.
Self-care will look different for each individual, but a few self-care basics tend to apply across the board to keep everyday stress in check:
- Maintain a healthy support system. Healthy relationships are key to lowering stress levels, which feeds back into keeping a healthy mental state. Surround yourself with supportive people who will offer to listen and give feedback.
- Exercise regularly. The science is clear: moving your body reduces stress hormones. Move your muscles to clear your mind.
- Get enough sleep. The ultimate recharge is sleep, so make sure to get as much sleep as your body needs. Get into a good before-bed routine to maximize those z’s and minimize those grrr’s.
- Engage in leisurely activities. The importance of leisure isn’t just to refresh our minds and fill in gaps between work — it’s fundamental to our humanity, according to Josef Pieper, because it helps us contemplate the fullness of reality.
- Embrace solitude. Solitude gives us the space to reflect, express gratitude, and listen to our conscience and the voice of God. Solitude is important for a healthy, happy life, but it might take some practice to become comfortable with this state of being. Practicing how to center yourself and let go of expectations are two key steps to learning how to just be by yourself.
The form that self-care takes for you will likely be different than your neighbor’s, and that is okay. Do some exploration here — try a new hobby by yourself, flex your creative muscles, work at mastering something, concentrate on living in the present. Take note of what helps you feel recharged, less stressed, and more like yourself; those activities can help you refill your cup when you’re feeling depleted.
- Self-Care Basics: Why It Matters and Where to Start
- Do You Really Need 8 Hours of Sleep Each Night?
- 3 Tips for Naturally Better Sleep
- 5 Times Self-Care Isn’t Selfish
- Why Leisure is Essential to a Healthy Lifestyle
- 5 Hobbies You Can Take on Solo
- Train Yourself to Take Alone Time
- Why Solitude Is Necessary for a Healthy, Happy Life
- 7 Ways to Recenter Yourself When You Get Off Track
- Why Letting Go of Expectations is a Freeing Habit
- Why I Prioritize Time For Creativity in Adulthood
- The Art of Flow and How to Harness It
- Why I’m Learning to Appreciate the Present Moment
- Free Download: 30-Day Self-Care Challenge
Coping with stress
Besides practicing self-care, having strategies for coping with life’s stressors can ease our mental load. Music and dance can be great ways to destress. Exploring nature and exercising can also help clear your headspace.
Counting our blessings has also been shown to reduce stress, and likewise, prayer can be an effective coping skill to slow down breathing, practice gratitude, and connect with God.
If you’re dealing with seasonal stressors, like the holidays or spending Christmas alone, identify what’s causing you stress and set boundaries for yourself. Drawing clear boundaries might mean writing them down or sharing them with someone else involved if you’re able to (though sometimes we’re not able to share that boundary with someone else, perhaps after a family member has hurt you). Remember, boundaries are an effort to keep yourself emotionally and mentally safe, so don’t feel bad about setting and enforcing them.
If you’re coping with anxiety, OCD, depression, or postnatal depression, reach out for help. Sometimes it’s hard enough to combat loneliness when you’re feeling disconnected, but coping with the stress of everyday life and dealing with a mental illness can feel like an impossible weight to bear. Reach out to a professional who can help you learn other coping mechanisms. A therapist can help you navigate the rough waters of experiences like body dissatisfaction, post-college depression, an unexpected death in the family, or a toxic relationship.
- How the Right Music Fuels Your Brain
- What Happens When We Reconnect with Nature
- Why My Workout Motivation Shifted to Mental Health
- What a ‘Restorative Niche’ Is & Why You Need One
- 5 Signs You’re in a Toxic Relationship
- Why Are Boundaries Important?
- What It’s Like to Live with OCD and Anxiety
- This Grad’s Journey Through Post-College Depression
- One Woman’s Journey Through Depression
- What Postnatal Depression Taught Me About Mental Health
- How to Combat Loneliness (For Yourself and Others)
- A Therapist’s Advice on Coping with Unexpected Death
- How to Forgive a Family Member Who Won’t Change
- The Truth About Society and Body Dissatisfaction
- One Woman’s Journey Through Depression
- Coping with Anxiety During the Lenten Season
- How Prayer Affects Your Mental Health
Reversing burnout with mindfulness
If you’re feeling a lack of motivation or even resentment toward work or projects that used to make you happy, you might be burned out. Taking time to rest is key to avoiding burnout. Follow these simple steps to intentionally make rest part of your routine:
- Schedule rest. Block out time in your calendar and follow through with those plans.
- Make time for silence. Turn off the noise and enjoy the benefits of silence.
- Celebrate Sundays. If you can help it, don’t schedule work on Sunday, freelance or otherwise. Take the day to recharge.
- Make time for prayer, every day. Set aside time in the morning before work. If that doesn’t happen, do it after work, before anything else. Starting from scratch? Start with this short Catholic prayer or use this app.
Dr. Julia Hogan, MS, LCPC, puts it like this: “Meditation is the practice of quieting one’s mind for the purpose of relaxation, prayer, or increased concentration… Meditation can take many forms including mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of noticing bodily sensations and thoughts in a non-judgmental way for the purposes of promoting relaxation, tolerating uncomfortable thoughts, sensations, or emotions; and increasing self-awareness and self-acceptance.”
So in a word: yes — meditation has been scientifically shown to benefit your mental health by leading to:
- Increased emotional awareness
- Increased self-compassion
- Decreased depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms
- Improved prayer life
- Improved physical health
Meditation is only one kind of mindfulness exercise to help you live in the moment. But if you just can’t meditate, many of the same benefits can be gained from journaling and other mindfulness exercises. The connected thread through all of these methods to reverse burnout is simple: intentionally make time for rest.
- Work and Play Hard — But Relax Harder
- 4 Mindfulness Exercises for Dealing with Stress
- How I Reverse Burnout in 10 Minutes a Day
- 3 Ways to Practice Everyday Mindfulness
- Why Silence is Paramount for Health (& Happiness)
- 5 Reasons to Try Meditation (If You Haven’t, Yet)
- I Suck at Meditating, But Journaling Helps Me Instead
- This App Guides You in Prayerful Meditation
- How Resting on Sundays Can Transform Your Perspective
- 9 Ways to Set Aside Sundays as Special
- “Attention is Our Simplest Gift”
If you feel like you’re struggling with your mental health, social media might be an area of your life to examine. Could you be in need of a social media detox? You may very well decide to quit social media altogether, but if you’re looking to keep frequenting social media while preserving your mental health, try applying the following guidelines:
- Pay attention. Practice self-awareness in noticing which posts and social media interactions bring about bad feelings for you. Knowing what those triggers are can help you decide how to act, rather than just react.
- Make rules. Once you’re aware of those triggers, set boundaries to protect your mental health. Remember, we are in control of our social media use.
- Love each other (but perhaps lovingly unfollow). Social media friendships can be meaningful, but accounts that test your triggers might not be worth the mental strife. You don’t need to block anyone from your life, but make conscious choices about which posts you allow to flood your feed.
Unplugging from technology to mindfully examine your relationship to it can create clarity and focus. We should all aim to intentionally make use of technology — including weighing the costs of the technological benefits it offers us.
- 3 Guidelines I Use to Stay Sane on Social Media
- How Social Media Relationships Can Be Meaningful
- I Ditched Social Media — Here’s What Brought Me Back
- Using Intentionality to Transform Your Instagram Use
- A More Mindful Way to Communicate Online
- Digital Minimalism: How to Live Better with Technology
- Why I Believe in Social Media as a Force for Good
Dating and mental health
Dating can seem treacherous, but it doesn’t have to endanger our mental health. To protect your own sanity and that of a potential S.O’s, keep these dating guidelines handy:
- Put your mental health first. Your future partner is not going to make life’s problems go away. You are your own best advocate; know your limits and stand up for them, especially if you’re dating with anxiety or depression.
- Your date’s mental health matters, too. Mutual respect in a relationship is necessary. When it comes to another’s mental health, you can’t “fix” them, but know if they suffer from anxiety or depression, they can’t just “snap out of it.” There are special sensitivitiess to have in mind if your date is a survivor of sexual assault (and it’s a good chance they are).
- Every date is a learning opportunity. Not every date is going to end in a fairytale. But know that when you’re getting to know someone else, you’re also learning things about yourself.
- Say what you mean. Enough said.
- Your search shouldn’t be for someone to complete you. You’re not half of a human — you are your own individual, and the best relationships and marriages are made up of two whole and healthy individuals.
Asking for professional help can feel difficult, but know that there is no reason why anyone should be afraid to speak up and ask for help. Going to regular therapy sessions can teach you new coping skills and help you gain strategies for improving your mental health, just like going to the gym and lifting weights improves physical health. The first step is simply letting go of those misgivings enough to prioritize your own well-being and taking the step to say, “I need help.”
If you’re just not sure whether you need to reach out for professional help, these four warning signs might mean therapy could help you:
- Your current mental state is impacting your daily functioning
- What you’re dealing with is a recurring issue
- Others have expressed concern
- You need a sounding board
Take it from a therapist: “Therapy isn’t just for those struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. It’s also an ideal place to explore any patterns you’ve noticed in your life; address any fears you might have about your past, present, and future; or learn better ways to take care of yourself,” writes Dr. Julia Hogan, MS, LCPC.
If you’re interested in beginning therapy, you’ll need to know what to look for in a therapist. Therapists specialize, and choosing a therapist based on your goals will be helpful in accomplishing those goals. The relationship you form with this professional will be a working one, so you’ll need to feel comfortable with them. Asking for recommendations from friends and family who are already frequenting therapy wouldn’t be a bad place to start either.
Answers to other burning questions about what to expect in therapy probably won’t surprise you. Your therapy will be based on goals you’d like to achieve through your sessions, and the first session is to set out those goals and for your therapist to establish a treatment plan. The length of treatment is also dependent on your goals, so there is no standard length.
And if you’re wondering how your faith fits into therapy, many therapists are open and supportive of religious beliefs, and it’s something that both patient and therapist should be aware of. How faith is integrated into and spoken about in therapy is largely up to the therapist, so make sure to discuss that in the initial consultation.