Best Mental Health Practices 2020: Make Your Mind Healthy!
How can we be proactive about keeping our mental health…well…healthy? You are either struggling with your mental health right now or know somebody who is. It’s a tough thing to face and also a tough thing to watch someone go through. But it is not uncommon — not by any stretch of the imagination.
Let’s review some good mental health practices. These practices won’t make you immune to facing mental health challenges, but being proactive never hurt anyone.
Get enough sleep.
This one takes discipline. Turn off the Netflix and charge your phone across the room where you can’t check it as often. Quality sleep is key to quality living. Charge your mental and physical batteries.
Pay attention to your feelings.
“Feelings” is not a word we pay a great deal of attention to in our culture. Maybe we should start.
Spend time in nature.
If you work in an office all day and then go straight home, you’re missing where you were made to spend time. Being outdoors revives the soul in ways that cannot be understood. You don’t have to climb a mountain or ride a wave, just go for a walk around your neighborhood. Assess how you feel after versus before. This goes hand-in-hand with paying attention to your feelings.
Spend less time in front of electronics.
Many of us spend our days in front of screens, and there is not a lot we can do about that. So when you go home, don’t.
Spend some time alone.
This sounds like torture to some people and like paradise to others. Whichever camp you fall into, alone time is good. It’s not healthy to rely on others to fill your cup or to entertain you. On the flip side, spending too much time alone can have poor outcomes. Find a good balance. And remember that only you know what a good balance feels like for yourself.
Just try it. See what happens.
Practice deep and calm breathing.
You are probably noticing how you are breathing right now. Is it shallow and quick? Take a few deep and slow breaths 3..2..1…..
Limit alcohol and caffeine intake.
Not my ideal thing to limit, but I think the long-term payouts are worth it. I need coffee during the work week, but I try to limit it to a cup a day. Alcohol is easier to say no to (for me). If you are going out with friends, just order a soda. If alcohol is difficult for you to turn down, you could start by limiting how many drinks you allow yourself a week.
Practice forgiving yourself.
You are likely to make a mistake in the foreseen future. So am I. Mistakes are a normal part of life. You are not perfect. So holding yourself to a standard of perfection is unrealistic. Whether you mess up royally or something minor, self-love and forgiveness is a practice. If you are naturally critical of yourself, it might take a few rounds of messing up before you arrive at forgiving yourself without having to self-deprecate first.
10. Listen to your instincts.
It’s funny how much we already know that we don’t know we already know. Your gut will tell you a lot before your mind figures something out. We are wired with certain instincts, so do yourself a favor and listen to them.
The best way to avoid worsening issues that may already be there is to be proactive!
Before I get to the specifics of my answer, it’s worth pointing out a more general point.
When it comes to staying mentally strong and healthy, the old adage applies: Prevention is the best medicine.
In other words, the best way to think about staying mentally healthy isn’t, What can I do when something goes wrong? But instead, What can I do to prevent those things from occurring in the first place?
Because no matter how mentally tough we are, and no matter how many resources and supports we have, it’s just really hard to pull out of negative spirals once we’ve fallen into them:
- It’s really hard to pull out of a major depressive episode once we’ve started ruminating and getting in the habit of beating ourselves up.
- It’s really hard to break the cycle of worry and anxiety once we’ve started imagining all the worst possible scenarios and outcomes.
- It’s really hard to be loving and compassionate toward our spouse once we’ve cataloged the 45 ways they’re a terrible person and we’re consumed by a cloud of anger and resentment.
- It’s really hard to simply fall asleep once we’ve spent an hour and a half laying in bed worrying about not sleeping.
Not that pulling out of these episodes can’t be done. It can. I work with people every day to help them do it. I know it’s possible.
But I also know how a painful struggle it is and how much time and energy it can take. And how much better life can be if we can creatively find ways to avoid these negative cycles in the first place.
That’s the perspective I’m going to take to answer my reader’s question about the mental health habits I use to stay mentally and emotionally strong.
A few notes before I begin:
- These are the mental health habits and routines that work for me. I’m not saying definitively they can or should apply to everyone. That being said, I do believe that most of them—in some form or another—are pretty universally applicable.
- Many of these mental health habits are not explicitly psychological in nature. That’s intentional. Mental health sits on top of a foundation of physical health. If that foundation isn’t strong, how can we expect what sits on top to be solid?
- This list is not meant to be comprehensive. These are not necessarily the most important or powerful ways to maintain your mental health. They’re simply the ones that strike me personally as being important for my mental health. This is a glimpse inside the way I work—gospel it is not.
Without any more preamble, here are the 8 mental health habits I try to practice on a daily basis.
If I could only recommend one habit to bolster your mental health, it might be mindfulness.
If you’re not sure what mindfulness is exactly, I’ve got you covered:
No Seriously, What is Mindfulness?
In short, mindfulness is the best way I know of to train and control our attention. And the ability to regulate and control our attention—what we choose to focus on—is arguably the most valuable skill you can have for avoiding depression, anxiety, and many other mental health issues:
- Want to stop worrying and focus on the positives in your life? You need to be able to control your attention.
- Want to stop criticizing yourself for every little mistake and stay committed to your goals? You need to be able to control your attention.
- Want to stop procrastinating and start getting real work done? You need to be able to control your attention.
- Want to stop ruminating on all the injustices everyone in your life is piling on you and be a little less angry all the time? You need to be able to control your attention.
You get the idea. Taking responsibility for our own minds and how we think about things is essential to our happiness and success in just about any endeavor or aspect of our lives.
Mindfulness is the most efficient and effective way I know of for doing just that.
2. High-Intensity Interval Training
High-Intensity Interval Training is a method for exercising very intensely for short amounts of time.
Long-distance running used to be my thing. I love the runner’s high and the weird rush I got when I realized I’d been running for an hour and a half and actually felt better than I did on minute 2!
But between a full-time job, spending time with my wife and two young daughters, and trying to write regularly, spending an hour or two most days running just isn’t feasible anymore. But I can get in 3-4 really intense 30-minute workouts each week.
It’s pretty clear that there are some really big benefits to this kind of exercise, in addition to it being logistically convenient. Exercise in general also has well-known beneficial effects on everything from sleep to depression. Plus it helps me stay fit and gives me a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to stay mentally healthy, and High-Intensity Interval Training is a convenient way to get maximum benefit from exercise with a minimum amount of time.
3. Sleep Like a Robot
We’ve all heard how important sleep is for just about everything in life. And it’s true—getting consistently good rest will improve everything from your immune system to your mood.
What most people don’t realize is that the secret to getting good sleep is to stop trying to get good sleep.
I called this section Sleep Like a Robot because good sleep means sleeping like a robot would—predictably, consistently, and and as unthinkingly as possible.
What this means for me is that I essentially ignore all the wonky sleep hygiene tips and tricks we hear about on the news and try to just do these two things:
- Be consistent. I try to have the same evening routine each night, ideally something relaxing. I get up at the same time every single day, even on the weekends. The more boring and predictable you can be with your sleep, the better trained your mind will be to just fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Don’t think or worry in bed. Your brain should only associate one activity (ok, maybe two ????) with your bed: Falling Asleep. This means you should not get into bed unless you’re actually sleepy, and you should have a dedicated time and routine for problem-solving and worrying before bed.
Good sleep improves everything, and the secret to good sleep is to make your sleep routine as boring and predictable as possible.
Remember: If you want to sleep well, sleep like a robot.
4. Intermittent Fasting
Similar to exercise and sleep, good diet is one of those things that when done well improves many aspects of our life, including our mental health. Intermittent Fasting is the simplest framework I know of for eating well, and it helps me stay focused and clear-headed throughout the day to boot.
Intermittent Fasting simply means that you restrict your eating to a certain window of time throughout the day. In my case, I typically don’t eat anything until noon and am usually done with dinner by 7:00. I do this on weekdays but not usually weekends.
There are lots of different schedules for intermittent fasting, see this handy guide to learn more.
The benefits of Intermittent fasting for me include:
- An easy way to make sure that I eat a modest number of total calories per day. I can basically eat as much as I want in that 7 hour window and I probably won’t go over my target calories for the day.
- It’s extremely simple. There’s nothing complicated about it compared to most diet plans with all their fiddly details and lists of thing you can and can’t eat.
- My energy levels are more consistent throughout the day. I virtually never experience the dreaded 2:00pm slump on days when I do Intermittent Fasting.
Intermittent Fasting is not for everyone, so do your research and maybe experiment with it a bit before you throw yourself into it whole hog.
The bigger point here is that cultivating an effective and reliable system for eating well is one of the best things we can do to maintain our health generally, including our mental health.
5. Ask for Feedback
We all have weakness and blindspots in our lives. I know I certainly do, both personally and professionally, so I try to take active steps to counteract them. And the most important of those steps is the habit of regularly asking for feedback from people I trust.
In my professional work as a psychologist, for example, I have regular consultations with a senior clinician I work with so he can point out shortcomings in my work that I’m missing. I also regularly ask my clients for feedback on how I’m doing or what could be better about our work.
This is usually uncomfortable, but almost always productive. It helps me stay self-aware and forces me to keep working on myself and growing.
In my personal life, I try to ask my wife and several close friends and mentors for their honest feedback about myself (behaviors, tendencies, etc) and my work (articles, ideas, etc.).
Importantly, I’ve found that while most people are initially hesitant to give really honest/raw feedback, if you keep asking in a genuine way it shows that you really do want honest feedback and eventually makes it safe for them to open up about what they really think.
Whatever your own unique weaknesses and blindspots, quality feedback is the best, most efficient way to stay aware of them and work to improve them.
This is an invaluable mental health habit!
Assertiveness may be the most underrated mental health habit on this list, and perhaps the most underrated aspect of mental health generally.
The ability to directly and respectfully ask for what you want—and set boundaries on what you don’t want—is key to building self-confidence and living your life according to your values rather than other people’s wishes.
One very small example of how I try to practice assertiveness is to always ask for a better table whenever I’m being seated at a restaurant.
Restaurants will always try to seat you in a place that’s most convenient for them. But think about it: Who’s paying whom, here? It’s always a little uncomfortable, but fundamentally there’s nothing wrong with asking to sit where you’d like rather than where they’d like.
Being assertive doesn’t mean we’re rude or demanding; it means we respect ourselves enough to ask for what we want.
There are two main benefits to cultivating a habit of assertiveness:
- In the moment, we often end up getting what we genuinely want rather than “letting it go” because we feel too uncomfortable to speak up.
- In the long run, we’re teaching our brain that our wants and wishes are worthy of being taken seriously. This is the key to self-confidence.
7. Never Worry in Your Head
Whenever I’m feeling stressed or anxious, my go-to strategy is to get the swarm of thoughts out of my head and into real life, usually paper or a notes file on my phone or computer.
There’s something incredibly clarifying about writing out how we think and feel rather than just letting it loop over and over again in our head.
One big reason is that it forces us to slow down. Thoughts seem to travel at near light speed in our head, which means we can go over and over the same anxiety or stress-producing thought patterns dozens of times before we’re finally able to break free.
But we can’t write nearly as fast as we can think. Which is why I try to adhere to a little rule I created for myself: Never worry in your head!
So, if you must worry, do it on paper.
8. The 4:55 Drill
Staying organized and on track with our many to-dos and responsibilities is a huge part of not getting stressed out.
One of the simplest and most effective techniques I’ve found for staying focused and productive is a little end-of-the-day routine I call The 4:55 Drill.
At 4:55 (or about 5 minutes before I leave my office), I pull out a 3×5 index card (or sticky note, depending on my mood ????) and jot down the 3 most important things I need to get done the following day. I leave it face up on my desk so that as soon as I get to work the next morning it’s right there staring at me.
The 4:55 Drill has 2 big benefits:
- It decreases my anxiety and stress about work during the evenings. By writing down my 3 most important to-dos for the following day, I’m implicitly telling my brain it can relax because I know exactly what I need to do tomorrow and won’t forget.
- It reduces friction in the morning. A common cause of procrastination is uncertainty or a lack of clarity about what exactly we need to do and how we’re going to do it. This uncertainty then leads to anxiety, which leads to impulsively checking Facebook or ESPN as a way to distract ourselves from that discomfort. By being super clear about what we need to do, we maximize our chances of staying focused and efficient.
The 4:55 Drill is great because it’s so simple and quick. It literally takes me less than a minute most days. Give it a shot.
The best way to maintain our mental health is to avoid getting sucked into negative patterns and spirals in the first place. To do this, it’s important to establish and maintain mental health habits and routines that act as buffers against the inevitable stressors of life and provide a sustainable source of wellbeing and emotional strength. These are the 8 mental health habits that work for me. I hope you find them useful too.