Dealing with mental health issues can be overwhelming. And it’s especially challenging to build health-boosting habits while your motivation is lagging. So how do you know where to start or what to focus on?
Thankfully, there are several science-backed habits you can build for improved mental health, including a few lesser-known options that really work.
We dove into the research and consulted the experts, and put together a list of eight of the highest impact habits you can do for your mental health today — self-compassion guaranteed.
8 Proven Habits That Can Improve Your Mental Health
1. Move Your Body (Accessibly!)
We all know that regular movement can boost our physical health, but what about our mental health? It turns out, exercise is scientifically proven to be a powerful mood-booster, while also reducing depression and anxiety.
And before you start thinking that you need to run marathons to improve your mental health, we’re happy to report that a little movement goes a long way.
“People have an idea that if they exercise, it needs to be an hour. And they think back to the last time they tried exercising, and it was really tiring and difficult, and they think it has to feel like that,” shares Dr. Sandip Buch, psychiatrist and founder at Skypiatrist.
“The main thing is, it doesn’t have to be an hour. It doesn’t have to be super intense. I think 20 minutes of aerobic [exercise] has shown a lot of benefit.”
But what if even a 20-minute workout feels like too much? Dr. Buch recommends starting where you are.
“Can you walk for five minutes? Would that sound daunting? Whatever doesn’t sound daunting, start there, and just keep doing it. Establish a habit. And then you can start increasing or doing something that’s a little more intense,” he says.
Remember: Exercise doesn’t have to be intense to improve your mental health. Moderate intensity workouts, like brisk walking, riding a bike, or even mowing the lawn, totally count!
2. Prioritize Sleep
If you’re struggling with mental health, getting enough quality sleep is one of the most impactful areas you can focus your attention.
In fact, one recent meta-analysis found that improved sleep leads to significant improvements in mental health, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, rumination, and stress. Even better? The more you improve your sleep, the more your mental health improves.
That’s a pretty great reason to prioritize shuteye, if you ask us.
So how much sleep do you need each night? Ideal sleep needs can vary for each individual, but Dr. Buch recommends at least seven hours per day to support mental health. And parents of young children can breathe a sigh of relief, because that sleep can be broken up and accumulated during naps, too.
Just make sure you’re focusing on the quality of the sleep as much as the quantity.
3. Nurture Social Bonds
Did you know that maintaining healthy relationships can save your life, not to mention improve your mental health?
Research finds that having quality relationships can help us regulate stress, improve mood and motivation, and even strengthen our coping skills. And on the flip side, social disconnection can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
The bottom line? Sometimes, you just need a little TLC from your community, so don’t be afraid to lean on your connections
4. Spend Time in Nature
Spending time in nature is healing, especially when it comes to our mental health.
“Nature benefits our psychological well-being, and research now proves it,” says Shawn Li, Marriage & Family Therapy Resident at ReEnvision Marriage and Family Therapy, based in New York City. “There are cognitive benefits, emotional benefits, and even benefits that counter social isolation.”
Recent research shows that time in nature can help us destress, sharpen attention, improve mood, and even reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders.
And while spending at least 120 minutes per week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing, even a small dose of nature can boost our brain health. One study found that students who spent 40 seconds taking a break to look at a flowering roof made significantly fewer mistakes than students who spent their 40-second break looking at a concrete roof.
Try hiking or bird-watching in a local park, or you could simply spend a moment observing your house plants for a quick mental health boost.
5. Eat a Well-Balanced Diet
What we eat can play a big role in both our physical and mental health. One reason for this is that inadequate nutrition can cause physical health problems, which can then in turn affect mental health.
“The science now shows the connection between the brain and the gut biome, which is just a fancy way of referring to all the things that live in our gut – that is clearly impacted by what we consume!” Li says. “Our nutrition impacts our brain’s ability to regulate hormones and respond to stress, too.”
While research is still developing on the link between food and mental health, one thing’s for sure: Eating a well-balanced diet that makes you feel great physically can do wonders for your mental health, too.
6. Try a Half Smile
Okay, this tip is a bit unusual, but it works! Putting a half smile on your face can “trick” your brain into feeling happy.
“Your body communicates with your mind, this position will genuinely bring you happiness,” reveals Ann DeAngelis, LP-MHC and Coordinator of Mental Health Services at Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY (CIDNY). “It may appear silly at first, but you will quickly realize how effective it is.”
So, what qualifies as a “half smile” and how do you do it?
“A half-smile is defined by slightly upturned lips and a relaxed face, neck, and shoulder muscles while maintaining a calm expression on one's face,” DeAngelis explains.
But you don’t want to go too far with it. A full, fake smile might tell your brain that you’re faking emotion, or trying to hide it. That’s why a half smile is the way to go.
7. Offer Yourself Compassion
Practicing self-compassion is treating yourself with patience, kindness, and understanding, and it’s another lesser-known habit that can improve mental health.
And lest you be skeptical that such a simple, “soft” practice could actually work, experts say self-compassion is an underutilized mental health tool with significant benefits.
In fact, a recent meta-study found that self-compassion is consistently associated with benefits for mental health and overall wellbeing.
So take it easy on yourself, and remember that you’re only human. Try talking to yourself like you would a friend, or even a young child.
8. Take a Hard Look at Your Daily Cup of Joe
Look, we get it. Most people would prefer to do pretty much anything rather than give up their daily coffee. But hear us out! That morning cup of joe may feel good at the time, but it could also be negatively impacting your mental health.
“I think coffee intake is something that goes under the radar,” reveals Dr. Buch. “People drink coffee, and then they have trouble sleeping, they’re anxious during the day, or they don’t notice a good mood. And then they don’t monitor how much coffee they’re drinking.”
So how much coffee is too much if you’re struggling with your mental health?
“I don’t think there’s a good amount of coffee if you’re feeling like you’re having trouble with your mental health,” Dr. Buch says.
At the very least, it’s a good idea to be conscious of how much coffee you’re drinking, and how it could potentially be affecting your sleep, mood, and anxiety levels.
Common Roadblocks That Prevent Healthier Mental Health Habits
All of the experts we spoke with agreed that there are a few common roadblocks they see with clients trying to form new habits that improve mental health. Here are a few that came up time and time again:
Thinking too big: Many people believe they need to exercise intensely for hours, get more than eight hours of sleep per night, or spend the entire day in nature to reap the mental health rewards. But this all-or-nothing thinking can make it harder to form healthier habits today. Ditch the perfectionism and focus on what you can do now. That’s the best place to start, and you can always build from that foundation as you go.
Life is too busy: Schedules are hectic, and there isn’t always space for new, time-consuming habits. But taking a small amount of time to focus on your mental health is still worth the time investment, because doing so will ultimately serve the rest of your busy life. Plus, even if you don’t have time for a workout today, you can always try a half smile. It takes 30 seconds, it’s free, and it’s highly effective!
Missing community support: Community can help with accountability and prioritization, whether it’s a trainer helping you complete workouts, or going to therapy with a licensed mental health professional. Sometimes, even just enlisting the help of your family can remove a huge roadblock to healthy habit formation. For example, tell your family you’re focusing on getting better sleep for your mental and physical health, and set boundaries that help you achieve your goal. The people around you can’t support you if they aren’t clear on your goals. Enlist your community for both improved relationships and better habit-forming outcomes.
Creating new habits is hard work. But with a little self-acceptance and the support of your community, change is possible.
What If You Can Only Do One Thing?
You might be thinking, this all sounds great, but I don’t have the time or energy for eight new habits. So what should you do if you only have the capacity to do one thing to improve your mental health today?
“The ‘most important thing’ is relative to all the other things. Many experts will say that sleep is the most important thing. But how does this change if someone struggles with chronic insomnia, or is a new parent who can’t manage to have a fully rested night?” says Li.
“From this vantage point, and as a mental health professional, the most important thing someone could do for their mental health is to exercise self-compassion. Self-compassion helps guard us against burnout, traumatic stress, and the development of depressive symptoms.”
There are a number of habits that can improve mental health, including exercise, getting adequate sleep, maintaining strong relationships, eating a balanced diet, spending time in nature, and practicing self-compassion. You could also try a few lesser-known habits like half-smiling or cutting back on caffeine.
But ultimately, the best mental health-boosting habits are the ones you can maintain. Whether that’s hiking in nature or cooking nutritious meals that make your body and mind feel calmer, it’s always a good idea to focus on doing something you love so it’s a habit you’ll want to keep.