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Small life changes that can help improve our mental health

When our mental health is not in a good place, it can feel scary and hopeless. Poor mental health can be brought on by a significant life event such as a loss, break-up, or an unexpected and unwanted change in circumstance. Other times, there may be no obvious reason at all. When this happens, it can be hard to know how to make ourselves feel better, as we don’t know what is causing the problem. When we feel bad, we may stop taking care of ourselves, and this leads to a vicious cycle that is hard to break free from.

Making some small life changes can have a drastic impact on your mental health, even if they appear insignificant at first. Here are some suggestions that can help improve overall mental wellbeing and make it easier to get through the tougher times.

Disclaimer: Whilst some of the information in this article includes supporting evidence from scientific journals, the information is primarily obtained from my own lived experience.

Get some exercise

When you feel low, exercise might be the last thing on your mind. Summoning up the energy to move when you feel depressed, or convincing yourself to go outside when you feel anxious can be incredibly hard. However, exercise has been proven time and time again to be an effective tool to improve mental wellbeing. Even something as simple as a thirty-minute walk can boost our mood. A 2018 paper published in The Lancet journal studied the effect of exercise on mental health, with data from over 1 million people from the US. They found that those who exercise had 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health over a month than those who did not exercise Large amounts of scientific evidence, such as that covered in this review, has shown how exercise boosts our endorphins and reduces our stress hormones, leading to a happier mindset.

If you prefer to be alone, you could walk, jog or ride a bike. This can be an effective way to get outside, practice mindfulness or experience a change of scenery. Team sports can be a great way to incorporate exercise into your life at the same time as socialising with friends or meeting new people. If you don’t feel up to exercising, don’t feel the pressure to do it every day, or to do exercise that is more vigorous than you’re comfortable with. However, try to make exercise a part of your routine whenever you do feel up to it. It might surprise you just how much it can help.

Engage in positive self-talk

We are all guilty of being negative towards ourselves from time to time. Negative self-talk can increase anxiety, depression and lower our self-esteem. Identifying when you are being negative to yourself and putting a more positive spin on things can do wonders for your mental health. Telling yourself something like ‘I’ve been feeling low for four days with no reason. I will never get better,’ is an example of negative self-talk. Persistent negativity about ourselves can lead us to believe it as fact, making it harder for us to break out of the cycle.

If you notice yourself being negative towards yourself, reframe your thoughts to be more positive. ‘I will never get better,’ can become ‘I’ve felt this way before, and I felt better after a few days. I can get through this, even if it’s hard. If I need to seek help, I will.’ In cognitive behavioural therapy, a CBT therapist works with clients to identify these negative cognitive distortions and helps the client to come up with a more positive alternative thought. If you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk too frequently and struggling to stop, consider speaking to a therapist.

Get a good night’s sleep, and have an early morning

There have been a lot of studies on the relationship between sleep and mental health, and many medical professionals advocate for a good night’s sleep to improve our mental health. A 2021 meta-analysis published in Sleep Medicine Reviews journal is one example of this evidence. The paper included 65 trials comprising of various types of sleep interventions, and findings showed that improved sleep quality reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Making sure you get the recommended eight hours of sleep a night is a good way to improve your mental health. Furthermore, some studies have identified that waking up early can also impact your mood. This 2021 study found an association between waking up early and a reduced risk for major depressive disorder. Waking up early and using that time to exercise, relax and enjoy your hobbies or get a head start on your to-do list can start the day off on a positive note and may encourage longer-term healthy habits.

Photo by Sandra Kaas on Unsplash

Do things that bring you happiness

Read a book. Play video games. Go for a walk. Watch a film. Paint. Write. Cook. Whatever it is that brings you some joy, that allows your mind to focus on something other than how you’re feeling, do it! It can be hard to motivate ourselves to do things that make us happy when we are feeling low, but it can do wonders for our mental health. Make time for yourself and for the things you love. If you’ve been working or studying a lot and are stressed out, try to ensure you have a healthy balance between working and doing things that make you happy.

Connect with others

Call up your friend or relative and have a conversation, or meet up with friends for a coffee or a meal. Even the most introverted of us need to socialise on some level. You could even join an online group to talk to others, such as mental health support groups or groups related to a specific hobby or interest. We don’t always have to speak about our mental health. Socialising can be both, a distraction from our troubles, or it can be used to help us work through them with someone who cares about us.

Photo by Ola Dybul on Unsplash

The chances are you’ve heard all these methods before. Exercise, be kind to yourself, get a good night’s sleep – they are the most recommended methods for improving our mental health. But why are they so often repeated? Because they work! Motivating yourself to treat yourself kindly can be difficult but take small steps every day to do something kind for yourself. Whether it’s time to focus on your hobbies, going for a walk or picking up the phone to talk to a friend, every small positive step can lead to better mental health in the long run.

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