Since its creation in 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month–also called Mental Health Month–has been celebrated each May. Mental Health Awareness Month promotes resources that can help you understand the importance of mental health, as well as what you can do to help yourself and others.
Whether you are figuring out how to deal with a psychiatric disorder or you’re just feeling a little stressed out recently, below are some tips to improve mental health.
No, horizontal running doesn’t count.^
In addition to the physical benefits, such as helping you control your weight and reducing your risk for a variety of diseases, exercise has been known to help improve mental health. As you exercise, your body releases chemicals endorphins that provide your body with a positive feeling and reduce stress. Exercise is especially relevant this year because the 2018 theme of Mental Health Awareness Month is Fitness #4Mind4Body.
Some people like to run or play sports, but even if that isn’t your thing, there are many ways to stay active. Joining an exercise class may help increase motivation since it prompts you to exercise at a specific time every week and provides you with a group of supportive, like-minded people. Even going for a walk is better than nothing at all. I personally enjoy a pleasant stroll in the park.
Eat some mood-boosting foods
Certain foods induce health benefits that can actually improve your mood and help ward off depression. Some of them are things you’d probably want to eat anyway, like pure dark chocolate and avocados. Others, like asparagus, are not as fun. Some other foods that have been known to help out are salmon, mussels, greek yogurt, honey, eggs, raw nuts, and shiitake mushrooms. Fruit and vegetables are usually a safe bet.
There are also certain foods that can hinder mental health. Caffeine may help you get up in the morning, but it can also worsen anxiety. If you’re feeling down one day, maybe skip the drinks after work–though it will make you more calm and carefree at the bar, alcohol can be harmful in the long run because it interferes with neurotransmitters that impact mental health.
Write it out
Nobody is expecting you to write the next great American novel. I promise. While completing papers for school may be a pain, writing down the things that are going on in your life can be an excellent way to relieve stress and organize your thoughts. Jotting down things that have been bothering you recently or even just the mundane details of your day can help you process everything much more easily than if you keep your feelings bottled up.
Sleep, sleep, sleep!
At some point, you’ve probably sacrificed it in order to cram for a test or finish an assignment, but sleep is so important. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that young adults from ages 18-25 need between seven and nine hours of sleep, but this number changes from person to person based on genetics and lifestyle. It’s important to figure out how much sleep you personally need and make sure you stick to that number.
Having trouble falling asleep? Try cutting back on caffeine after noon, or swapping our your evening Netflix binge session for a good book. Getting away from screens for an hour before bedtime makes it easier to doze off.
Connect with people
The Harvard Women’s Health watch claims that “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.” Keeping in touch closely with the people that positively impact your life can lessen your stress, and making face-to-face social contact with them on a regular basis will reduce your risk for depression.
Though social media and texting are great ways to stay in contact with far-away friends, keep in mind that not all forms of communication are equal; texting someone is better than nothing, but will not give you the same health benefits as meeting up in person.
Make time for furry friends
Let’s be real, it’s hard not to smile when you’re in the presence of an adorable animal. More and more people are registering their pets as Emotional Support Animals (ESA). Emotional Support Animals do not require specific training but are certified to provide emotional support to people who experience psychological disabilities, such as anxiety and depression. If you properly register your pet as an ESA and get the correct clearances from your doctor, your ESA can accompany you on flights and live in apartment buildings that are otherwise not deemed pet-friendly.
Even if you do not have the time or money to care for a pet of your own, there are other opportunities to interact with animals. Try volunteering at a local animal shelter–you will get to see all of the cute dogs and cats, and you will feel good knowing that you are helping them.
Build in breaks
If you keep working constantly and never slow down, you will eventually burn out. It is beneficial to stop working every 50-90 minutes and just relax for a bit. 15-20 minutes is the optimal amount of time for a break, though if you are taking lunch, you may want to make it longer than that.
During your break, do something fun and unrelated to your work that makes you happy. Talk to a friend, watch an episode of your favorite show, or go for a run. Whatever you like to do. Just don’t look at your work.
Contrary to the opinions of April Ludgate, it’s true that fresh air will do you good. Spending time in the sun increases vitamin D, and even 15 minutes of natural sunlight each day can reduce depression and anxiety. Natural light improves your mood much more than artificial light, or even light streaming in through a window, and being outside can also enhance your short-term memory.
Meditation is a really helpful way for some people to calm down and if it works for you, that’s awesome! Even if it doesn’t click right away, you may find it useful to listen to a guided meditation or to practice breathing exercises, because paying attention to your body is a large part of keeping your mind happy. Setting a time each day to sit somewhere quiet and try out these techniques may not solve all of your problems, but could provide you with a moment of peace.
Don’t worry if your mind wanders a little. That is completely natural and you can always work your attention back to being mindful.
Seek out help if you feel like you need it
20% of Americans with mental health conditions do not seek treatment because they are afraid of the stigma that mental illness carries. If you think your problems go deeper than just being a little stressed, know that you are not alone. Take the time to explore the options that you think might help you, whether that means talking to a therapist, talking to a psychiatrist, or joining a support group.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has incredible resources throughout the country and if you or someone you care about is struggling with a mental illness, be sure to check out their website. In addition to hosting walks and events to raise awareness, NAMI chapters hold a variety of courses to educate people dealing with mental illness and their family members.
You can explore NAMI’s resources here and whether you gain pleasure from journaling, exercising, eating right or petting your dog, make sure that you treat yourself this May.