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5 ways to seriously boost your mental health

Mental health is as pervasive as it is elusive. It colors how you see the world; it affects how you feel every minute of every day. Yet it usually lives in the background of life’s bigger events, so unobtrusive that, to really understand how you’re feeling emotionally and mentally, you usually must make a conscious effort to check in with yourself.

And this, says Lt. Col. Samantha Dutton, PhD, LCSW, is exactly what we need to do, whether we’re working from home, juggling work and school or trying to raise a family in an ever-changing world. Dutton, who is the Associate Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Phoenix, explains that there are ways to give your mental health a boost when it comes to wellness. But first, an important distinction needs to be made.

"We’ve mixed up the words sad and depressed," Dutton observes. Sadness is fleeting, temporary and situationally based. (Think bad grades, cranky kids or even the death of a loved one.) Depression, on the other hand, is constant. "It permeates your life circumstances," Dutton says. "When that happens, that should be a clue to get help with it."

When depression isn’t part of the picture, but there’s still room to feel better — more energized, more focused, more optimistic — Dutton recommends the following five strategies:

1) Practice regular physical movement.

"I don’t want to call it ‘exercise,’ because that scares people," Dutton says, "but always the top thing you can do to boost your mental health is move."

Movement, Dutton elaborates, can be as basic as going for a walk around the block (no special clothes required!) or as scaled up as training for a marathon. It can be the same activity that brings you joy; it can be a buffet of choices depending on the way you feel and how much time you have.

Framing it as a given part of your day, as integral as brushing your teeth or making dinner, makes it feel more accessible. And the brain’s subsequent release of endorphins creates positive associations around the practice, all of which improves your chances of making regular movement a new healthy habit.

2) Eat well. Eat regularly.

"The connection between mind and body is something people can miss," Dutton says. But not moving and eating poorly, coupled with regular life stress, can lead to physical problems ranging from generalized backaches to frequent colds and other illnesses. And it’s hard to feel good mentally when you don’t feel well physically.

Of course, changing your diet is easier said than done. More to the point, a complete overhaul isn’t necessarily what Dutton is calling for.

"There’s no fast way to do anything," she concedes.

Instead of swearing off sugar, caffeine and salt forever, try implementing a more realistic goal. (Also, you’ll be more likely to stick to changes when they center on adding to your daily routine rather than subtracting from it.) So, consider adding a salad to your weekly lunch rotation, swapping out your afternoon latte for a smoothie or adding another vegetable to your nightly dinner.

A healthy body, after all, is conducive to a healthy mindset. And studies suggest a correlation between blood sugar levels and mood, giving everyone one more reason to get reacquainted with the supermarket’s vegetable section.

3) Rest easy.

Getting enough sleep at night — at least seven hours — is as crucial to physical and mental well-being as regular exercise and a good diet. "Sleep, diet and exercise all come under the umbrella of routine, so your brain doesn’t have to think about those things," Dutton points out.

If your routine includes late-night working (or TV watching), you may have to get creative. Try setting two alarms: one an hour ahead of bedtime to remind yourself to power down all screens, and another to tell yourself it’s time for bed. If you’re a night owl, try scaling back your bedtime in 15-minute increments over the course of several weeks until you have established a new, healthier bedtime.

4) Practice gratitude. And forgiveness.

Practicing gratitude doesn’t have to include journaling. (Although that can be a helpful modality.) But it does involve being mindful of your internal dialogue.

What does that look like? It can mean feeling gratitude for everything you have and what you can accomplish, Dutton says. It can also mean extending forgiveness to yourself when you fall short. Because we all do.

You can repeat a mantra to yourself ("I am enough") while doing rote activities like housework or showering. You can devote the last 10 minutes of each day by thinking about the things in your life for which you’re grateful. The idea is to take ownership over what you can control; the means are up to you.

"People give away the key to their happiness all the time," Dutton says, "and they should keep it in their own pocket."

5) Get social.

When Dutton was in the Air Force, she was a single parent who would spend every weekend with her small child. And while she treasured those moments, she also "looked forward to Mondays" for the adult interaction.

Being with other people — friends, family, co-workers — inspires and sustains us emotionally. It also helps hold us accountable in terms of making choices that enhance rather than detract from our mental and physical health. Regularly connecting with people, even when they live far away, is worth the effort and time.

Perhaps the most important predictor of everyone’s mental health, however, is the increasingly nuanced discussion on the subject. Where before mental health was a taboo topic — akin, says Dutton, to the way cancer was discussed (or not) in the ’50s — now it’s creeping into the light of public discourse. And as the subject becomes destigmatized, everyone wins.

"I think it’s getting better," she says, "but it has a long way to go."

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