One of the best ways you can improve your mental health is by improving your self-care habits. In the same way that “maintenance” keeps your car running, self-care keeps your brain and body in good shape. Here are five simple, practical self-care habits to get you started.
1. Prepare with snacks
Food can affect your mood, energy, and stress level. When you feel irritable, stressed or nervous, check if you’re also feeling hungry. If so, taking a snack break will usually help you feel better. You can also use snacks as a back-up plan for when you’re too busy or tired to cook, which helps prevent you from getting exhausted.
I recommend keeping “neutral” snacks on hand. A neutral food is good enough to eat, but you don’t have strong feelings about it, positive or negative. If you worry about the calories, don’t like the taste, or get cravings for it, it’s probably not a neutral food. Bonus points if it’s portable.
2. Take breaks to stretch
Stretching is another self-care habit that helps physically and mentally. Many people carry tension in their body. This can lead to headaches, muscle cramps, digestion problems and more. Our brains then interpret the body’s tension as a sign that we need to feel stressed or anxious. Stretching helps our bodies relax, and this tells our brains to relax, too.
If you sit or stand for long periods, do stretches at least once every thirty minutes. You can stretch however you feel like, or you may follow examples like this stretching guide from Very Well Fit. Pay attention to what feels good for your body and do more of it.
3. Connect with someone
One of the best ways to feel better is to spend time with someone you care about. Friends can cheer you up, listen when you need to vent, and give you things to look forward to. Think of someone you usually feel better with after talking to them, and send them a call, message or hang out together.
If you’re not sure how to start, try asking them how their day was, or what they’ve been up to. Or show them a funny picture, or talk about something you’re interested in or looking forward to. If you have had a rough day and aren’t sure whether you should talk about that, ask them whether they’re up for hearing some venting, and they will let you know.
4. Give yourself credit
Some of our habits are purely mental. One of these habits is how often we see positive or negative traits in ourselves. If you don’t like yourself very much, your brain has probably had lots of practice at looking for negative traits.
So, do the opposite! Once a day, think of something good you can say about yourself. It might feel weird, but that just means you’re strengthening a new neural pathway in your brain. It will get easier over time.
Here are some prompts to get you started:
- Did you manage to get something done? (Even small things count.)
- Maybe you did something good for someone else, or made them smile?
- What are you good at doing? Again, even “unimportant” things count!
- Do you like something about your appearance, clothes or sense of style?
- Sometimes just getting out of bed when you’re feeling awful is an accomplishment!
5. Wind down at bedtime
Falling asleep on time is one of the most common challenges I see in therapy. Many people stay up later than they want to, or lie awake in bed feeling frustrated. If this is you, you need a way to switch your brain into “bedtime mode.”
Pick a relaxing activity that gets you out of your own head, but isn’t too absorbing, like coloring, drinking non-caffeinated tea, or rereading a book. Start doing this 20-40 minutes before you intend to sleep. If you feel sleepy earlier than the scheduled time, go to bed right then. This will help your brain associate the activity with sleep time.
Try to do the same activity, in the same location, at the same time every night. The more familiar it feels, the better your brain will get at going to sleep afterward.
Self-care habits take time
It’s okay if you can’t start doing all of these at once, or if you start off strong but miss doing them later. Any new habit will take practice before it becomes automatic, even simple ones. If you need more motivation for developing your self-care habits, consider partnering with a friend to hold each other accountable, or reach out for therapy to get expert support.