5 Evidence-Backed Ways to Improve Your Mental Health

woman stressed

When maintaining a healthy lifestyle, prioritizing mental health is just as important as a well-balanced diet and exercise. In fact, people with depression are  40% more likely to develop cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health Institute (NAMI). 

If you’re looking to improve your mental health, here are five tips to help you get started.

1. Give Therapy a Try

Finding an outlet like talk therapy to discuss concerns and struggles can help you relieve stress and regain a sense of control. Therapy can also help you develop healthy behaviors, improve relationships, increase positive thinking and result in better performance at work or in school, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

What’s more, with the development of telehealth and online therapy options like Talkspace and BetterHelp, you can choose the form of therapy you feel is best for you in the setting you feel most comfortable. “Online therapy is really discrete and can protect people’s privacy and confidentiality in ways that in-person [therapy] simply cannot,” Lisa Henderson, a licensed professional counselor and expert at the American Counseling Association, tells Forbes Health.

If you’re new to therapy and trying to decide which forum is right for you, Henderson believes there to be minimal difference in efficacy between online therapy and in-person therapy. “We see just as much—if not more—improvement in online therapy settings,” she says, adding that in her professional opinion, “there’s really no difference between which one is more effective.”

2. Find Time for You

During a busy week, self-care can feel like a luxury—and an expensive one, too. Luckily, there are simple ways to add self-care to your daily routine. What’s more, practicing self-care has lasting benefits, even if only done for a few minutes each day. 

Effective forms of self-care, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), include:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Eating well-balanced meals
  • Staying hydrated
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Finding ways to relax, such as reading a book or practicing meditative breathing techniques
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Setting goals and being mindful of accomplishments
  • Focusing on positivity
  • Staying connected to friends and/or family members

3. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is proven to help improve mental health in a variety of ways, including stress reduction, enhanced memory function, improved relationships, better cognitive health and a decrease in emotional reactions, according to the APA. Experts note mindfulness helps slow reaction time as well, giving you the chance to make conscious decisions in a situation rather than be ruled by emotion. 

Curious which type of mindfulness would work best for you? There are many options, including seated meditation, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), moving meditation and experiential mindfulness. For beginners, experts say a mindfulness practice may be as simple as setting a daily reminder or phone notification to be present, practicing deep breathing or journaling. 

4. Focus on Your Physical Health

Though the term “mental health” may seem focused on the mind, physical health contributes a great deal to your state of mind, too.

Exercise is credited with the ability to reduce stress and alleviate symptoms of depression, according to the National Library of Medicine. Physical exercise, such as jogging, swimming, cycling, dancing, walking and even gardening, are known to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and even contribute to improved cognitive function and better self-esteem. 

Diet is proven to affect a person’s mood, stress and anxiety, and research shows the bacteria in the gut is tied to mental processes, including mood. In fact, gut bacteria produce 95% of the body’s serotonin, a hormone that contributes to mood, according to the American Psychological Association. To support mental health, experts suggest a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and foods that supply omega-3 fatty acids. Diets like the Mediterranean diet may also help improve mental health. 

Proper sleep contributes directly to the brain’s ability to process emotions, which makes getting enough quality sleep each night important for overall mental health. In a study of more than 273,000 U.S. adults conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), participants who didn’t get enough quality sleep were 2.5 times more likely to develop mental distress than those who did sleep well consistently.

5. Develop Coping Skills

When stressful or anxiety-filled situations do occur, coping tools can help you adapt and adjust to changes in life. These tools may involve relaxation techniques like breathing exercises and communicating with a support system, among many others. The most effective coping skills are dependent on your personal needs. A therapist or licensed mental health professional can work with you on identifying these instances and finding the best coping methods for you. 

Jessica Lester is an editor at Forbes Health.