A common misconception is that mental and emotional health should come easily. But like most things, maintaining mental well-being is a practice. You don't keep a clean house or good hygiene without dedication and action, right? The same goes for mental and emotional health!
As a therapist, I like to "walk the walk" and practice the same habits I sometimes encourage for my clients. In this post, I share my top 12 personal habits for mental well-being. All 12 of these habits are something I personally practice on a regular basis, and can confidently speak for their efficacy. A quick google search on each of these habits will yield studies that support their efficacy as well. Reading through this list may give you some ideas for habits you want to cultivate for yourself.
As you read through this list, you may experience positive feelings as you recognize how many of these things you already do to take care of yourself. Alternatively, you may feel overwhelmed, recognizing that you do very few or none of these. If the latter is the case, please know that there is no shame intended, only increased awareness. You may use this new awareness to commit to consciously cultivating different habits.
Real change often happens slowly. For me, it took several years of dedication and focus to build up a strong baseline of these habits. So if you haven't cultivated these, or you are overwhelmed by the amount of work it feels like it may take, just keep in mind that little changes over time make a huge difference.
My Top 12 Habits
Heal and address underlying trauma: It's difficult to function confidently, clearly, and equanimously in the world with past traumas triggering you and causing distress! While they're uncomfortable, I believe these triggers are opportunities and trailheads for growth. Methods like IFS, Depth Hypnosis, and Shamanic Journeying can help you unearth and heal underlying traumas so you can feel freer.
Meditate: There are many different types of meditation available. I personally like to practice "samata," or mindfulness of breathing. This can help train your focus, build awareness of thoughts, foster more emotional balance, and provide you with more space and choice to "respond" rather than "react" to situations. If you're new, a simple 5 minutes to start can go a long way. Feel free to ask me about this in our sessions. I'd be happy to provide more information and teach you how to practice.
Have boundaries and say "no": We all have emotional, mental, and physical needs and limits. Boundaries are how we protect ourselves from being overextended, undervalued, or under-resourced. Without boundaries, we may run the risk of never having time for ourselves, feeling "unmet" in relationships, saying "yes" even when we want to say "no," or working too hard. This leads to stress, resentment, self-neglect, and even burnout. In contrast, knowing, setting, and sticking to your boundaries can help you feel more empowered and enjoy your life more, because you'll be consciously saying "yes" to what's most important. This book is a great resource for learning more about boundaries.
Move daily: Regular movement (or exercise) is instrumental for mental well-being. It releases endorphins and reduces stress. Walking, taking the stairs, commuting by bike, cooking, or gardening are great ways to make movement a way of life. It's also good to schedule time to train your strength, cardio, and endurance. I personally recommend starting with activities you enjoy and work up from there. Starting an exercise routine can feel challenging if you dislike it, but you'll look forward to activities you enjoy. And over time, you'll start to notice the mood-boosting benefits of exercise and crave more of it.
Sleep: Sleep is essential for physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Our body repairs, restores, and processes during sleep. It's best practice to minimize light before bed, go to bed and wake up at consistent times, and aim for 7-8 hours nightly.
Know and live core values: Values are principles and standards that you live by, and what you hold to be most important. Values are different for every person. For example, one person might highly value family, environmental conservation, and health, while another person values adventure, learning, and making an impact through work. It's important to identify your values, and then assess whether you're living by them or not.
Nurture close, supportive, and authentic relationships: Humans are social creatures. You are hard-wired to need others, even if you're introverted! Not all relationships are created equal, though. The best relationships are those where you feel you can be yourself, be honest, gain and receive support, and call on others when needed. Healthy relationships also have the ability to hold space for inevitable conflict while still maintaining safety and mutual support. Having friendships as an adult can be challenging, as people's lives get busier and there are fewer opportunities to meet others than you had as a kid. If your life conditions don't offer consistent connection naturally (for example if you work from home or live alone), you may need to make a concerted effort to make relationships a priority. This book is a great read for cultivating adult friendships.
Connect to nature: In addition to being hard-wired for connection, humans are also wired to be immersed in a natural environment. Having regular contact with nature through activities like caring for houseplants and a garden, walking in the park, camping, or hiking, can drastically improve mental well-being.
Have a healthy diet: Nutrition cannot be underestimated when it comes to your mental and emotional well-being. The Standard American Diet (or SAD diet for short) can wreak havoc on your health. Some nutrient deficiencies are linked directly to mental health issues. In contrast, a healthy, whole food, fresh, organic, and ideally local diet can significantly improve your health. I personally aim for about 7-9 servings of vegetables and 2-3 servings of fruit a day. While this may seem like a lot, it is attainable with time, practice, and a change in palate. Also, shopping locally and trying new recipes can become a healthy and fun hobby! Please note that it's best to talk to a medical professional about dietary changes.
Have a spiritual connection: I will define spirituality as a connection with something bigger than yourself. Many people find a spiritual connection in nature, divination, prayer, shamanic journeying, Depth Hypnosis, other altered states of consciousness, or their personal spiritual/faith background. My personal favorites for myself are connecting to nature, shamanic journeying, and Depth Hypnosis. Many of my clients report a greater spiritual connection through therapy.
Discover and address underlying health issues: Underlying health issues can contribute to or even cause mental health issues. This could be especially important to look at if you've addressed trauma, cultivated healthy habits, and have good relationships but you're still feeling poorly. Make sure to report your symptoms to your doctor, do routine bloodwork, and be a strong advocate for yourself and your health. You can always seek second and third opinions if needed.
Engage in purposeful and meaningful activities: It's important to have a sense of purpose and meaning in your life, whether that be through raising kids, making a difference in your career, volunteering, or having meaningful hobbies such as gardening, writing, or creating art. In addition to values, your own personal sense of meaning can be a driving force in your life that keeps you oriented and afloat, especially during difficult times.
Now, I recognize that this is a long list, and incorporating everything on it in your life may feel difficult to attain. Additionally, you do not need to prioritize absolutely everything on this list in order to feel well. You might even feel that some of these habits aren't important to you, or that you have others that aren't on my list that are important to you. My personal recommendation is to start with what's easiest and/or most important to you first. This will give you momentum and more energy to create changes in other areas later on if it feels right to you.
Also, one important thing to note is that issues in #1 can make it challenging to habituate #2-12. Having underlying trauma makes it more difficult to create and sustain relationships and good habits. One thing I've found helpful is self-compassion and dedication to working through trauma in therapy. Doing this can help make #2-12 much easier to prioritize as well. I hope this list has given you some inspiration and direction if you needed it.
Thanks for reading and see you in session!