This article was originally written for and published in Thought Catalog. I first wrote it as a reminder to myself, then realized other people might benefit from it. This is how most of my posts here begin - I write for myself, then decide to share it.
Over the years, I have compiled a list of simple things to do which have a big impact on my mental health. Sometimes, it is not the grand gestures which work. You do not need to quit your job, go on a silent meditation retreat or move countries to feel better (although those are all cool things to do.) Making the effort to look after yourself in subtle ways is so important. However rough you feel, however hard life is, try incorporating one of these each day. Most only take a few minutes and your mind will thank you for it.
1. Put a weekly telephone call to someone you care about in your calendar
We all know how good it feels to speak on the phone, but it is easy to lapse into only communicating through texts and messages. Make a plan to call someone – perhaps a childhood best friend or a relation who lives far away – once a week. You will both come away happier afterwards.
2. Say no to a commitment which is draining your energy
Maybe it’s an extra shift at work, a volunteer role, a class or anything else. It’s not selfish to say no to something which is wearing you out. You’ll have more time and energy to focus on looking after yourself.
3. Get outside
Whatever the weather, find some green space to relax for a few minutes each day. This is proven to relieve stress, sharpen your thinking and generally boost your mood. Take your laptop out and work in the garden (which I am doing right down), go for a walk in the woods or take your lunch to a park.
4. Watch the stars
Try taking some time to look up at the sky each night. Just like getting outside, this has been shown to improve mental health by giving you a sense of connection to something larger than yourself.
5. Find your ‘snowball’
In BJ Miller’s incredible TED talk, he describes a nurse in a burn unit bringing him a snowball. The simple feeling of the snow melting in his palm was enough to inspire awe at the world. Find something small to make you feel a sense of appreciation for being alive.
One of my recent ‘snowballs’ was when a pigeon perched on my hand for several minutes while in Venice. Some people might find that gross, but my bad mood completely lifted as I stroked the bird and fed him breadcrumbs. The happiness lasted all day as I kept smiling at the memory. I might have been alone in a strange city, yet I had felt a brief sense of companionship with another living creature.
6. Read ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius
It will change your life forever.
7. Then, read ‘Letters from a Stoic’ by Seneca
Again, it will change everything. Learning about Stoicism has helped my mental health perhaps more than anything else.
8. Delete a social media account
Even if you feel like looking at cat pictures at 3 am makes you happier, study after study has highlighted the impact social media has on mental health. I said goodbye to mine earlier this year and it felt amazing. Give this a go and you will be amazed by how much clearer your mind is. No one will miss you, I promise and you will not want to go back to it.
9. Turn off notifications
They are stressful, even if you don’t realise it. Switch them off – no one needs alerting every time they get an email or text.
10. If you are on medication for mental health problems but it isn’t helping, ask your doctor to review it
So many people neglect to do this and it is vital. There are lots of options and even a change in dose can have an enormous impact on your well-being.
11. Delete apps off your phone
If you are not willing to delete your accounts altogether, at least take them off your phone. You can always access to them on your computer.
12. Decide on a regular bedtime
Chances are high you haven’t done this since you were about 6 years old. Having a regular bedtime can mean better sleep as your body adjusts. It will also create a rhythm to your day as you get used to switching off at a certain time.
13. Also, decide on a regular time to wake up
Forget the myth that waking up early is necessary. There is no difference in terms of success between early birds and night owls. You do not need to get up at 5 am to make the best use of your day. Our biological prime times are genetic (find out your chronotype here) and forcing yourself to be awake at suboptimum times will make you miserable. Even, so a regular sleep schedule makes it much easier to structure your life.
14. Commit to 1 minute of meditation per day
Building a meditation habit can be tricky. So, try starting with just 60 seconds per day, then building it up over time. You can do anything for 1 minute and it will have a huge impact on your mental health. I recommend the Calm app for guided meditations and breathing exercises.
15. Write out your worst fears
Then write how you would handle them. Whenever my anxiety flares up, I use this to remind myself that even the worst case scenario is not that bad.
16. Track how you spend the day in 15-minute increments
Just set a timer and record what you are doing each time it goes off. How you spend your days is how you spend your life. Seeing exactly where all your time goes is a powerful exercise. Good mental health requires plenty of time for yourself and for self-care.
17. Make a list of the assumptions you have about yourself, others and life in general
Looking at them written down starkly on a piece of paper can help to highlight which are harmful or plain untrue. Then you can be self-aware enough to tackle them.
18. Decide to stop speaking to a toxic person
There is no need to feel guilty. If someone makes you feel bad, stop associating with them. They do not deserve your company. Let them be bitter and gloomy on their own, without you to take it out on. This does not mean deserting a friend in a time of need, it means moving away from those who make your life miserable on purpose.
19. Make the choice to say goodbye to an addiction
Most people have at least one harmful addiction. Maybe it’s alcohol, smoking, junk food, whatever. Only you can decide to leave it behind and you can make that choice today. Addiction can seem like a viable way to handle mental health problems, yet they invariably worsen the problem.
20. Book a ticket for something a few months ahead – a concert, a film a weekend away or even a longer trip
Having something to look forward to is an ideal way to stay positive and avoid dwelling on the past. Whatever is happening right now, you have something exciting ahead.
21. Throw out your crap
A year ago, I realized that my overcrowded bedroom was exacerbating my anxiety. I took the plunge and decluttered 90% of my belongings, reducing everything down to just a few bags of stuff. The result? Much less stress and much more freedom. Chances are, you own far more stuff than you need. It takes up space, time and energy. A tidy living space will bring far more joy than owning excess stuff. Try throwing out one thing each day, or take the plunge and have a huge clear out. Donate, give away or sell the unwanted stuff. Someone else can make better use of it.
22. Look after your gut
No, seriously. Your gut plays a surprising role in your mental health. communicating with your brain and even producing serotonin. Try eating more fermented foods, drinking bone broth or taking a probiotic.
23. Practice negative visualisation
This technique comes from Stoic philosophy. The idea is this; imagine that the worst has happened. Really picture the absolute worst which could happen to you. Your house burns down, someone sues you, the industry you work in collapses, your qualifications become null, you lose a limb, your family dies. Close your eyes and feel the pain for a few moments. Then, open your eyes and look at the world anew, knowing that none of it has happened. As grim as it sounds, it is a positive method of finding appreciation.
NOTHING helps me with depression more than exercise. Find the type and time which works for you. Don’t run on a treadmill for an hour if you know yoga would make you happier. Don’t force yourself to do team sports if you would be happier working out alone. Don’t feel like you have enough time for exercise? Intersperse 5-minute bursts throughout your day. Intervals are even more effective than lengthy stints and will help with energy levels. My personal favourite is 5-10 minutes of body weight exercises and stretches every hour or so. It makes a big difference if you spend most of your day hunched over a laptop.
25. Make a list of 3 things you are grateful for and 3 things you would like to improve each night
Gratitude is proven to have a big impact on your mental health. A friend and I used to do get in touch and do this before bed every night. Even on the worst days, we were forced to find something good to list. Funnily enough, there always were 3 good things, however, small; some sunshine, a nice coffee, petting a cat in the street, a book, a conversation.
Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a perfect way to overcome doubt and grow. Doing something which scares you might be counterintuitive, yet it is always worthwhile.
27. Stop trying to craft a perfect image of yourself
You are a person, not a brand. Live your life authentically, rather than striving to be something you are not.