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Mental health is a widely discussed concept, these days. You might notice discussions about mental health online, in conversation, on your favorite show, or any number of other places.

But widespread, frequent use of any term can lead the meaning to become blurred, if not misinterpreted entirely. So, if you come across the term often but still have some uncertainty around exactly what “mental health” refers to, you’re definitely not alone.

“Mental health is about the functionality of your brain and all that impacts it,” says Oludara Adeeyo, a psychiatric social worker and author of “Self-Care for Black Women.”

In a nutshell, mental health includes your psychological and social well-being. It also encompasses your emotional health, or your ability to name, address, and regulate your emotions.

Many factors play a part in mental health, some of which you can’t control, such as genetics, life experiences, and family history.

But you do have influence over a wide portion of your mental health, notes KC Davis, a licensed professional counselor and author of “How To Keep House While Drowning.”

The ability you have to influence your mental health is key, because your mental health matters, quite a lot.

What makes mental health so important?

Mental health helps determine how you handle stress, relate to others, and make choices, explains Alison Seponara, a licensed professional counselor and author of the book “The Anxiety Healer’s Guide.”

Seponara goes on to say that caring for your mental health can lead to:

  • improved mood
  • reduced anxiety
  • clearer thinking
  • deeper relationships
  • improved self-esteem and confidence

Nurturing your mental health can also help you manage health conditions that are worsened by stress, like heart disease, says Seponara.

Your mental health can impact everything about your life, Adeeyo says, including the ways you view and move through the world and your ability to handle the things life throws at you.

That’s why building habits for better mental health can make a big difference in your day-to-day life.

Pro tip

As you explore new behaviors and begin incorporating them into your routine, aim to frame these changes as self-kindness, not self-punishment. Maintaining a gentle, kind attitude toward yourself can do a lot more to improve your mental health and overall outlook than criticism and negative self-talk.

“Work on your mental health from a place of care,” Davis recommends.

Not sure where to start? You’ll find 8 strategies to promote improved mental health below, along with some guidance on seeking professional support.

Sleep isn’t just a nonnegotiable for physical health. It also plays an essential role in mental health.

One 2021 study included data from 273,695 adults in the United States. The researchers found that people who averaged 6 hours of sleep or less per night were about 2.5 times more likely to report frequent mental distress than those who averaged more than 6 hours of sleep.

The quality of your sleep matters, too: Disrupted sleep can contribute to mental health symptoms.

To get enough high quality sleep, try starting with these habits:

  • Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.
  • Try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day.
  • Make your bedroom into a quiet, relaxing, clutter-free space.
  • Aim to keep the temperature in your bedroom somewhere around 65°F (18.3°C).

Healthy sleep habits can be harder to build on your own if you have a sleep disorder.

If you think your sleeping issues may relate to a sleep condition, a sleep specialist can offer more information about helpful evidence-based treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.

Know, too, that mental health concerns can also lead to poor sleep. So, changes to your sleep environment and nighttime routine might not make a lasting difference. If you don’t notice much improvement, connecting with a therapist may be a helpful next step.

Get 17 tips for improving sleep.

“Constantly consuming information about other people’s lives may cause someone to compare themselves and promote feelings of low self-worth, which increases feelings of anxiety and depression,” says Adeeyo.

To spend less time on social media, try to:

  • keep your phone in a drawer or outside your bedroom while sleeping
  • make a list of alternate, more meaningful activities to replace your usual scrolling sessions
  • turn off notifications or delete social apps from your phone

Learn more about building a healthier relationship with social media.

Humans are social creatures, and strong relationships can have a positive influence on your mental health in various ways.

Friendships, for example, can:

  • ease feelings of loneliness
  • make it easier to get emotional support
  • add meaning to your life

You have plenty of options for cultivating positive connections and nurturing your friendships:

  • Keep in touch by checking in regularly, even with just a quick text or funny meme.
  • Meet up for a morning walk or breakfast.
  • Call for a short chat during your lunch break.
  • Schedule biweekly or monthly dinner dates.

Making a point to catch up when you do spend time together can make a difference, too. Research from 2018 suggests catching up and joking around in person predicted closer bonds above and beyond the number of hours participants spent together.

Short on meaningful relationships? Find 7 ways to make friends as an adult.

Exercise offers a range of mental health benefits, including:

  • relieving stress
  • lifting mood
  • helping you fall asleep faster and sleep longer
  • helping you manage symptoms of depression and anxiety conditions

Movement can involve something different for every person, and it doesn’t have to mean going to the gym — unless you genuinely want to. Instead, make movement enjoyable for you by opting for physical activities that work best for your body, health, and preferences.

To get started, experiment with a range of physical activities and keep doing the ones that resonate with you.

Enjoyable movement could include:

  • joining a running or walking club
  • taking a slower-paced restorative yoga class
  • trying seated exercises
  • throwing a dance party
  • taking stretching breaks every hour
  • gardening or doing other work in your backyard
  • a weekend family hike or walk along the beach

In other words, you don’t have to do a vigorous workout to support mental wellness.

“Taking a few minutes to stretch can make a huge difference for your overall mental health. Stretching will help with blood flow and get more oxygen through your body, which can help you feel more relaxed and happy,” says Christopher S. Taylor, PhD, LPC-S, founder of Taylor Counseling Group, author of “My Digital Practice” and host of the “For Self-Examination” podcast.

Try these stretches for different parts of the body.

Certain foods can also affect your mental health. To support improved mental health, try expanding your current diet to include foods packed with mood-boosting nutrients like:

  • berries
  • bananas
  • beans
  • whole grains
  • fatty fish, like salmon

It can also help to simply make sure you fuel your body every day — eating anything is better than eating nothing.

Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can also have benefit. “When you’re dehydrated, you’re denying your brain and body the nutrients needed to survive and operate at a more optimal level,” Adeeyo notes.

Certain foods, namely alcohol, caffeine, refined carbs, and added sugars, may worsen anxiety symptoms. So, limiting these foods could help ease some of your symptoms.

On difficult days, you might find it tough to do any of the above, which might make you feel even worse.

At times like these, Davis encourages turning to compassionate, more accessible strategies, like:

  • creating a hygiene kit when you can’t shower — think dry shampoo and cleansing body wipes
  • setting a timer to clean something for just 5 minutes
  • buying a prepackaged meal when cooking anything feels close to impossible

A similar approach you can try? Commit to taking one small step every day.

“Whether it’s making your bed, drinking one glass of water in the morning, or writing in a journal, making this daily promise to yourself will help to eventually become a habit, and you will begin to feel empowered,” Seponara explains.

While what constitutes “rest” may vary from person to person, it generally means giving your mind and body the opportunity to unwind and restore.

Do you find it challenging to relax and feel rested?

Rosie Acosta, meditation and yoga teacher and author of the book “You Are Radically Loved,” offers yoga Nidra, a sleep-based meditation, as one option to try.

She recommends the following steps:

  • Lie on your back with your hands by your sides. Spread your feet apart — the distance of your hips, or a bit wider.
  • Think of being relaxed, yet present. You feel calm, but still aware.
  • Bring your attention to your physical body and then to your breath.
  • On an inhale, imagine a slow-moving wave entering from the soles of your feet and traveling to the crown of your head.
  • On the exhale, visualize a slow-moving wave traveling from the crown of your head back down to the soles of your feet.
  • Feel your body become heavy, and stay with this relaxed present awareness for 10 to 30 minutes.

Only have a few minutes to relax? Acosta suggests these quick restorative practices:

  • Put both hands over your heart, close your eyes, and take several deep breaths, feeling the warmth and comfort of your touch.
  • Breathe in for 2 counts and breathe out for 4 counts for 12 cycles.

“The sun is a great source of vitamin D, and studies show it can improve attitude and mood,” says Taylor.

Your outdoor time doesn’t have to be long, either. As Taylor notes, “Five minutes of blue skies can do your mind and your heart some real good.”

Stuck inside all day? If you have several minutes, Taylor recommends:

  • taking a quick walk
  • sitting in your backyard
  • standing outside breathing in the fresh air

Or, try these options:

  • open the window near your desk
  • suggest taking a work meeting outside
  • eat lunch at a nearby park
  • exercise outdoors

The strategies above can help improve mental well-being, but they can’t “cure” any mental health conditions.

To put it another way, making changes in your habits may not always relieve persistent mental distress. Working with a therapist, however, can be a particularly powerful way to improve mental health.

You can consider professional support at any time. You don’t need to have depression, anxiety, or any specific mental health symptoms to benefit from therapy.

That said, reaching out becomes particularly important if:

  • you’ve experienced a stressful or traumatic event
  • you feel more upset, anxious, or sad than usual
  • you frequently feel agitated, irritable, or angry
  • your motivation has tanked
  • you’ve noticed changes in your appetite and sleep patterns
  • you often find it difficult to get through the day
  • you feel stuck or overwhelmed
  • you’re using alcohol or other substances more than usual or turning to other unhelpful coping behaviors

Here’s how to find the right therapist for you.

Your mental health plays a pivotal role in your quality of life. Many of the factors that can affect mental health remain beyond your control, but adding beneficial habits to your days can promote greater wellness.

Just know that when it comes to adopting new habits, it’s generally more helpful to start with just one or two at a time, instead of a complete overhaul. Then, check in with yourself to take stock of how those changes helped.

If your mental health starts to get worse, it could be time to consider reaching out to a therapist. Professional support can be a powerful tool in your positive mental habits toolkit.

Above all, remember: “You are a person who deserves to function and enjoy life the best you can,” says Davis.

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, has been writing for Psych Central and other websites for more than a decade on a wide range of topics. She’s the author of the mental health journal “Vibe Check: Be Your Best You” (Sterling Teen). She’s especially passionate about helping readers feel less alone and overwhelmed and more empowered. You can connect with Margarita on LinkedIn, or check out her writing at her website.