For so long, people have neglected their mental health while prioritizing their physical well-being. The reasons for the neglect are vast and often personal, but for many people, addressing their issues feels like an admittance to having problems society often stigmatizes (1).
The truth is, all of us will struggle with our mental health at some point in our lives, and when your mental health suffers, it can manifest in some not-so-pleasant ways. Untreated mental illness can take over your life; it can affect your relationships, career, and physical health.
Taking care of yourself mentally requires a fair bit of self-reflection. You have to observe your emotions and the motivations behind them. From there you can figure out how to nurture yourself and get the attention you need through radical acts of self-care.
Here are the latest statistics on mental health in the US:
- In 2022, 19.86% of US adults experienced a mental illness. This is equivalent to nearly 50 million Americans.
- 4.91% of US adults experienced a severe mental illness in 2022. This is equivalent to over 14 million Americans.
- The prevalence of mental illness in the US varies by demographic group. Non-Hispanic American Indians or Alaska Natives have the highest prevalence of mental illness (26.6%), followed by non-Hispanic mixed/multiracial adults (34.9%).
- People from all communities are affected by mental illness, but rural Americans often experience unique barriers to managing their mental health. Among US adults in nonmetropolitan areas in 2020, 21% experienced mental illness, 6% experienced serious mental illness, and 13% experienced a substance use disorder.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health in the US. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2021, the prevalence of depression and anxiety among US adults increased by 30% and 20%, respectively, during the pandemic.
- The workplace is also a major source of stress and mental health challenges. According to a 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association, 79% of workers reported feeling stressed about their jobs, and 61% reported feeling burned out.
Despite the prevalence of mental illness, many people do not seek professional help. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only 44% of adults with a mental illness receive treatment.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please know that you are not alone. There are many resources available to help you, including therapy, medication, and support groups. Please reach out to a healthcare professional or mental health specialist for help.
5 Ways to Improve Mental Health
1. Make Sleep a Priority
About 1 percent of the human population is physically capable of running on just a few hours of sleep a night (2). The rest of us need to clock in around eight to nine hours of slumber to fully function physically and mentally. Sleep deprivation is a huge contributor to mental health issues. Yet, because of our busy lifestyles and reliance on artificial light, about 40 percent of us aren’t getting the rest we need every night (3).
Making healthy sleep a priority in your life may seem silly. After all, in a world where time is money, spending it asleep feels like a waste. However, if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you impede your ability to think clearly. Driving while sleep-deprived can be as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.
Sleep concerns are often co-occurring with various mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and ADHD. So, as silly as it may seem at first glance, just try out prioritizing your rest and see how much your waking life improves.
Sleeping well at night means performing well the next day. If sleep is an issue for you, start with the mattress. You may not be getting the amount of support you need, which leads to nights full of tossing and turning then back pain in the morning. Find a mattress that complements your sleep style and you’ll likely see an increase in both the quality and time of your sleep.
Other ways you can improve your sleep:
- Have a consistent bedtime and waking time.
- Exercise during the day. Try not to do it too late as to prevent post-workout insomnia.
- Stop drinking caffeinated beverages after 1 pm.
- Turn off electronics and dim the lights before bed to help the mind relax.
- Avoid alcohol before bed. Drink a soothing herbal tea
2. Say ‘No’ and Mean It
We are inundated with images and marketing campaigns that make it seem like everything needs to be positive all the time. In our quest to be like, many of us grab onto that idea and let it affect how we act toward others, often defaulting to our people-pleasing ways even if it isn’t in our best interests.
Saying “no” is an important part of establishing a healthy life. It is one of the simplest ways to honor yourself and your truth.
It establishes healthy boundaries and respect in relationships. Saying “no” isn’t mean or selfish. In fact, when you take on things that you don’t really want to do, it creates feelings of resentment and negativity in your relationships. By being firm and committing to only that which you can do, you prevent future conflict and foster more honest communication.
But perhaps most importantly, saying “no” is a huge part of caring for your mental well-being. It gives you room to tend to your own needs before anyone else’s. It also shows the world that you respect yourself and the value of your time.
So instead of overcommitting to projects at work or taking on the bulk of the housework while everyone else lies about, say “no” to the things that are weighing you down and communicate your needs with those around you.
3. Eat Well and Get Moving
While caring for your physical health shouldn’t be your only focus, a nutritious diet and ample exercise are important factors in a well-rounded self-care routine.
According to nutritional psychologists, what you eat can have a profound effect on how you feel (4). That’s partial because 90 percent of serotonin, the body’s natural mood and sleep regulator, is manufactured in the gut. Eating more clean, whole foods and supplementing with probiotics can improve your mood and help reduce the stress that causes anxiety and depression.
When it comes to exercise, you don’t have to overdo it to get the mental health benefits moving your body provides.
A simple walk with your pet, afternoon in the garden, or stretching routine can help reduce stress, improve muscle tone, and trigger the release of endorphins that make you happier – both immediately and over time. The goal with physical activity is to find something you love so you’ll be more likely to keep doing it.
Of course, there are plenty of excuses that keep us from prioritizing healthy eating and regular exercise. Usually, it’s time, money, or both. When life gets busy or stressful, it’s important to look for ways to make your healthy lifestyle more convenient. If you don’t have time to go to the grocery store, try a meal delivery service that brings healthy, easy-to-prepare food right to your door.
If you can’t afford a gym membership, hit play on a YouTube video and get your sweat on from your living room, free of charge. No matter what solutions you come up with, one thing is for sure: staying on track will be worth every bit of effort you put into it.
4. Spend Time in Nature
Being in nature has been shown to have a number of mental health benefits, including reducing stress levels, improving mood, and boosting cognitive function. Try to spend some time each day outdoors, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Spending time in nature has been shown to have a number of mental health benefits, including:
- Reducing stress: Nature has a calming effect on the mind and body. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
- Improving mood: Nature can also boost mood and increase feelings of happiness and well-being. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can increase levels of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin.
- Boosting cognitive function: Nature can also improve cognitive function, including attention, memory, and creativity. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can improve performance on tasks such as attention tests and memory tests.
- Promoting relaxation: Nature can help to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate.
- Enhancing self-esteem: Nature can also help to enhance self-esteem and promote a sense of connection to something larger than oneself. Studies have shown that people who spend more time in nature are more likely to report feeling happy and satisfied with their lives.
Here are some specific ways to spend time in nature to improve your mental health:
- Go for a walk in the park: Even a short walk in nature can have a positive impact on your mental health.
- Sit by a river or lake: The sound of running water can be very calming and relaxing.
- Hike in the woods: Hiking is a great way to get exercise and connect with nature at the same time.
- Garden: Gardening is a great way to get your hands dirty and connect with the earth.
- Stargaze: Looking up at the stars can help you to feel connected to something larger than yourself.
If you live in an urban area, there are still ways to get in touch with nature. You can visit a local park or botanical garden, or even just sit outside on your patio or balcony. Even a few minutes of exposure to nature can have a positive impact on your mental health.
5. Listen to Your Body
Your mental and physical health are intrinsically related. If one suffers, you’re going to see that suffering manifest in the other. For instance, anxiety often results in physical side effects such as headaches, upset stomach, rapid heartbeat, fatigue, muscle aches, and other pains. It’s important to check in with your body from time to time and listen to what it’s trying to tell you.
Every gut feeling you have is your body trying to tell you something. Slow down and figure out what exactly that feeling means to you. A good way to do that is through meditation. While seated in a comfortable area free from distraction, allow yourself to relax and be still.
Keep a steady and intentional breath that feels comfortable. Notice the physical sensation of simply being in that spot, at that moment. Scan your body for any discomfort. Try to release any physical tension and keep your thoughts on your body scan until you’ve reached the very end.
You don’t have to do a full-on meditation to listen to your body, though. Listening to your body can be as simple as avoiding the person that creeps you out rather than engaging in conversation for the sake of being polite. If your body is telling you something is off, that most likely means something is indeed off. Human intuition is remarkably evolved take advantage of that for the good of your mental health.
Neglecting your mental health can make symptoms so severe that they have a negative impact on your relationships, career, physical health, and your overall happiness. Caring for your mental health shouldn’t come with stigma; it’s an important part of self-care. So, sleep well, set boundaries, take care of your body, and listen to your intuition.
Brad created SelfCaring.info to share his own knowledge and the many great resources he has found on his self-care journey.