Our world is changing at a rapid pace. In the last few decades, and even in the last few years, our lives have become more and more convenient and technologically advanced — but this all comes at the expense of our mental health. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders are on the rise, and not so coincidentally, we're sleeping worse, moving less, and eating more. Fortunately, we’re in control of our lives and have the power to make simple but important changes that can improve our mental well-being.
Here are seven science-backed things you can do today to improve your mental health.
Sleep better. Everything is better when you’re well-rested and everything, including our mental well-being, is worse when we're sleep-deprived. One of the best ways to improve your sleep is to respect the “sleep window.” The sleep window is the two to three hours before bed when your body is most sensitive to down-regulating your nervous system for optimal sleep. During this time, be sure to avoid blue light, exercise, food, alcohol, and high levels of stress. Find ways to help down-regulate by reading, drinking tea, and using blue light-blocking glasses.
Lift weights. Resistance training has long been known to improve our physical health, but more recently, it’s also proven to be good for our mental health as well. A 2018 study analyzed 33 experiments on the effects of strength training and depression. The researchers concluded that lifting “significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults.” To get started, you don't need to spend hours in the gym or lift very heavy weights. The minimum effective dose of lifting weights is just twice a week for about 20 minutes each time (including rest breaks!).
Spend time with others. Socialization may be the most important factor that impacts our mental health. Humans are social creatures who evolved to be in groups and help one another for most of our existence up until only recently. Taking this core component out of our lives leads to a breakdown of our mental health. In a 2019 paper, “Socialization Helps the Treatment of Depression in Modern Life,” the authors wrote, “one of the fundamental reasons for the depression is isolation, loneliness, and lack of social support.” Make time to spend time with positive people in-person on a regular basis.
Get hot and cold. Hormesis is a short exposure to stress that elicits an adaptive response. It’s an important way to improve your physical and mental well-being. While there are many types of hormesis, one simple way to expose yourself to temperatures far outside of what you’re used to is by using a sauna. This has been shown to be an effective way to manage depression, with a single bout having antidepressant effects that last six weeks. I use a sauna blanket at home to achieve this. On the other end of the spectrum, the use of cryotherapy (cold exposure) has been found to improve mood, sleep, and vitality in those with depression. A simple way to incorporate this is to end each one of your showers with the coldest water possible for two minutes.
Limit processed foods. It’s no secret that ultra-processed foods aren’t good for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to avoid. These addictive foods are cheap, convenient, and hyper-palatable. A recent study, however, points out how impactful these foods are on our health. They found that those who ate more ultra-processed foods “were significantly more likely to report mild depression, more mentally unhealthy, and more anxious days.” Swap out the wrappers with whole foods that have five or fewer ingredients.
Practice gratitude. Giving thanks is such a powerful thing that we have a full day dedicated to it in the U.S. The power of gratitude lies in the fact that it halts our ability to habituate. When we take a bite of food, get a promotion, or drive that new car for the first time, we are so excited, but with time, this excitement fades. This is the hedonic treadmill, and practicing gratitude hits the pause button on the treadmill. Research has shown that being thankful isn't a fleeting thing, either. In a randomized control trial, researchers measured the effects of writing letters of gratitude to others. Compared to a control group and a group that wrote about stressful situations, the gratitude group "reported significantly better mental health" than the participants in the other group one and three months later. Have a "Thank You" note section by your door and make a point to send a few notes to friends, family, and even strangers each week.
Develop a growth mindset. A growth mindset, according to Dr. Carol Dweck, "is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts." Having a growth mindset is looking at challenges as opportunities, criticism as an avenue to get better, and effort as the way to mastery. A 2022 study of 2,505 college students tracked their mindset with their self-reported mental health. They concluded that "individuals with a growth mindset are less prone to mental health problems than individuals with a fixed mindset." Identify mental thought traps that keep you in a fixed mindset, and flip the switch when those moments arise.