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The act of self-care is ongoing. Though social media might have us believe it can be easily solved with a bubble bath or one-time meditation, it requires far more engagement to be effective. The work we put in daily can help to prevent stress and anxiety that can quickly plague us. While we all love a self-care moment (and they are necessary as part of a mental health plan!), here are a few practical habits you can start today that will truly impact your mental health for the long term.
1. Focus on your physical health
The integration of mind, body and spirit starts with physical health. Mental health directly corresponds with how our body is (or isn’t) functioning. When we’re maxed out mentally, it can quickly wreak havoc on our body in the form of chronic headaches, an upset stomach and overall aches and pains. Our body’s symptoms will tell us when we need a change; it’s up to us to choose whether or not to listen.
Therefore, following the basics of balanced nutrition, exercise and sleep is essential. It’s self-care in its original form, and though the approach seems simplistic, too often, these areas go neglected for too long. Once back on track with a healthy regimen, you may be surprised how many painful physical manifestations start to subside.
Nutrition and hydration — Your body needs nutrients and electrolytes to function properly. You get these by eating well-balanced meals and drinking plenty of water in place of fast food conveniences and sugary sodas. Taking small steps to improve your daily nutrition can do wonders for your health and give you more energy throughout the day. Plus, it takes less time than you might think to set yourself up for success.
Plan a few healthful snacks and meals to grab and go as needed. Tuna salad and crackers, a rice bowl with salmon or chicken, or a colorful salad with fresh veggies all serve up enough nutritional value to help you get through the day. Also, track your daily water intake and aim for at least 64 ounces. Even if you waiver once in a while, simply resume your routine the next day. Consistency, rather than perfection, is key.
Exercise — Exercise shouldn’t be viewed as a chore or punishment. Reframe it as a chance to move your body and improve your strength. It’s been reported that 20 minutes of moderate activity a day is impactful in reducing stress. Regular exercise can also promote better sleep, boost your mood, and improve your confidence.
Pick an activity you like, such as bike riding or nature walks, boxing classes or vinyasa yoga, to turn your “workout” into an enjoyable solo or group outing. The more you focus on making it fun, the easier it will be to maintain the habit. Add it to your calendar as a “to-do” versus considering it as an afterthought. And, if you need extra motivation, invite a friend to join you and help keep you accountable.
Sleep — Stress aggravates healthy sleep patterns, perpetuating a negative cycle affecting our mental health. Your brain needs time to rest and reset, which means quality sleep is important. Without it, it may be more difficult to regulate emotions, handle stress, or mitigate anxiety.
Create a calm sleep environment that’s cool and dark enough to align with your body’s natural circadian rhythm. Ensure you have the right mattress, blanket and pillow to keep you comfortable through the night. And focus on the quality of sleep versus actual hours. Though it’s recommended to get eight hours of sleep per night, this may vary. As long as it’s restful and you wake up feeling refreshed, it will do wonders for your physical and mental health.
Related: 10 Go-To Self-Care Activities That Don’t Cost a Darn Thing
2. Make relaxation a priority
Too often, we wait until the weekend to allow ourselves time to relax when we should be incorporating moments into our everyday life. For some, adding relaxing activities to the calendar helps create habits and maintain accountability. For others, it’s easier to start a routine of winding down at the end of the day. Either way, here are quick ways to make relaxation a top priority.
Practice breathing exercises — Intentional breathwork has been proven to help calm our central nervous system and instantly relax us. Begin with an inhale of 3-5 seconds, hold for 3-5 seconds, exhale for 3-5 seconds and repeat several times. This can be done during the day after a long meeting or a stressful interaction or as a jumpstart to your morning or transition into the evening.
Related: Here’s One Way to Relax and Get a Good Night’s Sleep
3. Pause for gratitude
Switching daily habits requires a switch in overall mindset. Focusing on gratitude helps train our minds to look toward the positive rather than dwell on the negative. Start a daily list with three things you’re grateful for that day.
If you feel inclined, continue with a gratitude journal to expand on your thoughts and walk through any emotions you may be feeling. Also, implementing another creative expression through art or music is another way to enhance your gratitude practice and make it a habit.
Limit your social media consumption — We are connected to our phones and other digital devices personally and often for work, which makes it hard to put down the electronics and disconnect. However, studies show too much time on social media can lead to increased anxiety and depression, as well as hinder our in-person interactions. Though it may feel relaxing to mindlessly scroll through your social media feed, be careful of the content you browse and the time spent.
To create better habits, set a timer and plan an alternative activity instead. Remove social media apps from your phone. Or, take a full-out break from social media temporarily to see how your mind responds. You may find you don’t crave it as much as you think. These are a few ways to intentionally focus less time online and more on your mental well-being.
Connect with your community — Fortunately, the stigma of mental health has started to be eradicated, and more people feel comfortable speaking out about their struggles. Sharing with and supporting others can help you with your mental health journey. Reach out to the resources available and know some people want to support you.
Making these lifestyle changes can feel overwhelming, but when you break it down into smaller steps, all you have to do is take action.