20 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health
Here’s what science shows can help keep us on track.
Posted Jan 01, 2020
We’ve crossed the threshold into a new decade. There’s a lot of resolution advice swirling, but not all of it is evidence-based or realistic.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a global mental health crisis. It projects that, by the next turn of the decade in 2030, lifestyle and stress-related illness will surpass communicable diseases.
Modern brain science has a lot to say about what helps protect us given the risk factors of today. Here are 20 strategies to practice regularly to shield and sustain you:
1. Recognize you are not a robot or machine. Humans are beings, not doings. We’re not meant to be on 24-7. You are not above the laws of science, which emphasize the importance of breaks and replenishment.
2. Practice mindfulness. Be fully present in each moment. Avoid rash judgment of emotions and sensations. Relish in the positive. Recognize negative situations will shift.
3. Prioritize sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to poor moods, concentration, and health. Endless studies point to the critical nature of sleep on outlook, performance, and functioning.
4. Avoid self-medication. Keep an eye out for hooks. If you crave or rely on alcohol, drugs, caffeine, or sweets to escape, numb, or raise your energy, it might be a clue you need new go-to’s to raise your dopamine and endorphins.
5. Eat clean. Processed foods disrupt our brains and bodies. Rather than fad diets, consider drawing from ancient Ayurvedic tradition, which emphasizes eating according to “dosha,” one’s body type. Eating local and in season is optimal. Real, natural, pure food—not manufactured chemicals—maximizes well-being.
6. Step it up. We are wired to walk. The bilateral movement enhances our capacity to reason, problem solve all while improving mood. Consider a step-tracking device to spur you on. Whenever possible, choose stairs over elevators and walking meetings over sit-downs. If you are not able-bodied, leverage the types of movement and exercise available to you.
7. Use music as therapy. Listen to music, make music, sing songs, dance, and hit repeat. Neurologist Oliver Sacks asserts that music “can lift us out of depression when nothing else can.” His work reveals us as “musical species” who benefit immensely from its extraordinary healing power.
8. Unleash your creativity. Novelty and variety are highly beneficial for the brain. Creative outlets and activities are essential. Let your life be art.
10. Practice self-compassion. Adopt a kind spirit towards yourself. Constant self-criticism is unhealthy and unproductive. Treat yourself like you would a friend.
11. Guard against technostress. Constant screen use is associated with poor mental health outcomes. Set boundaries with technology and instead invest your time in activities that bolster well-being.
12. Spend time in green spaces and nature. Numerous studies reveal the positive impact of nature on well-being. Time in the elements—air, water, fire, and earth—are highly beneficial to the brain, body, and soul.
13. Let them see you sweat. Hiding in the shadows exasperates mental health distress. Finding trusted people to reveal your struggles can be a catalyst for healing and growth.
14. Laugh and play. Humor is a protective factor for our mental health. Taking life too seriously inhibits joy. Play and be playful.
15. Volunteer. Research shows that people who give their time to contribute positively to the lives of others tend to flourish. Living life from a “we” stance, not a “me” stance, helps us thrive.
16. Count your blessings. Studies show that practicing gratitude positively boosts mental health. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubormirsky explains that heartfelt, intermittent, intentional practice is better than constant passive, automated expressions of thankfulness.
17. Enlist a therapist or coach. Evidence-based treatment modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy and EMDR can help us develop a host of coping strategies and develop a strategic plan for thriving.
18. Adopt a sustainability mindset. Consider your long game. Set a pace that allows you to reach goals and still breathe, rather than being strangled by the too-tight grip of perpetual urgency and frenetic energy. Don’t sprint through the marathon.
19. Align values to behavior. Take Dr. Martin Seligman’s Values in Action inventory to help discover your values and character strengths. Research shows that when we live out our values, it increases resilience.
20. Don’t go alone. Healing, growth, resilience, and well-being happen in a community. Any efforts towards them are enhanced when we have caring people to cheer us on and hold us accountable. Relationships are protective factors, buffers, and enhancers of mental health.
Lee, K. (2017). Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking-Learn What it Takes to be More Agile, Mindful and Connected in Today's World. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Books.
Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York, New York: Vintage Books.