The busy holiday season has come and gone, and we have officially welcomed in the new year! January is a month that can feel fresh and exciting; it is a time to press reset on your routine and zero in on what you want to focus on in the following months. It is typically marked with healthy changes and New Year’s resolutions, the gyms are more crowded than ever, and your Instagram feed is overflowing with influencers talking about their latest healthy recipe.
Emphasizing physical health each January is certainly important, but something that often becomes a secondary priority (or maybe even neglected entirely) is mental health. While terms such as “mental health” and “self-care” have undoubtedly become buzz words in recent years, these aspects of health are much less quantifiable than physical measures of health, such as body composition or blood pressure. Unfortunately, for this reason, mental health practices often get pushed to the wayside.
However, prioritizing mental health and developing a regular self-care practice is just as important as working on your physical health! Your mental health status can affect how you feel, think, act, make choices, and engage with others.(1) It is essential to your overall health and quality of life. Creating and maintaining a self-care practice has an impact not only on your overall mental health, but also your physical health and the health of those around you. Feel your best this year, both inside and out, by prioritizing your mental health and making self-care a part of your daily routine! Not sure where to start? We’ve got your back with tips on what to try and how to fit it in to your busy schedule.
What is Self-Care?
The National Institute of Mental Health defines self-care as taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health.(1) These activities should be valued and meaningful to you in some way. This is an important qualification, as something that might be meaningful and valuable to you, may not be the same for someone else. For example, don’t spend your time painting if it’s not something that brings you joy. Find the right activity that works best for you!
An important point to note is that some self-care activities might not make an impact right away but doing them consistently over time will improve your mental health in the long run. For instance, meditation may not be easy for you right away or perhaps it is challenging to set aside time for it (see more on that below). However, the process will eventually become smoother, and you will reap the long-term mental health benefits if you stay consistent with it. The main point here is to not shy away from a self-care activity just because it doesn’t make you feel nourished right away. Thoroughly evaluate each activity you try and objectively decide if it is an activity with immediate results, long-term results, or if it is something that just isn’t right for you.
Self-Care Practices to Improve your Mental Health
Below is a list of activities that you might try using to create your self-care routine. This is by no means an exhaustive list of activities, if you have an interest that isn’t listed here you can add that in as well. It also doesn’t mean you have to do every one of these items—pick a few and try them out! Establish which activities bring you joy, restore your energy, and provide balance.
Meditation is a type of mindfulness training that focuses on calming the mind with a goal of reaching detached observation.(2) In other words, meditation teaches you to be present and notice your thoughts and feelings without passing judgement on them. This technique has been proven to be an effective treatment for reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. If this sounds a little intimidating and you aren’t quite sure where to begin, don’t worry! A great place to start your meditation practice is with a guided meditation session. Check out our audio meditations on the SunnyFit® app, where you can choose a guided meditation session ranging anywhere from 5-25 minutes in duration. Start off small and build from there!
Move Your Body
It is well documented throughout scientific studies that exercise promotes better mental health. Anxiety, depression, and stress levels have all been observed to improve when engaging in regular physical activity. It was also noted that exercisers are better able to respond to stressful situations in a more calm and healthy way than their non-exercising counterparts. This positive relationship between mental health and exercise is attributed to an increase in blood circulation to the brain, as well as an exercise-induced endorphin release. Pick your favorite type of exercise and have fun with it! Just make sure to engage in at least 30 minutes of activity 5 or more days per week to reap the greatest mental health benefits.(3)
Spend Time Outside
There is nothing like the great outdoors! And research agrees. Studies have shown numerous positive health benefits of regularly spending time outside in green spaces. Lower risk of depression, quicker stress recovery, strengthened mental capacities, and improved mental focus and clarity are some of the positive health benefits, just to name a few.(7)
Dedicate Time to A Hobby
Make time for activities that bring you joy! This can be learning a new skill or revisiting a hobby that is an old favorite. If you’re not sure what to choose, consider trying your hand at a creative pastime (i.e., painting, woodwork, playing an instrument, etc.). These types of activities are known to have similar calming effects as meditation, as they often require you to focus on your task and be fully in the present moment.(5)
Humans are social creatures by nature and social connection is one of our fundamental needs for optimal health and well-being.(6) If you feel like you’re lacking social connection in your life recently, this is the perfect time to focus on reconnecting. Meet a friend for coffee, have dinner with your family, or even schedule a zoom call if you are unable to meet in person! It doesn’t matter what you’re doing but making social connection a priority will greatly contribute to overall improvements in mental health.
Having a consistent gratitude practice can be a game changer for your mental health. Training your brain to regularly appreciate and notice what you are grateful for in your life (both big and small) is a great method for shifting your mindset and overall life experience. This method of thinking can stop negative thinking patterns in their tracks and refocus your thoughts to something more positive. However, this is not to say you should be ignoring negative emotions or experiences. You are still holding space for those difficult emotions that come up, while also focusing on all the good. Keeping a gratitude journal is an excellent way to dedicate time to all the things you are grateful for.(4) Start with writing down one thing you are grateful for each day. You might find that you have an endless list when you sit down and really start to think about it!
How Can I Create Space for Self-Care in My Busy Schedule?
We totally get it—your schedule is jam packed with work, appointments, and various other commitments that leave little space for “me time.” Here are a few tips to incorporate self-care practices into your schedule, even if you are feeling like it’s impossible to squeeze in.
Create a Morning or Evening Routine
Setting a morning or evening routine is a perfect way to add a self-care activity into your schedule. Maybe include an evening wind down routine where you eat dinner, brush your teeth, and set aside 10 minutes to meditate before bed. Or if you’re a morning person, take time after eating breakfast to jot down a few bullet points in your journal dedicated to what you are grateful for that day. This might mean getting up a little earlier in the morning, cutting down on some social media time, or skipping that third episode on your most recent Netflix show. Evaluate your current morning or evening routine and see where you can fit in a few mindful minutes of self-care.
Create a “Self-Care Schedule” and Stick to it
This tip builds off creating a morning or evening routine and is helpful if you are someone who likes schedule and routine. Get a planner and schedule in time where you know you have some extra space for a self-care activity. Treat it like an appointment that you can’t miss!
Use Your Lunches to Your Advantage
If you work full-time, it can be difficult to fit extra activities into your schedule. Try transforming your lunch breaks into a self-care sanctuary! Take time at lunch to read a book, meet with a friend for lunch, or go for a walk. By the time you get home in the evening, self-care is already checked off your list!
This is helpful if you work well from a goal-oriented perspective. Set a self-care goal for yourself and work towards meeting that goal. An example of this could be, “I am going to spend 15 minutes outside, every day” or “I am going to increase my daily meditation session by 1 minute each week until I can meditate for 15 minutes.” Choose a goal that is meaningful and manageable for you.
Be Gentle with Yourself
“Little drops of water make the mighty ocean.” Simply put, every little bit counts! You don’t have to spend hours each day on self-care. But small, meaningful changes over time will make an impactful transformation in the future of your mental health. It may take some time to figure out what works best for you. There will be bumps along the way, but when you find something that doesn’t work well, it gives you a new opportunity to find out what does. Keep refining your system until you’ve created a routine that fits in to your life and makes you feel good.
The Bottom Line
Integrating mental health practices into your daily routine is essential to your overall, whole-body health. It is just as important as daily exercise and good nutrition. There is no right way or wrong way to practice self-care and focus on your mental health. If it is an activity that brings you joy, relaxation, or peacefulness, you are doing it right.
1. Caring for your mental health, National Institute of Mental Health, 2022. NIMH » Caring for Your Mental Health (nih.gov) Accessed 27 December 2022.
2. Depression and anxiety disorders: benefits of exercise, yoga, and meditation, American Family Physician, 2019. Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Benefits of Exercise, Yoga, and Meditation | AAFP Accessed 28 December 2022.
3. Exercise for mental health, Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2006. Exercise for Mental Health - PMC (nih.gov) Accessed 29 December 2022.
4. Gratitude-a mental health game changer, Anxiety & Depression Association of America, 2021. Gratitude - A Mental Health Game Changer | Anxiety (adaa.org) Accessed 30 December 2022.
5. Here’s how creativity actually improves your health, Forbes Magazine, 2018. Here's How Creativity Actually Improves Your Health (forbes.com) Accessed 29 December 2022.
6. Social connection boosts health, even when you’re isolated, Psychology Today, 2020. Social Connection Boosts Health, Even When You're Isolated | Psychology Today Accessed 30 December 2022.
7. The wellness benefits of the great outdoors, Forest Service U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2021. The wellness benefits of the great outdoors | US Forest Service (usda.gov) Accessed 29 December 2022.