Your emotional health is just as important as your physical health. And yet, many of us neglect our emotional health. We leave it on autopilot and hope for the best. Or we only pay attention to our emotional health when we’re in crisis. Or we simply don’t prioritize the things that will help us feel our best.
In my last article, I identified 14 things that will help you improve your emotional health. And in this article, I’ve added 11 more ideas for strengthening mental or emotional health. I hope you’ll include some in your daily routine.
11 Things you can do to improve your emotional health
- Deal with your past. Have you been avoiding something painful from your past? Avoidance isn’t an effective long-term strategy. Eventually, our past catches up with us and avoidance strategies (like drinking, overeating, playing video games) only make matters worse. So, getting emotionally healthy means dealing with our past, feeling our feelings, healing our hurts. This might include seeing a therapist, working a 12-step program, or using self-help resources.
- Set realistic expectations. If you’re frequently disappointed or angry, it’s time to adjust your expectations. As a therapist, I talk to many people who don’t realize that their perfectionist tendencies and impossibly high standards are making them miserable. They get fixated on how to improve their performance or get others to change, but this rarely works (and it involves lots of relationship-destroying nagging and complaining). Often the answer is to pay attention to your expectations, adjust them so they’re likely to be met, and accept that most things don’t need to be perfect, people make mistakes and forget things, and some things are out of your control. You can read more in my book, The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism.
- Make time to reflect. Most of us live very busy lives. We run from one commitment to the next and still feel like we’re falling short, not doing enough. Instead of doing more, you may benefit from slowing down and making time to reflect or consciously think about what you’re doing and why, to process your thoughts and feelings rather than rushing past them. Try scheduling some quiet time with yourself, just 10 minutes once or twice a day. Remember, the goal is to reflect and be mindful, but not to dwell.
- Prioritize your needs. Everyone has needs. And whether you need food or companionship or a sense of purpose – your needs are valid and you shouldn’t neglect them. If you have codependent tendencies, as I do, you may find yourself tending to everyone else’s needs and leaving yourself with the scraps. Certainly, other people’s needs matter, too, but they can’t routinely come at the expense of yours. That’s a recipe for exhaustion, burnout, illness, and resentment.
- Connect with others. Positive, healthy relationships improve our quality of life, but they can be challenging to form and maintain. Relationships take time and energy and vulnerability. In order to connect in meaningful ways, we have to share our feelings, needs, and hopes. We have to trust, have fun together, and work through conflicts. And when we do, the benefits are great – to be understood, valued, loved, and accepted.
- Exercise. Obviously, exercise is important for physical health and it’s also incredibly beneficial to emotional health. Exercise improves mood, reduces stress, and builds self-esteem. And you don’t have to be a world-class athlete or buy an expensive gym membership to get these benefits. When it comes to exercise, something is better than nothing. So, do what’s realistic for you.
- Get enough sleep. Like exercise, sleep is also important to both physical and mental health. We all know that staying up too late or a bout of insomnia leaves us irritable, fatigued, unfocused. Getting enough sleep can help improve mood and decrease stress and anxiety. It leaves us fresh to solve problems and face our challenges. The problem, of course, is that when we’re depressed, stressed, or anxious, we’re prone to insomnia which can worsen symptoms. Meditation, relaxation, and good sleep hygiene can help – or speak to your doctor. Personally, I find a consistent bedtime and keeping a journal next to my bed for anxious thoughts is helpful.
- Stop trying to please everyone. Trying to please others seems like a good thing (and sometimes it is), but when we do it out of fear – fear of criticism or rejection – we betray our authentic selves. Authenticity means sharing our ideas and feelings, pursuing our goals, being true to our values and knowing what we like. When we lose these important aspects of ourselves, we feel disconnected, we don’t get our needs met, we stay in unsatisfying relationships and jobs. Instead, we need to embrace our true selves and accept that not everyone will like our choices, ideas, or beliefs.
- Say nice things to yourself. How often do you give yourself a compliment or acknowledge your progress? Most of us are quick to notice our faults and failures and struggle to acknowledge our strengths. And yet, people thrive when they are encouraged and validated. So, say nice things to yourself and you’ll probably feel more motivated, hopeful, and self-assured.
- Cultivate a gratitude practice. Research has repeatedly shown that gratitude has a multitude of benefits. It increases happiness, improves relationships, strengthens the immune system, and lowers blood pressure. Even more exciting, is that gratitude has lasting effects on the brain. Essentially, the more you practice gratitude, the more adept your brain gets at noticing good things; by strengthening these neural pathways you develop a more positive outlook.
- Spend time in nature. Did you know that spending time in nature is associated with reduced anxiety, depression, and stress? Nature seems to disrupt the loop of negative thoughts common in anxiety and depression. And the benefits seem to go beyond exercise (which we commonly do outside) and include the calming sights and sounds of nature. So, certainly, a trip to the beach or a stroll through the park is beneficial, but so is watching the birds from your porch or taking in the beauty of a sunset or the fresh snow on the trees.
Now it’s your turn.
Which of these practices do you think will improve your emotional health? Or perhaps, you’ve identified something else that would be helpful (in which case, feel free to share it in the comments). If you’re serious about improving your emotional health, write your goals or intentions down (and share them with your therapist, if you have one). Next, start to create a plan. What steps will you take? When and how will you implement them? What obstacles might you encounter? How will you handle them? What resources or support do you need?
Change is a process. Take it slow. And be gentle with yourself along the way.
Best wishes for continued emotional health!
©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo by Danka & Peter on Unsplash.