How to Put Your Mental Health First This Year
A new year can mean a healthier you.
Whether or not you're one to make New Year's resolutions, it’s hard not to take inventory of your life as the new year draws near. At least in my personal case, there are always things I want to change physically—but this year, I’m trying to put more emphasis on improving my mental health. I reached out to Anita Chlipala, a licensed marriage and family therapist, as well as Megan Jones Bell, PsyD, chief science officer at Headspace, for some strategic steps to take for a more mentally healthy new year.
Identify your stressors.
It should come as no surprise that in order to face down your mental blocks, you first need to know what they are. “Take an inventory of your stressors,” Chlipala says. “What's really a priority? Number your stressors on a 1-to-10 scale of importance, and then tackle the most important.”
Not only will this help you get a sense of the biggest concerns in your life, it'll help you understand where you should be placing your focus. “Sometimes it's easy to give in to a sense of urgency that can just cause more stress and anxiety,” Chlipala says. “Take it one task at a time.”
Once you’ve identified your stressors, don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Bell explains why “patience and compassion towards yourself” is always the right move. “We must remember that committing to a new habit takes time,” she says. “Rather than putting too much pressure on yourself, start off with small steps and realistic goals that work for you.”
Set boundaries to avoid negativity.
Once you’ve made your list of mental health priorities, set boundaries. Whether you’re worried about your friend who constantly ditches you or your own negative self-talk, stop quietly tolerating it. “Boundaries are healthy and prevent unwanted behavior from coming at you. Let people know what you won’t tolerate,” Chlipala says.
Setting these goals doesn’t only apply to your friends, but to your own manner of treating yourself. “Challenge your negative self-talk—you can create unnecessary anxiety and feelings of depression by believing every thought that you have,” Chlipala says. “Challenge your thoughts—think of alternative explanations and stories. Look for evidence that the meanings you're assigning aren’t true.”
One boundary that could make this easier? Cutting back on social media. “Set social media-free time,” suggests Chlipala. “It’s difficult not to compare yourself to what your friends on social media are doing, which can make you feel worse about yourself. Or if you’re dating and fed up with your online dating experience, take a break.”
Finally, ditch the FOMO (or "fear of missing out"). While you are important, and your presence at events is surely felt and loved, things will go on without you. “If you are a self-proclaimed people pleaser, say ‘no’ more often,” Chlipala says. “You'll also create evidence for yourself that things will still work out even if you're not a part of it.”
Going to the gym shouldn’t be solely about your physical health and appearance—it plays a major role in the state of your mental health as well. Sure, working out can be time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be.
“Exercise 15 to 30 minutes, three days a week,” Chlipala recommends. “Research shows exercise can help boost your mood and manage anxiety and stress.” That way you’ll be able to take on your boundary-setting with a clear, confident mind. And if it's been a while since your last sweat session, here's how to start working out from square one (no shame).
Take mental breaks.
No matter how many goals you set or lists you make, things will still get stressful and busy. That said, there are things you can do on even the most jam-packed days to make things a little easier and more manageable.
“Try to incorporate mindfulness into your daily activities,” suggests Bell. “Mindfulness is the ability to be present, free from distraction, with an open mind and a kind heart. You can integrate mindfulness into your day to day by bringing more awareness and compassion to the things that you are already doing such as during your commute or while eating a meal."
Taking a few moments to fully focus on even a small task—putting all other thoughts away—can be incredibly beneficial to your mental health.
Finally, call in the professionals.
If you’ve been putting off setting up an appointment with a therapist, go ahead and make the call. Introductory sessions are typically intended for you to get a sense of the therapist’s style and personality—and if the two of you don’t align, don’t feel bad about moving on.
“Not all therapists sit back and listen,” Chlipala says. “Find a therapist who is proactive and can give you information and tools to help you and can hold you accountable to make sure you are prioritizing your mental well-being.”