May is National Women’s Health Month, but while we’ll pay extra mind in these 31 days, women can prioritize their physical and mental health every day throughout the year. While today’s culture places a huge emphasis on physical health, it often neglects to give mental health the attention it deserves, or places unnecessary stigma on mental and emotional struggles. Achieving mental health can be particularly challenging, especially for those who struggle with stress and unhappiness regularly. Luckily, there are certain things we can do to help ourselves through hard times. The following suggestions can help you prioritize your mental wellness, even when it seems difficult.
1. Interact with Animals
Animal therapy is real and effective. Interacting with domesticated animals — particularly dogs — can have both physical and mental benefits for patients. They’re not judgmental or mean; they love us and make us feel needed. I have two dogs at home, and they are the absolute best companions when I am feeling down. They have an uncanny ability to warm my heart and put a smile on my face, even if I’m in the worst of moods.
Assisted-animal therapy has actually been shown to reduce stress levels in hospitalized patients with psychiatric disorders. The loving, unconditional affection animals display — whether it’s your pet, someone else’s, or an animal specifically used for treatment — can really boost one’s mood.
2. Eliminate Sources of Negativity
When you feel overwhelmed, it can help to shut out the Debbie Downers, the whiney co-workers, and the depressing morning news, at least for a while. Negativity is like a heavy weight on our shoulders; it brings us down. According to British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, exposure to negative media can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. If we have the option to rid these dark clouds from our midst, we should.
3. Spend Ample Time Outdoors
Getting out of the house will expose you to more vitamin D, which studies show positively impacts mental health. Those with vitamin D deficiencies are in fact much more likely to suffer from depression and mood disorders. Studies have also shown that living among green, natural spaces positively impacts one’s mental health. Simply adding a plant to your workspace can do wonders, but try to get out for a few minutes each day. Whether you decide to walk for a few minutes over lunch or do your afternoon reading outside, the extra sunshine is great for your overall wellbeing.
4. Find a Circle of Acceptance
Challenges are inevitable in life — and we shouldn’t live trying to avoid them. However, when it comes to the individuals we spend time with, we should seek those who accept us as we are. A strong support system is absolutely essential when prioritizing mental health — particularly for those who have struggled with mental wellbeing in the past. In the case of chronic diseases, research shows that not having a support system can be detrimental to your health. So surround yourself with affection when possible in order to thrive.
5. Take Care of Your Body
Mental and physical health are linked. Treating your body well and listening to its natural cues can help cultivate a peaceful, holistic state of mind. Engaging in movement that feels pleasurable for your body, eating foods that make you feel good, getting adequate sleep, and checking in with a supportive physician regularly can help you achieve wellness, both in body and spirit. Those who are physically ill are more likely to have mental health issues, so do not underestimate the importance of taking care of your body. Those with depression and physical health problems are at greater risk because the physical problem often makes it harder to assess and treat the underlying mental condition. It also works the other way, since those with a chronic physical disease tend to be under more distress psychologically. Treat your body well, and the benefits could very well impact your mental wellbeing too.
While it’s natural to want to pull away when you’re feeling down, we should actually be doing the opposite. Interacting with people in a social setting can greatly boost your mood, even if you’re an introvert. Engaging with others gives us a sense of purpose and establishes our existence in a group — we discussed already the importance of a support system or group of people who care. According to research gathered by the University of Florida, socializing can be just as effective as exercise at giving your day a boost, if not more so.
7. Work the Brain
Continued learning — whether it’s through formal educational programs or merely reading on our own time — has a positive impact on mental wellbeing. When we opt to learn new things, to add to our mental assets, we feel better. A 2004 study demonstrated that adults who pursued continued learning reported higher self-esteem, self-confidence, and sense of purpose. They were also better at overcoming stress.
8. Set Personal Goals
Working toward something is aiming for improvement. This alone — having a healthy, realistic grasp on how we can better ourselves, without setting unrealistic or unachievable expectations — is key in maintaining mental health. Goals spell out our desires, giving us direction. They set us on a path, steering us away from overwhelming feelings of confusion.
Setting small, achievable goals is the real way to go. It’s been shown that employees who experienced smaller but more frequent promotions felt higher job satisfaction. Apply this to your goal-setting: Break your huge dream down into smaller pieces in order to feel good about each incremental accomplishment.
9. Limit Alcohol Consumption
Women are forever being told what they should and should not be consuming. While this dialogue often focuses on food and can leave us confused and overwhelmed, the implications of alcohol consumption are very clear: It’s a depressant. The substance may give you an initial buzz — elation and giddiness — but it has negative effects in the long term. It soaks up neurotransmitters that are necessary in battling anxiety and depression, leaving you depleted and down. Avoid excessive consumption in order to feel your best.
If you feel out of control in your drug or alcohol use, or are seeking help for someone you love, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a toll-free helpline: 1-800-662-4357.
10. Do Nice Things for Others
Finally, when you need a happiness boost, go out and volunteer your time. Help your neighbor move her couch, or mow your elderly relative’s yard. Volunteering allows us to establish a positive place in the world — a place we can feel good about. In a 2013 study, 78 percent of American adults who volunteer reported that volunteering has lowered their stress levels, making them feel better about themselves.
Maintaining positive, healthy mental wellbeing isn’t easy. Some of these tips might work for you, others might not, and there might be strategies I haven’t mentioned that are most helpful for you personally. But whatever the case, your mental wellbeing is important, and you deserve to feel happy, valued, and purposeful in your life.