two people hiking in front of large mountain
Juno/Stocksy United

Mental health is a topic that is discussed a lot. You might see discussions about mental health on your favorite show or online.

If you use a term frequently, it can lead to a blurred meaning. If you come across the term often but still have some doubts about what it means, you are not alone.

“Mental health is about the functionality of your brain and all that impacts it,” says Oludara Adeeyo, a psychiatric social worker and author of “Self-Care for Black Women.”

Mental health includes your psychological and social well-being. It also includes your emotional health, or your ability to name, address, and regulate your emotions.

Genetics, life experiences, and family history are some of the factors that can affect mental health.

But you do have influence over a wide portion of your mental health, notes KC Davis, a licensed professional counselor and author of “How To Keep House While Drowning.”

Your mental health is important, because it affects a lot.

What makes mental health so important?

Mental health helps determine how you handle stress, relate to others, and make choices, explains Alison Seponara, a licensed professional counselor and author of the book “The Anxiety Healer’s Guide.”

Seponara says that caring for your mental health can lead to more problems.

  • The mood has improved.
  • reduced anxiety
  • clearer thinking
  • Deeper relationships.
  • improved self-esteem and confidence

Nurturing your mental health can also help you manage health conditions that are worsened by stress, like heart disease, says Seponara.

“Adeeyo says that your mental health can affect everything about your life, including how you view and move through the world and how you handle life’s challenges.”

Building habits for better mental health can make a big difference in your day to day life.

Pro tip

As you explore new behaviors and begin incorporating them into your routine, aim to frame these changes as self-kindness, not self-punishment. Maintaining a gentle, kind attitude toward yourself can do a lot more to improve your mental health and overall outlook than criticism and negative self-talk.

Davis suggests that you work on your mental health from a place of care.

Not sure where to start? You will find 8 strategies to promote improved mental health, along with some guidance on seeking professional support.

Sleep isn’t just a nonnegotiable for physical health. It also plays an essential role in mental health.

One 2021 study included data from 273,695 adults in the United States. The researchers found that people who averaged 6 hours of sleep or less per night were about 2.5 times more likely to report frequent mental distress than those who averaged more than 6 hours of sleep.

Mental health symptoms can be linked to disrupted sleep.

To get enough high quality sleep, try starting with these habits:

  • Avoid coffee after 3 pm.
  • Try to wake up and sleep at the same time.
  • Make your bedroom a place of peace and quiet.
  • Aim to keep the temperature in your bedroom somewhere around 65°F (18.3°C).

Healthy sleep habits can be harder to build on your own if you have a sleep disorder.

If you think your sleeping issues may relate to a sleep condition, a sleep specialist can offer more information about helpful evidence-based treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.

Know, too, that mental health concerns can also lead to poor sleep. So, changes to your sleep environment and nighttime routine might not make a lasting difference. If you don’t notice much improvement, connecting with a therapist may be a helpful next step.

There are 17 tips for improving sleep.

“Adeeyo says that constant consuming information about other people’s lives may cause someone to compare themselves and promote feelings of low self-worth.”

Try to spend less time on social media.

  • You should keep your phone in a drawer or outside of your bedroom.
  • Make a list of activities that are more meaningful.
  • Turn off notifications or remove social apps from your phone.

Building a healthier relationship with social media is something you can learn more about.

Strong relationships can have a positive influence on your mental health, as humans are social creatures.

For example, friendship can.

  • ease feelings of loneliness
  • “It’s easier to get emotional support.”
  • Add meaning to your life.

There are many options for cultivating positive connections and friendship.

  • Even with a quick text or meme, keep in touch by checking in regularly.
  • You can meet up for a walk or breakfast.
  • Call for a chat during your lunch break.
  • Dinner dates can be biweekly or monthly.

Making a point to catch up when you do spend time together can make a difference, too. Research from 2018 suggests catching up and joking around in person predicted closer bonds above and beyond the number of hours participants spent together.

Short on meaningful relationships? Find 7 ways to make friends as an adult.

Exercise offers a range of mental health benefits, including:

  • Stress is relieved.
  • lifting mood
  • Helping you sleep longer.
  • helping you manage symptoms of depression and anxiety conditions

Movement can involve something different for every person, and it doesn’t have to mean going to the gym — unless you genuinely want to. Instead, make movement enjoyable for you by opting for physical activities that work best for your body, health, and preferences.

To get started, try a range of physical activities and keep doing the ones that make you happy.

Enjoyable movement could include:

  • A club for running or walking.
  • taking a slower-paced restorative yoga class
  • trying seated exercises
  • A dance party is being thrown.
  • Stretching breaks every hour.
  • gardening or doing other work in your backyard
  • A weekend family hike or walk along the beach.

“You don’t have to work out hard to support mental health.”

“Taking a few minutes to stretch can make a huge difference for your overall mental health. Stretching will help with blood flow and get more oxygen through your body, which can help you feel more relaxed and happy,” says Christopher S. Taylor, PhD, LPC-S, founder of Taylor Counseling Group, author of “My Digital Practice” and host of the “For Self-Examination” podcast.

Try these stretches for different parts of the body.

Certain foods can also affect your mental health. To support improved mental health, try expanding your current diet to include foods packed with mood-boosting nutrients like:

  • The berries are large.
  • There are bananas.
  • There are beans.
  • whole grains
  • Like salmon.

It is possible to make sure you fuel your body by eating anything you want.

Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can also have benefit. “When you’re dehydrated, you’re denying your brain and body the nutrients needed to survive and operate at a more optimal level,” Adeeyo notes.

Alcohol, caffeine, refined carbs, and added sugars are some of the foods that may make you feel anxious. Some of your symptoms could be alleviated by limiting these foods.

It might be difficult to do any of the above on difficult days.

Davis encourages people to use compassionate, more accessible strategies.

  • Think of a hygiene kit that includes dry shampoo and body wipes.
  • A timer is set to clean something for a short time.
  • Buying a meal in a package feels impossible.

You can try a similar approach. Every day, commit to taking a small step.

Making a daily promise to yourself to drink one glass of water in the morning, or write in a journal will help you to eventually become a habit, and you will begin to feel more confident.

Rest is a term that can vary from person to person, but generally means giving your mind and body the chance to relax.

Do you find it hard to relax?

Rosie Acosta, meditation and yoga teacher and author of the book “You Are Radically Loved,” offers yoga Nidra, a sleep-based meditation, as one option to try.

She suggests the following steps.

  • Lie on your back. Spread your feet apart, or a bit wider.
  • Think of being present, yet relaxed. You feel calm, but still aware.
  • Bring your attention to your body and breath.
  • Imagine a wave coming from the soles of your feet and hitting the crown of your head.
  • On the exhale, visualize a wave that travels from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet.
  • Stay with this relaxed present awareness for 10 to 30 minutes, and feel your body become heavy.

Have a few minutes to relax? These quick practices are suggested by Acosta.

  • Take several deep breaths, and put both hands over your heart, closing your eyes, and feeling the warmth and comfort of your touch.
  • For 12 cycles, breathe in for 2 counts and breathe out for 4 counts.

“The sun is a great source of vitamin D, and studies show it can improve attitude and mood,” says Taylor.

“It doesn’t have to be long. Five minutes of blue skies can do your mind and heart good.”

Is it possible that you are stuck inside all day? Taylor recommends that you have several minutes.

  • A quick walk.
  • You are sitting in the backyard.
  • breathing in the fresh air

Try these options.

  • The window is near your desk.
  • Take a work meeting outside.
  • You can eat lunch at the park.
  • Exercise outdoors.

“The strategies above can help improve mental well-being, but they can’t cure mental health conditions”

Making changes in your habits may not always help you with your mental distress. Working with a therapist can be very effective in improving mental health.

You can consider professional support at any time. You don’t need to have depression, anxiety, or any specific mental health symptoms to benefit from therapy.

If it becomes important, reaching out becomes a priority.

  • you’ve experienced a stressful or traumatic event
  • you feel more upset, anxious, or sad than usual
  • you frequently feel agitated, irritable, or angry
  • your motivation has tanked
  • You have noticed that your appetite and sleep patterns have changed.
  • It is difficult to get through the day.
  • you feel stuck or overwhelmed
  • you’re using alcohol or other substances more than usual or turning to other unhelpful coping behaviors

Here’s how to find the right therapist for you.

Your mental health is a big part of your quality of life. Adding good habits to your days can promote better mental health, even though many factors can affect it.

Just know that when it comes to adopting new habits, it’s generally more helpful to start with just one or two at a time, instead of a complete overhaul. Then, check in with yourself to take stock of how those changes helped.

“If your mental health starts to get worse, it’s time to seek help. Professional support can be a powerful tool.”

Davis says that you are a person who deserves to function and enjoy life the best you can.

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, has been writing for Psych Central and other websites for more than a decade on a wide range of topics. She’s the author of the mental health journal “Vibe Check: Be Your Best You” (Sterling Teen). She’s especially passionate about helping readers feel less alone and overwhelmed and more empowered. You can connect with Margarita on LinkedIn, or check out her writing at her website.