Self-Care for Mental Health: A Complete How-to Guide
Modern life is bittersweet, wonderful in many forms, but tackled in a way that’s causing a global mental health crisis. Depression, anxiety disorders, chronic stress, and other mental health problems are rising at epidemic levels, having a devastating impact on sufferers and their families.
Our goal-driven society requires us to thrive if we want to be successful, we’re on a constant quest to fix and better ourselves. That’s why more people are turning to self-care as a way to restore balance in body, mind, and spirit.
There’s mounting evidence on how healthy living habits can help our physical and emotional balance. We have the power to live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives, but it’s important to put in the work to create the habits that enact real change.
Let’s take a closer look at what the self-care movement stands for.
Table of Contents
What Is Self-Care?
Self-care can be defined as setting aside time to honor and respect your personal feelings, so you have a better interaction with the world. Self-care is a powerful tool to develop a better relationship with your inner world and allow yourself the mental space you need. The concept goes beyond those fancy yoga retreats and glamorous bubble baths you find in Instagram under the self-love hashtag.
There’s no one way to delve into self-care, in fact, its practice is highly individual.
For many, this buzzword is just another way to indulge themselves—like paying extra cash for a beauty treatment, buying another pair of red bottoms, or binging for hours on Netflix. Nothing wrong with these things if you have the time and the money, but there are deeper and more fulfilling ways to restore balance and enrich your life.
Shallow things involving a lot of money are called self-care these days. The movement that started as a loving way to get in touch with your inner self, has turned into a marketing ploy. This massive marketplace uses tactics to sell their over-priced stuff in the name of loving yourself more.
If your self-love activities are leaving you feeling guilty or breaking the bank; they’re not nurturing your self-care practice.
To clear the air about this concept here are some fundamental ways to foster the power of self-care more intentionally
Get Your Nutrition in Check
Good mental health starts in your brain, the astonishing and hardworking organ that rules your body. Your brain is a grinder; it never rests. It works 24/7 to sense things, process information, make decisions, move your body, and dream. Yes, it works even in your sleep.
So it’s no wonder that, to achieve optimal mental health, your brain needs to stay in peak condition, and the right foods are crucial to keep it running at top notch.
Energy-wise, your brain is expensive, 20% of the calories you consume are used to power it. What you eat affects your brain’s functioning, and its functioning affects your emotions. Poor nutrition can cause or worsen the symptoms of mental issues like anxiety and depression.
To nourish the extraordinary electric mush between your ears, make sure your diet includes:
The human brain is made up of 60% fat, thereby, a diet rich in good fats, is crucial to take it up a notch. For your brain what matters most is the type of fat you eat. Thus, it’s important to focus on eating healthy fats and avoiding the harmful ones.
Make sure you add these good dietary fats to your diet:
Essential Fatty Acids include Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats. Omega-3s reduce inflammation and promote the proper function of the immune system. They also support healthy hormone levels and cell membranes.
Omega-6 is necessary to support healthy brain, but it can also promote inflammation in the body. Sadly, our modern diets are piled with processed foods full of inflammatory omega-6 fats but lacking the optimal levels of omega-3 required.
Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with depressed mood, hostility, impulsive behavior, poor memory, and aging cognitive decline.
Inflammation is your natural bodyguard. It protects your body from anything that threats health, like foreign invaders—microbes, pollen or toxins— diseases, and injuries.
Intermittent bouts of inflammation are necessary to defend the body. However, sometimes, inflammation persists, and it turns into a silent killer.
In recent years, science has found a link between out-of-whack inflammation and a range of health conditions, like cancer, heart disease, arthritis and Crohn’s Disease.
In the same way, science has linked elevated inflammation to mental health illnesses that include Alzheimer’s, depression and bipolar disorder.
VITAMINS & MINERALS
Your body and mind need many vitamins and minerals to function properly. Deficiency of calcium and magnesium can impair cognitive function and make it difficult to relax, while iron deficiency can lead to breathlessness and other symptoms linked to anxiety.
Low levels of vitamin D, selenium, and some B vitamins have also been linked to depression. Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and high-quality protein is crucial for good mental health.
The gut is your second brain. It holds trillions of bacteria, fungi, and even viruses that support your health. They’re all known as the gut microbiome. The microbiome performs important functions in the body, including digestion, assisting the immune system, and providing your body with energy.
New findings are shedding light on how the gut microbiome can also impact your mental health.
Groundbreaking research shows that your brain and the microbiome are tightly connected through the gut-brain axis, and communication between them affects your thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
This also explains why people with anxiety have higher rates of gastrointestinal disease, and those who have digestive disorders are more likely to have anxiety.
The gut microbiome is your internal fingerprint. Everybody has a unique mixture of good and bad bacteria. Sometimes, the bad guys overlap the good ones, making you sick and prone to mental health conditions.
Poor diet, stress, antibiotics, infections, and exposition to toxins like pesticides are all linked to gut health problems.
To starve the bad guys, avoid processed foods and refined carbs, like breads and pastas. Consider adding prebiotic foods into your diet to feed your good bacteria and fermented foods that naturally contain healthy bacteria, also known as probiotics.
Foods that feed healthy bacteria
Foods that naturally contain healthy bacteria (probiotics)
You can also find probiotics in the form of a pill but the science backing their efficacy is shaky. If you plan to rely on a supplement be careful, as some of them cause side effects. Talk to your doctor to make sure you’re a right candidate for these products.
Taking regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to improve not only your physical but your mental health.
Many studies have shown that exercise is as good for your brain, mood and emotions as it is for your body. Exercise can reduce the effects of stress, improve your learning abilities and help heal depression.
Your heart sends about 30% of the oxygen-rich blood it pumps to the brain. So a healthy cardiovascular system ensures more oxygen to your gray matter. This is great news for gymrats like me.
Exercise triggers the release of dopamine—the pleasure and reward neurotransmitter—and other chemicals that help you feel good.
The key to get the benefits of exercise is to stay consistent. Find the activities you enjoy most and that suit your lifestyle. There’s a fitness program out there for everyone.
Outdoor activities, like walking, running, hiking and cycling, are the easiest ways to incorporate daily movement. They’re also great mood boosters, as they come with the added benefits of fresh air and sunlight, both of which can have a positive effect on emotions.
Some people like structured activities, such as taking a dance class, joining a gym, or a club. Do a little research to find the options in your area and get a package to ensure commitment. There are hundreds of apps that encourage you to exercise with timely notifications, which is especially useful if you prefer the flexibility of exercising at home.
Improve the Quality of Your Sleep
Sleep plays a vital role in our lives. It directly affects mental and physical health, and we all know it. But for many people—me included—restful sleep can be an unattainable goal. Growing up with ADHD made lack of sleep a common problem that my mom and I had to deal with.
Unfortunately, sleep issues aren’t foreign for millions. At least half of all Americans report suffering from insomnia, and nearly 9 million are using sleeping pills.
In a society that glorifies the “hustle culture,” peak performance is key to success. But here’s the paradox; too much hustle can ruin your sleep—and good sleep is the pillar of peak performance.
That’s why you must find a balance between working hard and resting.
Your daily grind can lead to stress. For many of us, stress is always ON, becoming a chronic, silent enemy that triggers worse ailments such as anxiety, depression, and yes, insomnia.
Stress and its aftermath conditions hit the brain hard, making it lose some of its amazing capabilities and even shrink.
Enough reasons to take restful sleep as a non-negotiable task.
In terms of sleep, quality is more important than quantity. Even though we’ve been told that we need at least 8 hours of sleep, the key is getting into the deep stage of sleep longer, which is when your brain actually repairs itself.
On November 2019, the University of California, Berkeley released a new study that shows how deep sleep helps reduce anxiety disorders by restoring the brain’s mechanism that regulates emotions. In addition researchers tracked anxiety levels and sleep from 280 online patients of all ages. Results showed that a sleepless night can increase anxiety levels up to 30%.
Having a regular sleep schedule, avoiding bright light two hours before bed, meditation, and CBD have really helped me to fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer every night.
Grab a Supplement
Becoming a happy and healthy human takes a lot of work. Eating a variety of nutritious foods, exercising enough, and sleeping well every night—among other things—are necessary to restore balance. But sometimes your best efforts fall short and supplements can lend you a helpful hand.
My go-to supplements for mental health are CBD, curcumin and green tea.
I bet you saw this one coming. As a proponent of having every tool at your disposal and a CBD advocate, this substance couldn’t be missing from this list. CBD is the in-thing everybody is talking about, because of its efficacy to treat mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, and their aftermath—insomnia.
CBD is a cannabinoid, meaning it’s a cannabis chemical that signals your body through its natural channels.
One of the most appealing things about CBD is that it works in tandem with your body without altering your mind. CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), an intricate web of messengers, receptors, and enzymes that regulates some of the most important functions of your body.
The ECS is crucial to maintain the delicate balances necessary for optimal health. It achieves this by producing its own natural cannabinoids called “endocannabinoids.” CBD tells the system to synthesize and use its endocannabinoids more efficiently.
It’s believed that CBD also interacts with other systems in your body to unleash a series of effects, such as anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, neuroprotective and antioxidant effects. However, none of these benefits have been completely proven.
Most of the evidence surrounding CBD and its effects is anecdotal or done on mice. We lack solid research on humans to clarify how this compound can benefit our health. In fact, the only benefit of CBD that has extensive research on people is to reduce seizures in two rare forms of child epilepsy.
CBD is years away from being fully deciphered by science, but that hasn’t stopped people from buying it and enjoying its benefits.
We don’t know all about this cannabinoid, but we know it doesn’t get you high. It’s safe to consume, according to the World Health Organization, it can reduce seizures, and it’s legal under federal law.
If you’re ready to jump on the CBD bandwagon, be a smart consumer, learn as much as you can, and settle only for top-quality products. I’m sure you can benefit from this remarkable compound with guided and responsible use.
Some of the dietary supplements that are rapidly gaining steam to promote mental health are curcumin and green tea. These adaptogens have shown dramatic effects in the treatment of chronic stress and have research papers to back up these benefits.
Let’s cast a quick glance at them.
Curcumin is the most studied extract of the spice turmeric. As well as CBD, curcumin has anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and antidepressant properties. Research shows that it may be an effective weapon to fight anxiety and depression and boosts your mood.
Green tea has a unique amino acid called theanine. This amino has several benefits for mental health, like increasing focus and improving your mood. Science has found that theanine can lessen the symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduce chronic stress and promote restorative sleep.
Learn How to Relax
Relaxation is another essential ingredient of good mental health. The National Institutes of Health has recognized the wide range of benefits relaxation has in your overall health.
Researchers have found that calming body and mind can increase productivity and improve your brain’s ability to make decisions. It also helps to reduce stress levels, and lowers blood pressure.
Relaxation is often confused with being lazy or sleepy, but it’s actually best achieved in a full-awake state. Some effective ways to achieve relaxation are:
Yoga is a mind and body practice that boosts your self-awareness and provides relaxation. It gives you the tools that helps you recognize the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that connect your fight-or-flight response to life events.
Growing evidence supports the benefits of practicing yoga to improve mental health, effectively manage your mood and promote well-being.
Air is a life-force that keep us alive, but since we’re all so caught up in the trials and tribulations of life—breathing mindfully is easy to forget.
Slow, deep and steady breath can help your whole body relax. It’s not only free and easy to use, deep breathing can promote clear thinking too. When you breath mindfully, the amount of oxygen to the brain increases, helping you calm racing thoughts. It also reduces stress levels, which, in turn, protects you from physical illness, infections, and mental health problems.
Meditation is used as a way to connect with your inner self. This ancient practice means all sort of things for different people but its real purpose is to help you calm the mind so you can enjoy being still. Studies have shown that meditation can lower heart rate and blood pressure. It also may change the structure of your brain and promote healthy behaviors—particularly when practiced regularly.
There are no set rules for meditation, some forms incorporate visualization techniques and mantras while other tools help focus your attention. If you find it difficult to meditate, consider taking a class or using one of the many free guided meditations you can find on YouTube and other video-sharing websites.
Meditations apps are a great option to find a good headspace for the tech-minded, as they let you shape your personal preferences and send you daily reminders to be more mindful.
Become Aware of Your Thoughts
Stress can be a friend or a foe, its purpose is to save your life when you’re physically threatened. But in modern life, the threats we face are more ego-driven than physically dangerous.
The problem is that your brain can’t differentiate between a situation that merely threats the ego and other that actually threatens your life. Modern stress is part of our day-to-day lives, but the human brain wasn’t built to be constantly bombarded with these stressors.
Your workplace, relationships, family, finances and even social media, can become threats to the ego that easily activate your survival mode—leading to high stress levels and emotional drama.
One way to stop reinforcing your stress-causing ego is to notice the real nature of your thoughts to let go of beliefs that don’t serve you. This is possible through practices like mindfulness and journaling.
Engaging in mindfulness means becoming an observer of your thoughts from moment to moment without judging them. That’s living in the present.
Living in the present is so indescribably freeing. The mental clarity and insights I’ve gotten from it are priceless. I’ve learned to stop identifying with my childhood traumas. The past is in the past, and it can’t mess with my present life—unless I give it that power.
Tune in. What’s going on right here, right now? Breathe, feel the air filling your lungs. Whatever thought comes to your mind, let it comes up and gently return your attention to your breathe.
If your mind wanders, worry not, the point is NOT to quiet your monkey mind.
The point is to be aware of what’s going on inside it without self-analysis or judgement. That unpleasant thought is justs a thought. It doesn’t define who you are, and it can’t ruin your life.
Thoughts come and go. Breathing helps you regain agency over the present moment. Inhale. Feel the air kissing that anxious thought goodbye. Exhale and let it pass.
Mindfulness trains your brain to detach simple thoughts from deep emotions and leave you with whatever is happening as it is. Without judgement, the drama from the ego is erased and the resistance is gone—leaving you with an inner peace that makes life more fun.
Although, mindfulness is often seen as a synonym of meditation, you can be mindful in many ways, not only while “omm-ing.” Writing your thoughts and emotions down, talking with someone about them or simply slowing the pace of your daily activities can bring your attention back to the present.
A few daily minutes of mindfulness can have an unimaginable impact on your life.
Master Your Emotions
Emotions are an essential part of your life, they can be helpful or harmful depending on how good you are at regulating them. They can determine the quality of your life. Thus, if you’re stuck in anger and frustration you show up in the world in a very different way than if you’re feeling joyful and excited.
That’s why the basic purpose of self-care is to take charge of your emotional healing so you can enjoy life in relative harmony with the world.
We all go through life experiencing different circumstances that are beyond our control and emotions are your default response to them.
For evolutionary purposes your brain is hard-wired to survive not thrive. This tendency to find threats rather than pleasurable aspects of your experiences paves the way to suffering.
Suffering is a set of exaggerated negative emotions that make your life miserable.
Unlike Jo Cameron, the woman who has a rare genetic mutation that keeps her from feeling physical and psychological pain, humans are not shielded from suffering.
No matter what you do, you can’t prevent bad things from happening or become immune to loss, grief and struggle.
But you can foster a better relationship with your emotions. Of course, this reads way easier than it’s done, and some of us find it more difficult to do. For me, this has been an agonizing lesson to learn.
To cope with emotional suffering is crucial to create a healthy distance between you and your emotions. Do this by paying attention to your feelings without trying to change, modify or hide them. Allow emotions to do what they need to do, let them be without reacting to them. Sooner than later they will pass on their own.
We already discussed how to become aware of your thoughts with mindfulness, and you can use the same technique with your emotions. The beauty of this no-judgement practice is that you can apply it to all aspects of your life.
Start by asking yourself why you feel the way you do. Be kind and let whatever is bothering you show up without criticism. Embrace your feelings as a natural part of your life experience rather than something to be ashamed or afraid of.
When you resist negative emotions they become stronger. But when you deliberately acknowledge them, they lose their power. “Unpowered” emotions hurt less and are easier to manage.
Embracing your feelings with full awareness helps you get off autopilot, and gets the brain to work in your favor. Your autopiloted survival mode is inclined to find problems and threats while the neocortex—the logical part of your brain—is wired to find answers and solutions. But the neocortex is subject to the autopilot mandate.
Once your brain stops seeing feelings as a terrifying thing and more as a passing, undesired experience, it restrains them from being charged with emotional energy. Survival mode is shut down and your neocortex is free to create new insights that help you turn on your thriving mode.
Gaining control over your thoughts and feelings is pretty much like adopting a new habit, it’s challenging but not impossible. Contradictory reactions may push you back, but they’re part of the process. With continuous work everything becomes second nature.
Don’t be a slave of your emotions, be the master by breaking down how and why you feel the way you do, so you can take control over your emotional state and keep your cool in any situation.
Connect With Others
True self-care is NOT focusing on yourself in a selfish way. No one is an island. Humans evolved as the dominant species on Earth because of our ability to struggle and thrive together. We’re hard-wired to be social creatures. Even scientific research tells us that social interaction and meaningful connections with other people make us happier and healthier.
Without social interaction, the brain suffers. Social deprivation can cause deep psychological pain and lead to serious mental health problems. Meanwhile, having a close circle of friends, supportive family, and an active social life have been shown to improve physical and mental well-being.
Physical disabilities, financial restrictions, and mental health problems can make it more difficult to socialize, but it’s important to find a way to connect with other people.
Today’s world may make us more prone to be mentally ill, but it also offers the tools to prevent and overcome social isolation. If depression makes it difficult for you to interact with people, or mobility issues restrict your activities, consider joining an online group and taking part in forums and discussions.
Pets can also help you provide a meaningful connection. When you direct your attention towards a cute animal, your focus is drawn away from distress and other mind difficulties.
Petting a living thing can trigger the release of endorphins, a feel-good neurochemical that helps in the production of serotonin—another neurochemical that’s associated with happiness.
And there’s more; animals can also make you release oxytocin, which is known as the “love hormone.” Oxytocin plays an essential role in your social interactions and bonding.
Connections can make you feel calmer, happier, and eventually lead to greater well-being.
Find Your Purpose
“Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”
— Emile Coue
Modern life as we know it thrives in a world of abundance, thanks to the countless contributions humans have done in 12.000 years of civilization. Purpose is the contribution that shapes our civilization. It provides meaning and focus to your life, and it’s crucial for maintaining good mental health.
However, with our busy lives, we spend little time reflecting on our purpose. If you’re looking to better yourself, it’s important to spend some time thinking of what matters to you and how you see your role in life.
Purpose is unique to each person. Some people find meaning by forming a beautiful family and raising decent children. Others want to achieve business, inspire people, save the planet, or follow innovative ideas—that will live beyond our perishable bodies.
Be flexible, it’s key to understand that your interests and sense of purpose can change throughout your lifetime, even when you think you have it all figured out. As life passes, it shapes your values and ideals, bringing new meaning to your life.
Find the things that drive your passion and do more of them. Doing what makes you truly happy is your contribution to the world. Honor your contribution by acknowledging and appreciating how far you’ve come, then allow yourself to shift directions when a new sense of awe come along.
Adopting a self-care practice is about checking in on your physical body and your inner world—because everything is deeply interconnected.
Practicing self-care can improve your life and also help you go through the most challenging times, if you get it right. Unfortunately, self-care is having a bad rap since marketing and social media are creating pitfalls around the real purpose of this movement.
Exotic face masks, pink bubble baths, expensive spa treatments and luxurious vacations will not address the roots of your mental health issues. True self-care gives you a solid foundation for building a happier life and developing meaningful relationships, while staying energized and healthy.
Even though I gave you a complete list of things to do for self-improvement, don’t forget that your self-care practice is individual, don’t fall into the trap of trying to reach someone else’s concept of perfection.
Self-care is making room in your busy life to make life more enjoyable, not another stressing task on your to-do list. Give yourself a fighting chance by designing a tailored plan that you can easily handle.
Start small, little changes add up to big impacts. Choose the one or two areas of your life that need more attention, it’s entirely up to you to decide what should be optimized. Then, find the activities that are in tune with what excites you and make you feel better in the long run.
Your mental health is not a small matter, give it the gift of true self-care.