Caring for your mental health is a crucial part of protecting your overall health. And just like caring for other parts of your body, what you do for your mental health does not always have to be significant changes — small things add up. So, if you need a quick mental reset, here are seven simple health hacks to keep in mind.
1. Laugh out loud
Laughter may not always be the best medicine, but it is worth trying.
When you laugh, you relieve stress and tension by reducing the level of cortisol — the stress hormone — in your body1. While your cortisol level goes down, laughter further relieves stress by increasing the production of positive hormones like dopamine and endorphins.23 Endorphins, the natural painkillers your body produces, reduce pain and provide a mood boost upon relief.4
In addition to the mental benefits, laughter is good for physical health as it strengthens your immune system and provides a cardiovascular workout if you laugh hard enough.5
2. Practice gratitude
Practicing gratitude is the simple act of being thankful. According to various studies, taking a moment to practice gratitude can influence aspects of both your mental health and physical health.6 Gratitude, appreciation and optimism help:
- Boost moods7
- Manage stress, anxiety and depression8
- Improve sleep quality9
- Increase immune function10
- Reduce cardiovascular health risks11
With all these benefits, don't restrict gratitude to a couple of days a year during the holidays; instead, add the practice of gratitude to your everyday routine. Some easy forms include journaling about it, sharing your thanks with others or taking a minute each morning to reflect.
3. Hug a pet (with permission)
There's a reason universities have de-stress puppy playtime events and major airports have introduced ambassador dog programs — interacting with pets can lower your blood pressure and decrease your production of cortisol, the dreaded stress hormone.12
In addition to stress release, interacting with pets also boosts your mood by increasing oxytocin.13 Often associated with reproduction and childbirth, oxytocin (known as the "love hormone") plays an essential role in relationships; it provides that warm, uplifting feeling you get from seeing a loved one or hugging. 1415
Find your pet or someone happy to share theirs, and hug it.
4. Make time to meditate
Meditation is a popular and proven method of supporting your mental well-being by reducing stress, improving focus and clearing your mind.16 Meditation produces serotonin, a mood-stabilizing hormone.17 Beyond stabilizing your mood, adequate serotonin levels benefit your memory and sleep quality, while low levels have been linked to depression.18
Meditation comes in many forms and is flexible about fitting into your schedule; start by adding a 10-minute meditation session to your daily routine. For more meditation support, try downloading a guided meditation app.
5. Go on a nature adventure
It is important to remember the value of spending time outside, whether that means going for a walk in your neighborhood or embarking on an adventure in the mountains. Like meditation, enjoying nature is another way to keep up your serotonin levels.19 No wonder studies have found that spending time in nature can lower stress, boost your mood and refresh your brain!20 Of course, it is a bonus if you can bask in the sun while you're at it.21
Find green spaces near you and add more visits to your schedule.
6. Take a break
Physical activity can support your mental health, but being active is not limited to finding time for a run or the gym. You can incorporate beneficial physical movements into your routine in many ways, one of which is remembering to take breaks throughout your day.
Breaks are essential to a balanced day, whether you are working or studying, at the office or home. Not only are you at risk for ergonomic injuries when you sit at a desk for too long, but pushing yourself to keep going might not be as effective as you think.22 Taking a break helps your mental well-being, alleviates fatigue, resets your focus and improves your performance.2324
The ideal break length will depend on the task.25 For example, repetitive tasks and certain creative projects greatly benefit from breaks that are 10 minutes or less. In contrast, cognitively demanding tasks require longer breaks to improve performance. Regardless, a short break is better than no break, whether it is three minutes between tasks or 15 minutes between meetings.
7. Give your gut some TLC
When caring for your mental health, don't forget about your gut. There is something referred to as the gut-brain axis, which is communication between the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the central nervous system.26 Ongoing studies are analyzing the extent of this gut-brain connection, with a focus on how gut microbiota — the bacteria, archaea and eukarya in our GI tract27 — may affect mental health.28
Often when we feel anxious or stressed, our gut also becomes upset, and the idea is that this connection works the opposite way. Therefore, if you are looking for new ways to support your mental health, add gut health to your list. Here are a few recommendations for promoting better gut health:
Caring for mental health comes in many forms, like therapy or counseling, medications and more. But sometimes, we also benefit from small actions that help us feel reset during the day-to-day — whether that means exercising outside, laughing at your pet or practicing gratitude while meditating. So remember: give your mental health the care you need, and don't dismiss the small stuff.