With a new year often comes a renewed focus on health. For most people, that usually means diet and exercise. However, your mental health should be a big (if not the biggest) part of any wellness journey.
If you’re looking to improve your well-being in 2023, make a resolution to prioritize your mind. We spoke with a few therapists to get their best tips for boosting your mental health this year. Here’s their advice:
1. Practice diaphragmatic breathing.
Incorporating deep breathing exercises into your day is a great goal for the new year.
“Our mind can’t fully relax if our body isn’t relaxed. There’s a strong mind-body connection, so if you struggle with calming your cognitive thoughts, then calming your physical body will be helpful,” said Kristen Casey, a licensed clinical psychologist and insomnia expert. “One way that we can engage our parasympathetic nervous system ― the relaxation response ― is by regulating our heart rate. We regulate our heart rate by regulating our breathing.”
While there are different ways to practice diaphragmatic breathing, in essence you’ll want to breathe in through your nose, hold it for a few seconds, and let it out through your mouth. However, you want the air to go into your belly to ensure the breath is a larger one. This can be challenging at first, so you’ll want to practice when you’re not stressed so the mechanism is more effective during times of need.
2. Prioritize your sleep.
“Establishing a healthy sleep routine helps us feel energized and can reduce irritability and brain fog,” Casey said. “When we’re irritable or not feeling quite like ourselves, it may be difficult to work effectively or communicate with our friends or family.”
To help prioritize your sleep wellness, Casey recommends trying to wake at the same time each day, avoiding large amounts of substances right before bed (including alcohol and caffeine), and exposing yourself to light immediately upon waking ― just to name a few.
3. Make time for yourself.
This sounds obvious, but when life and work arise, it can actually be a struggle to carve out time for self-care.
“When you start doing things that YOU want to do, things that make you feel good, that has a positive impact on mental health,” said Kristen Gingrich, a licensed clinical social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. “A lot of the time, we spend so much time putting energy to other people and doing things for others that we sometimes forget that we matter as well.”
4. Spend time with people who energize you.
In a world where so many things are virtual, it’s easy to lose touch with the people you care about. But connecting with those people can be beneficial in improving your overall mental health.
“This can be something as simple as a 10-minute FaceTime or it could be an afternoon excursion,” Gingrich said. “Connecting with others who make us feel good helps us to feel seen and heard in our relationships. It can also give us some more positivity in our lives that we may not be getting otherwise.”
5. Add a gratitude practice into your routine.
“Studies have shown that by simply writing down two things you are grateful for for two weeks, participants had a decrease in depression and anxiety, and an increase in connection, productivity and resilience,” said Dr. Nina Vasan, the chief medical officer at Real, a mental health platform.
One easy way to do this is to have a gratitude journal or jar, or just a list on your phone of things that you’re grateful for ― the more specific you can be, the better.
6. Get moving.
The benefits of exercise extend much further than improving cardiovascular health and building muscle.
“Studies show that for mild depression and anxiety, exercise is just as effective as medication or therapy. In fact, I write exercise prescriptions for my patients,” Vasan said.
This can be as simple as going on a walk around the neighborhood, playing a game of basketball, or dancing to your favorite song. Any movement will help get those endorphins flowing that can boost your mood.
7. Build your relationship with food.
We’re not talking about counting calories, but taking nutrition into account as you eat throughout the day.
“Think about ways to decrease processed foods and extra sugar. Focus on adding fresh, whole foods like fresh fruits and veggies, foods with omega-3-fatty acids like salmon, and dark green leafy vegetables as these are protective for the brain,” Vasan said.
This also goes for items you want to eat: Don’t restrict yourself because you consider a brownie “bad.” Nourishment also means establishing a positive relationship with food.
8. Keep some unscheduled time in your day.
Since we live in a culture with such a hustle mentality, Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of ”For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0–2,” suggested adding moments of peace and quiet to your day.
“A day without scheduled activities feels ‘unfamiliar,’ which the mind interprets as ‘wrong,’ however, it’s not wrong to take a day and do nothing other than calming self-care,” Cook said. “Read a book, take a long walk, draw a hot bath or binge-watch a show. Put away devices/clocks and go watch life at the speed of nature.”
9. Examine your friendships.
Over the past year, you’ve probably expanded your social circle to include more people. However, more does not always mean better when it comes to having and maintaining friendships.
“It’s a good idea to go through those people you consider friends and see how they fit in your life,” said David Tzall, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. “We sometimes think it’s better to have people in our lives than being alone but we may not think of the mental and emotional impact they have in our lives.”
At the end of the day, it’s actually better to be alone or have a few friends than be hurt by others you think are helping you.
10. Reestablish boundaries with family and friends.
Boundaries aren’t cruel ― they’re crucial. Take some time to figure out what they are ― what are you firmly saying no to this year? Then reiterate them to your loved ones.
“A new year is a great time to assess what your boundaries are with certain people and then reestablish those if need be,” Tzall said. “Boundaries prevent us from getting walked on, getting taken advantage of [and] reaching burnout.”
11. Try something new.
The new year is the perfect time to get out of your comfort zone and cultivate new habits. While routines can be healthy, Tzall said they can sometimes prevent us from engaging in new activities which can stunt growth and hinder the ability to be psychologically flexible.
12. Get outside regularly.
It can be easy to stay inside all day, especially if you have a remote job or work in an office. However, it’s important to step outside even if it’s just for a little while.
“Time in nature grounds us, can increase focus, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, fuel creativity, and generate emotions like joy, peace and contentment,” said Rachel Miller, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Hold The Vision Therapy.
13. Go to therapy
Having access to therapy isn’t a privilege everyone has thanks to insurance issues, rising costs and availability. However, if you have the ability to see a licensed mental health professional, then you may want to consider it in the new year.
“Therapy can be a powerful way to maintain good mental health if you can access it. Therapy helps people manage stress, anxiety and depression,” Miller said. “It can support you in developing and maintaining healthy relationships, and progress your personal growth and development journey.”
14. Reflect on the past year.
Although you may be eager to leave the past behind, it can be helpful to reflect on the previous year and see how you could use it to your advantage.
“Take a few minutes to reflect on 2022. What went well? What do you want to continue doing that is helping you flourish in life? Also, reflect on the things that did not go so well. What do you need to change? What relationships are impacting you in a negative way?” said Kelly McKenna, a licensed clinical social worker and anxiety therapist.
15. Try affirmations.
If you already practice affirmations, then you’re ahead of the game. However, if this is the first time you’re hearing about it, you’ll want to consider adding positive affirmations into your daily routine. McKenna suggested writing down an “I am”, “I can”, or “I will” statement that you need to remind yourself of regarding self-love, positivity, calmness or optimism. For example, “I am innovative” or “I will prioritize myself.”
To get the most out of this exercise, McKenna suggests writing these down on sticky notes at home and at work and saying it to yourself out loud or in your head each time you pass it.
16. Ask friends and family for support.
Asking for help can be hard, but you’re important and you deserve the support you’re seeking.
“These last few years have been quite difficult, so reaching out and letting someone know that you are suffering is one step closer to promoting the best possible mental health for yourself,” said Jennifer Kelman, a mental health expert for JustAnswer and a licensed clinical social worker.
17. Set a goal and write out your action steps.
Telling yourself that you’re going to train for a marathon or take a dream vacation is different than actually taking the steps necessary to achieve that goal. Kelman suggested making a plan with feasible steps you can take to actually get closer to your goal so it doesn’t seem so far out of reach.
18. Get out in the sun.
Similar to how it’s important to get outside in nature, you’ll also want to make sure you’re getting adequate sunlight. “Vitamin D is a master hormone that helps to regulate your mood, immune system, metabolism and more,” said Clement Lee, a naturopathic doctor and founder of Optimal Health & Wellness in Pasadena, California.
Lee suggested starting off by getting as little as five minutes, but ideally 30-45 minutes, of sun during the day, preferably first thing in the morning when you wake up. Even spending time outside when it’s cloudy will still help you get some exposure.
19. Drink more water.
While this is an overall tip to maintain general health, staying adequately hydrated can also result in improved mental health.
“Adequate hydration helps to enhance your energy levels, helps encourage normal bowel movements, helps reduce headaches … and enhances physical performance, to name a few,” Lee said. “If you have your body working in top shape, your mental health becomes easier to manage. Your mind will have less things to worry about when your body feels better.”
20. Take breaks during the workday.
Make this year the year you actually reduce your risk of burnout by taking adequate breaks. Your brain needs rest.
“Create a ‘self-care tool kit’ that serves as a menu of different break activities or rituals that can either be added to your calendar ahead of time or turned to when you need to step away from a challenging situation or project,” said Nicholette Leanza, a licensed professional clinical counselor at LifeStance Health, a provider of outpatient virtual and in-person mental health care. “Having a go-to list of rituals at the ready will make it easier to ensure you are consistently taking mental health breaks and helps avoid burning out.”
21. Tap into your creative side.
Whether you’re interested in gardening, baking, painting, building furniture, making videos or craft projects, the process of creating something can help to reduce stress and improve mental health.
“In addition to helping to focus our attention and regulate our emotions, engaging in a creative task can offer mental health benefits similar to meditating,” said Michelle Felder, a licensed clinical social worker and CEO of Parenting Pathfinders. “Creating new things gives us an opportunity to focus our attention onto the present moment, quiet the noise in our mind, and it can help us enter a flow, which is an enjoyable state in which we’re so immersed in a task that we lose sense of time.”
22. Be of service.
Just because the holidays are over that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop giving to others. Being of service to others doesn’t require grand gestures or a huge time commitment in order for it to benefit your mental health.
“Helping others not only feels good, but it can also do very good things for our mind and spirit; in addition to reducing isolation and fostering social connections, the act of volunteering has been shown to lower depression, increase one’s sense of satisfaction with life and improve our overall well-being,” Felder said. “Being of service to others can provide a healthy respite from the stressors we’re experiencing, and can help to reveal a greater meaning and purpose to life.”
23. Go play.
Tap into your inner child and make some time for fun. Get some Legos, fire up an old game on the computer, start collecting stamps or get a Tamagotchi again.
“Playing isn’t just important for kids — it has many mental health boosting benefits for grownups too,” Felder said. “Research has provided evidence to show that being playful can help to promote more positive thinking, decrease levels of stress, and improve our ability to utilize healthy coping strategies when faced with difficult situations. Being more playful won’t decrease the amount of stressors that we have in our life, but it can significantly improve how we perceive and cope with these stressors.”