Good physical health does not happen by accident. Physically healthy people make small, daily choices that contribute to their physical health.
It should be noted that even those who make healthy choices still get sick and injured. Choices don’t remove the possibility of illness or injury. But even when sick or injured, an individual’s daily choices still make a significant impact on their quality of life.
The same things are true for mental health. Good mental health does not happen by accident. Mentally healthy people make small, daily choices that contribute to their mental health (i.e., ability to regulate emotions, respond proportionally to disappointments, accurately weigh the significance of successes and failures, etc.).
Making the choices below won’t guarantee that you won’t experience seasons of depression, anxiety or other forms of mental unrest. But the kind of choices listed below, if made before-during-after a time period of mental unrest, will still make a significant impact on your quality of life.
Obviously, with 50 habits it would be overwhelming (i.e., mentally unhealthy) to try to implement them all at once. Pick a few that fit you best. Begin with those. When those are embedded in your rhythms of life, come back and see what would be good to implement in that season of life.
My goal in this post is to identify goals for each area of life that influences mental health: cognitive perspective, physical well-being, social context, spiritual vitality, general life management, emotional regulation, etc. Sometimes we need to be reminded that no one area of life can completely account for our mental health.
1. Get Adequate Sleep – The brain plays a dominant role in mental health. Sleep is vital for brain health. Inadequate sleep is the equivalent of not changing the oil in your car. You can get away with it for a while, but it winds up being very costly.
2. Eat Balanced Meals – Where does your body get the raw material to create a balanced neuro-chemistry? From what you eat. Wanting neurochemical balance with an imbalanced diet is like asking your children to draw a color picture with only black and white crayons.
3. Engage With Friends – When we’re isolated, our most destructive thoughts tend to echo in our minds and the healthy ones get muted. Friendship is a context that tends to facilitate many of the other good mental health habits on this list.
4. Worship – Life is overwhelming. It is easy to be awed by all that is required to live for 80 years. Worship is a time when we are awed by the right things; how much God loves us, God’s continual presence, etc.
5. Read a Good Book – Poor mental health hygiene often results from getting stuck in the “same old” thinking ruts. Reading a good book is both a distraction and provides new perspectives. Also, reading is like exercise for the mind.
6. Engage Cardiovascular Exercise – Few things have been shown to be better for mental health than 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise at least three times per week. Go for a jog, take a walk, ride a bike or swim a few laps and anything else you’re doing on this list will be more effective.
7. Avoid Debt – Imbalance does not stay contained to one area of life. If you go into debt, you increase stress, have to work more, which means you sleep less, which contributes to emotional reactivity, and erodes the quality of your relationships. Avoiding debt does a lot for your mental health.
8. Be Wise About Unhealthy Relationships – Relationships, for better or worse, have a significant influence on our lives. Christians can be confused and argumentative about how to think about boundaries. Part of being “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16) is knowing how to be a redemptive agent in unhealthy settings.
9. Get Out of Toxic Friendships – Some relationships go from being unhealthy to being toxic, destructive or abusive. When this is the case, then we honor the other person best by limiting the amount of destruction they can do. This means we apply Matthew 7:6 when Matthew 7:1-5 has been ineffective. Here are some red flags to look for.
10. Laugh – “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones,” Proverbs 17:22. Laughter is an important part of mental health. We have a hard time bearing up under the demands of everyday life when everything is serious all of the time.
11. Look for Reasons to Say “Thank You” – There is a direct correlation between how often you say “thank you” and whether you are focused on the good or hard things in your life. Gratitude may be one of the most significant dispositional qualities that influence our mental health.
12. Pray – What do you do with the hard things? Pray. Gratitude doesn’t mean we ignore the hard parts of our life. When we see the good things God has/is doing in our life, we are more prone to bring him the hard things with the confidence that comes from knowing He cares.
13. Meditate on Scripture – The content of our thinking has a significant impact on our mental health. When we meditate on lies and insecurities, it negatively impacts our mental health. When we meditate on the timeless truths and character of God found in the Bible, it positively impacts our mental health.
14. Consider Medication – If you have acutely hard struggles in your life, talk to your physician. Have an idea of how a conversation about medication is a part of your overall life management plan. If medication is a part of pursuing a full and satisfying life, don’t feel any shame about it.
15. Journal – When we fail to reflect on where we’ve been, who we are and where we’re going, life can begin to feel meaningless. Journaling is a good way to cultivate a greater sense of direction and context for your day-to-day life. It is easier to endure hardship when life has meaning.
16. Learn Something New – A growing mind is healthier than a stagnant mind. Learning is like cardio for the brain; new neural connections are forming and existing connections are being strengthened. As you learn, you also give yourself more fruitful things with which to engage your thought life.
17. Confide Your Secrets – Shame is toxic to both our mental and social health. Secrets are the currency of shame. Confiding secrets in trusted friends is a way to break the bonds of shame with the power of eye contact from someone who truly knows us.
18. Serve/Volunteer – An excessive self-focus is not healthy. When we only focus on our struggles, it makes our struggles seem increasingly large in our eyes. Serving others gives us perspective, becomes a source of wholesome joy, and reminds us that we can make a difference with our lives.
19. Avoid Intoxicants – There is a high correlation between substance abuse and mental illness. Whether this correlation is cause or effect can vary from person to person, but if you are concerned about your mental health, it would be wise to avoid recreationally impairing your mental state with alcohol or drugs.
20. Regularly Attend Church – People were created for community. In western culture we have too individualized our mental health. Isolation, or only surface relationships, is a negative influence on our mental health. Church is a place for deep fellowship, reinforcing other spiritual habits on this list, and being reminded that we are all broken and in need of the same Savior.