5 tips for maximizing your mental health

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Divorce, job loss, a relative’s death: Sooner or later, most of us will face those stressors. So why do they trigger mental illness in some of us but not others?

Although genetics play a role, prevention is key. The way we treat ourselves before, during, and after a tragedy matters. When we’re eating poorly, sleeping too little, working too much, or
otherwise abusing ourselves, stressful situations can take a turn for the worse.

Take care today

Your bad habits may not be getting in the way today, but what about tomorrow? You can’t predict the future. Fortunately, you can protect your mind with:

1. Meditation

Meditation is all about living in the moment. Doing so eases symptoms associated with ADHD, anxiety, and more, but it’s good practice for everyone. Separating your thoughts from your
external experience shows you that stress is temporary. And the more you do it, the better you become at shifting your mind out of stress mode. If you’ve never meditated before, don’t be intimidated. In the morning, before bed, or whenever you feel stressed, carve out 15 minutes for yourself. Sit quietly, listen to your breathing, and let your thoughts pass without judging them. If you catch yourself doing so, gently steer your consciousness back to your breathing.

2. Sleep hygiene

When you toss and turn all night, how do you feel the next day? You can’t think straight, you’re unhappy, and you’re tempted snap at everyone for everything, right? Add in a life-changing
event, and you’ve got the makings of a mental health crisis. That recipe is the reason mental health experts emphasize healthy sleep habits. When holistic psychiatrist Dr. Aparna Iyer meets a patient, she’s “very aggressive” about strengthening their sleep patterns: How many hours per night do they average? What are they doing right before bed? Are medical issues or drug abuse keeping them from getting a good night’s rest? Ask yourself those same questions: You know what to do with the answers.

3. Interpersonal connection

Across multiple studies and 20,000 adult subjects, U.K. researchers found people who live alone are, in some cases, more than twice as likely to experience mental illness. Although not
everyone who lives alone suffers — nor is everyone who cohabitates safe — from mental illness, loneliness is a risk factor. Social satisfaction appears to buffer adults against anxiety, depression, and more.

When it comes to interactions, quality matters more than quantity: A dozen grocery-store conversations probably aren’t as protective as your closest friendships. Don’t worry about being everyone’s friend, and don’t compare yourself to others. Cultivate the relationships you find fulfilling, and forget the rest.

4. Probiotics

Will eating yogurt for breakfast make or break your mental health? Of course not. But as part of a healthy lifestyle, research suggests it might help. A study published in the journal Gastroenterology found that daily probiotic intake was twice as effective at easing depression symptoms as the placebo. Probiotics didn’t make a meaningful dent, however, in test subjects’
anxiety levels.

Still, foods infused with good bacteria are cheap and healthy. If yogurt isn’t your style, what about kimchi, kombucha, or kefir? If you can’t stand fermented foods period, take a probiotic
supplement. Give it six weeks, the duration of the study above: If the long days don’t feel like they’re getting easier, then try something else.

5. Journaling

Journaling protects your mental health for the same reason meditation does: It’s a chance to slow down and see that stress is temporary. Clinical social worker Alison Stone suggests even
keeping a second journal, this one for gratitude, for the sake of contrast. Seeing how your blessings stack up against your stresses is a great way to remind yourself how fortunate you
are.

Try it: Grab a notebook. Give yourself 10 minutes to fill a page with everything that’s bothering you. After that, set a new timer. Fill the adjacent page with everything you’re grateful for. Then,
read back through both. Chances are, you’ll see that your problems aren’t as big as they seem. Mental wellbeing isn’t a matter of avoiding tough life experiences; it’s about taking them in
stride. Journaling, meditation, sleep, and socialization are great ways to do that, but the most important one is this: Figure out what works for you and keep it up through thick and thin.