Achieving better mental health sometimes requires professional help. People may need a therapist or even medication to deal with such disorders as depression and anxiety.
But those serious diagnoses aside, we could all do with a little brain tuneup. Fortunately, science has some suggestions for how to overcome personality quirks or unhealthy patterns of thinking that leave people functioning less than optimally.
Here are some approaches that studies have found may improve people’s mental health:
Set goals, but don’t overdo it.
The problem is that perfectionism has two facets: Perfectionists tend to set high goals for themselves, but they also tend to worry if they fail to reach extreme levels of performance. The high goals are not the problem as much as the feelings of failure and worthlessness that come with falling short of reaching them. Those feelings can wreak havoc on mental health.
The trick to evading the perfectionism trap can be to set small, manageable goals rather than one big goal, said Andrew Hill, a sports psychologist at York St. John University in England. That way, failure is less likely, and so is the self-recrimination that all-or-nothing thinking can cause.
If you don’t get outside frequently, even in inclement weather, you may be doing a number on your mental health.
A study published in June found that spending 90 minutes walking in nature can decrease brain activity in a region called the subgenual prefrontal cortex. This area is active when we’re ruminating over negative thoughts. Walking alongside a busy road didn’t quiet this area, the researchers found.
A 2010 study found that five minutes in a green space can boost self-esteem. And a 2001 study found that time in green space improved ADHD symptoms in kids compared with time spent relaxing indoors — for example, watching TV.
Give meditation a try.
A slew of studies have found that meditation benefits a person’s mental health. For example, a 2012 study in the journal PLoS One found that people who trained to meditate for six weeks became less rigid in their thinking than people with no meditation training. This suggests that meditation might help people with depression or anxiety shift their thoughts away from harmful patterns, the researchers wrote.
Other studies on meditation suggest that it literally alters the brain, slowing a thinning of the frontal cortex that typically occurs with age and decreasing activity in brain regions that convey information about pain. People trained in Zen meditation also became more adept than others at clearing their minds after a distraction, a 2008 study found. Because distracting and irrelevant thoughts are common in people with depression and anxiety, meditation might improve those conditions, the researchers said.
Get some exercise.
A 2012 study in the journal Neurology found that doing physical exercise was more beneficial than doing mental exercises in staving off the signs of aging in the brain.
That study used magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of 638 participants in their early 70s. Those who reported walking or doing other exercises a few times a week showed less brain shrinkage and stronger brain connections than those who didn’t move as much.
A 2014 review in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that physical activity reduced the symptoms of depression in people with mental illness and even reduced symptoms of schizophrenia.
A 2014 study found that adding an exercise program to treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder reduced patients’ symptoms and improved their sleep.
Be generous in relationships.
A giving relationship is a happy relationship, according to a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. In the study, couples who reported high levels of generosity with one another were more satisfied in their marriages than others and more likely to report high levels of sexual satisfaction.
Commitment seems to help. People in the early stages of a marriage or a cohabitating relationship experience a short-term boost in happiness and a drop in depression, according to a 2012 study.
Use social media wisely.
In general, having social connections is linked to better mental health. However, maintaining friendships over Facebook and other social media sites can be fraught with problems. Some research suggests that reading other people’s chipper status updates makes people feel worse about themselves. Those findings suggest that limiting your friend list to people whom you feel particularly close to might help you avoid seeing a parade of happy status updates from people who seem to have perfect lives.
Time spent on social networking sites has been linked to depressive symptoms in some studies. One recent study found that social media is a double-edged sword: People with mental health conditions reported that social media sites offered them feelings of belonging to a community, but they also said that Facebook and other sites could exacerbate their anxiety and paranoia.
The best bet, researchers say, is to take advantage of the connectivity conferred by social media but to avoid making Facebook or Twitter your entire social life.
Aim for meaning, not pleasure.
Imagine a life of lounging by a pool, cocktail in hand. Paradise? Not so much. A 2007 study found that people are happier when they take part in meaningful activities than when they focus on hedonism.
University of Louisville researchers asked undergrads to complete surveys each day for three weeks about their daily activities. They also answered questions about their happiness levels and general life satisfaction.
The study found that the more people participated in personally meaningful activities such as helping other people or pursuing big life goals, the happier and more satisfied they felt. Seeking pleasure didn’t boost happiness.
Worry (some), but don’t vent.
Everyone has had the experience of worrying about something that couldn’t be changed. But if constant worrying becomes a pervasive problem, science suggests you should just put it on the calendar.
Scheduling your “worry time” to a single, 30-minute block each day can reduce worries over time, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. Participants in the study were taught to catch themselves worrying throughout the day and then postpone the worries to a prearranged block of time.
Even just realizing that they were worrying helped people calm down, the researchers found, but stopping the worrying and saving it for later was the most effective technique of all.
Venting about stresses, however, appears to make people feel worse about life, not better. So set aside that worry time — but do it silently.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Daily irritations are part of life, but they can be wearing on mental health. In a 2013 study using information from two national surveys, researchers found that the more negatively people responded to small things such as having to wait in traffic or having arguments with a spouse, the more anxious and distressed they were likely to be when surveyed 10 years later.
“It’s important not to let everyday problems ruin your moments,” study researcher Susan Charles, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, said in a statement when the research was released. “After all, moments add up to days, and days add up to years.”