New Year’s resolutions tend to be about physical health — lose weight, eat healthier, stop smoking. Often overlooked is what’s underneath it all: our emotional outlook. Yet, mental health is just as important as physical, with more than 8 million Americans living with psychological distress and research associating stress with heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other illnesses.
“Being able to learn how to relate to our minds differently, manage stress differently and open ourselves up to what is good in life more supports our resiliency and confidence,” explains psychologist Elisha Goldstein, PhD, author of Uncovering Happiness. “The motivation and interest to make a choice and create healthy habits (around sleep, nutrition and exercise) starts with mental health.”
So this year consider some of these resolutions to improve your mental health — and, in turn, your physical and emotional health.
1. BE MORE PRESENT
“Being present is inversely correlated with negative thinking, rumination and anxious thinking, and it’s positively correlated and connected to enjoyment,” Goldstein says. It helps you realize when you are stressed and consciously decide how to respond, rather than simply reacting. Developing a daily regular practice is one way to increase this awareness. You can also practice being present in your daily life, perhaps focusing on your senses while taking a walk or doing the dishes, or putting your phone away and really tuning into what your friend is saying and the emotions behind their words.
2. PLAY MORE
“When it comes to mental health, play is like brain fertilizer,” says Goldstein, adding that studies show it increases the expression of proteins involved with healthy brain growth and enhances memory and learning. But play doesn’t have to mean toys or games. Find ways to be more playful throughout your day. How can you work in a more playful way? Can you be playful about your thoughts and recognize them as simply thoughts, not necessarily truths? Maybe you can even play during your workout, bringing a sense of curiosity and awareness to how your muscles feel during each exercise.
3. TAKE RISKS
Doing anything scary is, well, scary. But “taking calculated risks can pay off big time when it comes to connecting with our values,” explains David Austern PsyD, clinical instructor of psychiatry NYU Langone Health. When faced with a risk, rather than letting your hamster-wheel brain generate all the things that could go wrong, identify how it will help you connect with a personal value. Asking your boss for a raise may give you the opportunity to spend more time with your family. Asking someone on a date could lead to a relationship you desire. Let that motivation fuel you to make a move.
READ MORE > THE FINE ART OF MAKING TIMELESS RESOLUTIONS
4. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SELF-TALK
If you tend to be hard on yourself, you may not even realize your inner dialogue is so negative. Goldstein recommends tuning into how you talk to yourself and asking, “If a friend talked to me like this, would I stay in this relationship?” No? Then bring up a positive belief you know is true such as “I am good enough.” Believe and embody that truth for a while, thinking about how it makes you feel or act differently, Goldstein says. Embodying the feeling helps change your brain so you can change your self-talk.
5. PRACTICE ASSERTIVENESS
Do you have a hard time asking for what you want, setting limits and saying no? You’re not alone. “Unfortunately, this can lead to high stress and asymmetrical, unhealthy relationships,” Austern says. Cultivate your assertiveness skills, though, and you can learn to handle the stressful interpersonal situations of life. Start by practicing saying no — even if it’s simply telling salespeople at the store, “No, I don’t need help, I’m just browsing.” With time that will carry over into other situations, such as with work or friends.
6. FIND WAYS TO BE GENEROUS WITH YOURSELF
This is especially important for caregivers, Goldstein says. If you notice you are stressed, consider taking a 10-minute walk, having a latte if that’s what you really need or even taking a mental health day to do something fun and pleasurable. “Consider, ‘What does it mean to love myself? What does that look like?’” Goldstein says. Once you figure that out, do it in your life more.
7. LOOK FOR THE GOOD
Linger in those moments. You can be on the lookout for good moments during the day and reflect back on them at the end of your day. “The brain has a negative bias — it pays more attention to the negative than the positive. From evolutionary perspective, we have that to keep us safe,” Goldstein explains. “But the brain doesn’t care if we are happy or not.” So you need to consciously be aware of what is good. Chances are it’s more than you think.