New Year, New You
For most people, the new year is all about making resolutions to improve your life in the upcoming year. Lose ten pounds, quit smoking, get rid of credit card debt, you know the drill. Those are all great, but there’s another category of New Year’s resolution that people tend to forget about — their mental health.
So this year, we’re cutting out toxic thoughts and bad habits with these tips for a healthier, happier mind.
1. Unplug — At Least A Little
We spend too much time looking at screens. Between your TV, your phone, Netflix, and the computer screen you spend your 9-5 in front of, you’re beaming that harsh blue light into your eyes for hours and hours every day.
First of all, that’s not great for your attention span. There’s simply too much information, too many tweets, too many Instagram Stories, and too many shows for one person to possibly absorb, so we frantically switch back and forth, trying not to miss out. Then, when we have to sit down and hold still for a few hours, we can’t take it
Set some boundaries for your devices and learn to embrace the lack of a screen for small parts of the day. Do you take the bus or train to work? Don’t download a show to watch, just listen to some music and look out the window. Don’t use your phone while you eat.
Put your charger across the room, or even in the living room, so you don’t use your phone in bed. Not only is it tempting to sit in bed, staring at your screen for hours at a time, but your phone might actually be messing with your circadian rhythms. Alarm clocks are cheap — there’s no reason your phone needs to live 18 inches from your head all the time.
2. Start A Meditation Habit
The way meditation works is a little complicated, but basically, it goes like this: Lots of things cause us stress in our daily lives — work, commuting, money, personal relationships, etc. Unfortunately, our brains evolved on the open plains of Africa, where our stressors were much more immediate, like hunger or fear.
Immediate stressors, like what we’re used to, cause a surge in hormones like cortisol that keep us awake, raise our blood pressure, and generally give our body the ability to run away from lions and such. The problem is that in the modern world, that “fight or flight” reflex can be turned on all the time, not just when we have an immediate problem.
Chronic stress is probably the most overlooked medical problem in our lives. Being stressed day after day can affect your ability to sleep, your ability to lose weight, your ability to concentrate, your body’s ability to fight off infection, and a whole host of other problems, all because our blood boils when someone cuts us off in traffic.
That’s where meditation comes in. No, no one’s saying you should close your eyes and take a deep breath while you’re driving — that’ll cause more problems than it solves. But a daily meditation habit, even just 15 minutes right after you wake up, can help you sleep better, avoid major emotional stress, and handle whatever comes up in your day.
There are a ton of smartphone apps, paid and free, guided and unguided, to help you get started and grant you the tools to stay calm and collected no matter what the world throws at you.
3. Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
Your mind lives in your brain, and your brain lives in your body. Sounds obvious, right? But it’s easy to forget what a huge effect your physical fitness can have on your mental health, emotional stability, and general happiness.
That doesn’t mean you need to run a marathon to stave off depression or anything drastic like that — though it would probably help. People get intimidated by the time and energy they think they need to commit to exercise, so they don’t exercise at all. In fact, every little bit helps.
For starters, if you work in a chair (like most people), get up once an hour and walk around. Even five minutes, around the block, down the stairs and back up, or just around your floor, will help. Add in some squats or lunges next to your desk if you want — anything that gets your blood flowing will boost the production and availability of neurotransmitters in your brain that make you feel better.
Cutting back on heavily processed foods and sugar, even if weight loss isn’t a priority, can help a lot too. 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, and increasing the amount of natural fiber, vegetables, and other inflammation-reducing foods can boost your production of the feel-good chemical.
4. Get Some Sleep
Americans don’t get enough sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults aged 18–60 years sleep at least 7 hours each night for the best effects. And missing sleep doesn’t just make you irritable and groggy the next day — it also increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress. Scary, right?
And yet, according to the CDC, more than a third of Americans aren’t getting the requisite 7 hours a night. The exact amount varies between locations, ages, and socioeconomic status, but the fact is that we’re not sleeping enough.
So what can you do? First of all, establishing a routine can make a huge difference. Going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time (on weekends too) establishes a rhythm in your brain that will make it easier for you to fall asleep and easier to wake up in the morning.
Don’t just drink coffee all day, either. We tend to turn coffee into a social activity at the office or an excuse to get up and walk around, but the end result is that we’re intaking caffeine until well after noon. That caffeine lingers in your body and makes it hard to fall asleep at night.
And finally, back to our first piece of advice — unplug. Being on your phone or laptop or watching TV while you’re in bed confuses your brain. Ideally, your brain will associate your bed just with sleep (and, ahem, maybe one other activity), not with trying to stay awake.
If you want to watch TV right up until you go to bed, don’t do it in the bedroom. Don’t bring your phone in the bedroom with you at all — it won’t keep you awake and you won’t be tempted to grab it first thing in the morning after you wake up.
Reading in bed is fine, but use an actual book or an e-reader — the light is much less harsh and won’t affect your eyes or brain the same way that a phone screen does. And when you find yourself getting tired, don’t fight it!
These are all pretty simple changes, but they can make a huge difference in your health, happiness, stress levels, energy, and mental health in general. And when you’re happier, healthier, and more alert, you can use that new energy and focus on your other resolutions — whatever they might be.