Taking Care of Yourself

What is "Good Mental Health”?

Today is World Mental Health Day (October 10), so I’m dedicating today's blog post to raising awareness about how to improve mental health...starting with yourself. The best way to improve your mental health is to start by taking better care of yourself.

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Mental health is an integral part of this definition.” - World Health Organization (WHO)

Good mental health is about more than just the absence of mental illness or emotional problems. Being mentally “healthy” is about your overall well-being. It’s when you realize your own abilities, you feel able to cope with life’s normal stresses, and you can function productively at work or school, and you can be part of a social network. Your mental health is the foundation for a happy life and relationships.

Put On Your Oxygen Mask First

If you've ever flown on an airplane, you’ve probably heard the flight attendant say, "Make sure you put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others."  This isn’t just a rule for airplanes… it’s critical to well being in general.  

If you pass out from running out of oxygen while trying to help someone else, you both suffer. You can’t really help anyone else until you help yourself. This is a metaphor I tell my clients all the time, especially the good-intentioned, big-hearted ones who are always running around taking care of everyone and everything except themselves.

Want to Help Someone?

Maybe you already take care of yourself, but you’re worried about someone else. It’s really difficult to worry about a loved one, especially when they are struggling with mental health problems. The truth is, modeling good self care is the best way to encourage other people to do the same for themselves. Seeing how someone makes efforts to take care of themselves can inspire others, and it ensures that you actually have the energy to help out when they need you.

Red Flags  
If you haven’t been taking good care of yourself, you may have already started to experience burnout and stress, which are the tell-tale beginnings of mental health problems. I like to think of these burnout symptoms as helpful "red flags" trying to get your attention. Sometimes your body and mind are crying out for your attention. Typical symptoms of growing mental health problems may include:

  • stress
  • fatigue
  • reduced mental effectiveness
  • health problems
  • anxiety
  • sadness
  • frustration
  • inability to sleep

Making Things Worse: Unhealthy Coping

There are a lot of ways of trying to cope which may not be the healthiest. The problem is, they typically “work” in terms of making you feel better, but only temporarily. And they usually make your life worse in the end. These are even more signs that it may be time to start taking better care of yourself.

Non-Healthy Coping Skills:

  • Drugs
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Self-mutilation
  • Ignoring or storing hurt feelings
  • Sedatives (“downers”)
  • Stimulants (“uppers” such as caffeine, Adderall)
  • Over-working (an avoidance tactic)
  • Avoidance of problems (“I’ll deal with it later”)
  • Denial of problems (saying “I’m fine” when you know you’re not)

We Choose Our Habits

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, or engaging in any of the above unhealthy habits, you may want to consider making some changes, and soon. Your daily habits either work towards improving or worsening your mood. In the long term, these habits build up your mental health, good or bad. Your choices can have a major impact, both on yourself and your relationships. I call the intentional choice to engage in healthy habits "self care".

Essential Elements of Self Care

Whether or not you realize it, every single aspect of your daily life affects how you feel. Where you live, who you live with, your family, friends, work or school colleagues, the things you do or don’t do, the things you own, where your work, even things like pets, music, and the color of the walls in a room, etc.

If you have any concerns about your mental health or the quality of your life, there are so many things you can do to help you to feel better. I want to encourage you to think about the following areas in your life which are essential for mental wellness:

  • Relaxation
  • Time to Yourself
  • Physical Activity
  • Friendship
  • Humor
  • Hobbies
  • Spirituality (Which may include religion, meaning, feelings of purpose)
  • Sleeping
  • Nutrition

Here are 77 "little things" you can add to your day, which can help to improve your mood in small ways. You can print off this list and post it somewhere, or make a smaller list of the ones you like the best.

Pleasant Activities List:

1.       Meditating.

2.       Taking a warm bathe.

3.       Making plans for the future.

4.       Paying bills.

5.       Finishing something.

6.       Playing a game.

7.       Talking with a friend.

8.       Remembering good times.

9.       Browsing in a catalogue.

10.   Relaxing.

11.   Watching TV.

12.   Reading a book.

13.   Sitting/Lying in the sun.

14.   Laughing out loud.

15.   Listening to others.

16.   Painting.

17.   Drawing.

18.   Singing.

19.   Playing an instrument.

20.   Remembering beautiful scenery.

21.   Looking outside.

22.   Watching the birds.

23.   Watching People.

24.   Eating.

25.   Watching a movie.

26.    Gardening.

27.   Meeting a friend.

28.   Thinking about retirement.

29.   Repairing something.

30.   Doodling.

31.   Memory of the words of loving people.

32.   Exercising.

33.   Wearing nice clothes.

34.   Having a quiet evening.

35.   Taking care of plants.

36.   Arranging flowers.

37.   Going to a party.

38.   Drinking a favorite beverage.

39.   Thinking about buying things.

40.   Going on a picnic.

41.   Praying.

42.   Losing weight.

43.   Thinking “I’m a good person.”

44.   A day with nothing to do.

45.   Writing a letter.

46.   Buying clothes.

47.   Cooking. Going to the beauty parlor.

48.   Sleeping.

49.   Making a gift for someone.

50.   Fixing your hair and/or makeup.

51.   Having your picture taken.

52.   Daydreaming.

53.   Listening to music.

54.   Making a list of tasks/goals.

55.   Taking a walk.

56.   Watching sports.

57.   Playing sports.

58.   Thinking about pleasant events.

59.   Acting.

60.   Writing in a diary.

61.   Dancing.

62.   Reading a letter.

63.   Cleaning.

64.   Discussing books.

65.   Being alone.

66.   Having lunch with a friend.

67.   Playing cards.

68.   Solving riddles/puzzles.

69.   Having a political discussion.

70.   Looking at/showing photos.

71.   Shooting Pool.

72.   Learning to play a new card game.

73.   Learning to play a new game.

74.   Reflecting on how I’ve improved.

75.   Talking on the phone.

76.   Thinking I’m a person who can cope.

77.   Helping a friend cope.


Be Patient

Finally, Rome was not built in a day, and neither is wellness. Don't be discouraged if you don't immediately start feeling better when you start doing healthier self care habits. Know that building better self care and takes time, daily effort, and intentional choices. Getting some Zzzs even when you think you "don't have the time". Going on a run when you're upset, instead of eating a bag of cheetos. Calling a friend to talk, just because. Self care isn't selfish. It's critical to a happy life and happy relationships.


ABOUT: Stephanie Cook, LCSW, provides in-person and online counseling services to adults, teens, couples, and families; she specializes in working with young adults and couples on improving themselves and their relationships. Stephanie owns a small private practice, Counseling ATL, LLC, located in Decatur, an intown-suburb of Atlanta, GA, near Emory University. Her blog is dedicated to helping people improve their lives and relationships.