A friend of mine recently posted this picture of a coffee mug, superimposed with the quote: “You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.” The message stuck with me. It can be easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life, such that we forget to take the time to care for ourselves. Reflecting on Mental Health Awareness Week last week, I think it’s time we took a moment to acknowledge that we all need and deserve a little self-care.
Recently, I listened to a TED Talk by Guy Winch on emotional hygiene and the importance of taking care of our psychological health. Dr Winch emphasises the disparity between physical and mental health care:
“We sustain psychological injuries even more often than we do physical ones, injuries like failure or rejection or loneliness. And they can also get worse if we ignore them, and they can impact our lives in dramatic ways.”
Each day, I wake up with a mental list of things to do: 1) respond to e-mails, 2) prepare for my meeting, 3) analyse data, 4) write this blog post… and so it goes. However, nowhere on my daily list are tasks to ensure that I’m not only focused, but also happy, relaxed, and emotionally steady.
“There are scientifically proven techniques we could use to treat these kinds of psychological injuries, [but] we don’t. It doesn’t even occur to us that we should. ‘Oh, you’re feeling depressed? Just shake it off; it’s all in your head.’ Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg: ‘Oh, just walk it off; it’s all in your leg.’ “
But what are these scientifically proven techniques that can help us to take care of our mental health? I wouldn’t know where to start, which is part of the problem. Luckily, since happiness is a priority for many (if not most) people, the research in this area is quite extensive. By combing the literature I have found 5 promising, research-developed strategies for improving well-being.
1) Take the time once a week to write a list of a few things you are grateful for.
“Count your blessings.” We’ve all heard this phrase many times before, as if counting our blessings can make the stressful events happening around us less significant. Yet now there is research demonstrating that it actually can. Counting your blessings and being grateful for what you have, rather than focusing on what you want, can have a demonstrable impact on your subjective well-being.
Robert Emmons, a leading researcher in this area, defines gratitude as an affirmation that goodness exists in the world, and a recognition of the fact that this goodness comes from outside of ourselves. Being grateful allows us to savour positive experiences and can increase appreciation of our circumstances (1), facilitate positive reinterpretation of events (2,3), help to build social bonds (4), and may inhibit feelings of envy, bitterness, anger, or greed (5). Research suggests that there are benefits to regularly focusing on life’s blessings; it may increase positive affect, reduce negative affect, improve sleep, and result in fewer physical symptoms (6).
2) Learn and practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness refers to the non-judgemental attention to experiences in the present (7). Learning mindfulness could require more of a time commitment than expressing gratitude; however, the benefits can be remarkable. In fact, mindfulness has been incorporated into cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and can help prevent relapse in depression (8,9).
“The focus of [mindfulness-based cognitive therapy] is to teach individuals to become more aware of thoughts and feelings and to relate to them in a wider, decentered perspective as ‘mental events’ rather than as aspects of the self or as necessarily accurate reflections of reality.” (8) Practicing such attentional and emotional control can alleviate stress and improve well-being (10). Studies of Tibetan Buddhist monks have also found that meditation, a mindfulness technique, is associated with structural and functional differences in the brain (11), providing neurological evidence of cognitive changes.
There are many books, internet resources, and even apps on your phone which claim to teach mindfulness techniques. Be careful while sifting through the information to make sure it’s coming from a reliable source. Some researchers have evaluated the quality of mindfulness phone apps and demonstrated that many were not teaching true mindfulness techniques (12). If done properly, learning mindfulness could be an effective way to practice self-care.
3) Prioritise your relationships and connecting with the people around you.
If you were to ask older adults what was the key to happiness, what would they say? One of the goals of the Harvard Study of Adult Development was to answer this question. The original study followed a group of Harvard students for nearly 80 years and collected heaps of data to see what factors could predict their mental and physical health outcomes.
Their results were unexpected. In an article written about the study, the director Robert Waldinger remarked, “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health. Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”
It’s easy to get caught up in work and deadlines. Making time for the people in your life would not only provide a welcome distraction, but can also make you happier in the long run. (13)
4) Incorporate some form of physical activity into your routine.
Exercising is known to be good for your physical health, but research also shows that it can benefit your mental health as well. Although there is still debate on which type of exercise is most beneficial, the general consensus seems to be that exercise can have short and long-term benefits to your mood (14). Joining a sports club (15) or simply walking outdoors (16) could have a positive impact on happiness.
Researchers have even found biomarkers which provide evidence of the mood-enhancing effect of physical activity. The short-term mood boost, known colloquially as the “runner’s high”, has been found to be associated with the release of endorphins. Recent studies with mice have found that exercise also raises the concentration of endocannabinoids which bond to the same receptors in the brain activated by THC (17,18).
However, it has been suggested that enjoying the physical activity is also important (14). Suffering through a boring or unpleasant exercise may be more distressing than rewarding. Try finding an activity which is personally enjoyable for the greatest positive impact.
5) Leave work at the office and use your evenings and weekends to recover.
Jobs can be demanding and stressful, which can negatively impact health and well-being. Over the past couple decades, researchers have begun investigating how various types of “recovery”, such as taking short breaks throughout the day, after-work and weekend hours, and holidays, may help reduce stress and exhaustion.
Holidays and extended time away from work can have short-term positive effect, but stress typically returns to pre-vacation levels after a few weeks (19–21). Therefore, it is important to try taking the time to recover and relax each day. Using time in the evening or over the weekend to relax and engage in non-work related activities can counteract fatigue (22), increase positive affect (23), and even improve efficiency at work as well (24).
You can’t pour from an empty cup, so take the time to refill. As Daniel suggested in his post last week, it’s important to be compassionate to yourself. Pay attention to your emotional well-being and engage in practices that support your mental health. Whatever strategy you find that works for you, add it to your to-do list.
- Lyubomirsky S, Sheldon KM, Schkade D. Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology. 2005;9(2):111–131.
- Fredrickson BL, Tugade MM, Waugh CE, Larkin GR. What good are positive emotions in crises? A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Feb;84(2):365–376.
- Wood AM, Joseph S, Linley PA. Coping style as a psychological resource of grateful people. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2007 Nov;26(9):1076–1093.
- McCullough ME, Kilpatrick SD, Emmons RA, Larson DB. Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychol Bull. 2001 Mar;127(2):249–266.
- Mccullough ME, Emmons RA, Tsang J-A. The grateful disposition: a conceptual and empirical topography. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002 Jan;82(1):112–127.
- Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Feb;84(2):377–389.
- Kabat-Zinn J. Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Delacourt; 1990.
- Teasdale JD, Segal ZV, Williams JM, Ridgeway VA, Soulsby JM, Lau MA. Prevention of relapse/recurrence in major depression by mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2000 Aug;68(4):615–623.
- Ma SH, Teasdale JD. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: replication and exploration of differential relapse prevention effects. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2004 Feb;72(1):31–40.
- Hölzel BK, Lazar SW, Gard T, Schuman-Olivier Z, Vago DR, Ott U. How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2011 Nov;6(6):537–559.
- Davidson RJ, Lutz A. Buddha’s brain: neuroplasticity and meditation. IEEE Signal Process Mag. 2008 Jan 1;25(1):176–174.
- Mani M, Kavanagh DJ, Hides L, Stoyanov SR. Review and Evaluation of Mindfulness-Based iPhone Apps. JMIR mHealth and uHealth. 2015 Aug 19;3(3):e82.
- Vaillant GE. Aging well: Surprising guideposts to a happier life from the landmark study of adult development. New York: Hachette Book Group; 2002.
- Berger BG, Motl RW. Exercise and mood: A selective review and synthesis of research employing the profile of mood states. J Appl Sport Psychol. 2000 Mar;12(1):69–92.
- Hills P, Argyle M. Positive moods derived from leisure and their relationship to happiness and personality. Pers Individ Dif. 1998 Sep;25(3):523–535.
- Barton J, Pretty J. What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environ Sci Technol. 2010 May 15;44(10):3947–3955.
- Fuss J, Steinle J, Bindila L, Auer MK, Kirchherr H, Lutz B, et al. A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Oct 20;112(42):13105–13108.
- Dietrich A, McDaniel WF. Endocannabinoids and exercise. Br J Sports Med. 2004 Oct;38(5):536–541.
- Westman M, Etzion D. The impact of vacation and job stress on burnout and absenteeism. Psychol Health. 2001 Sep;16(5):595–606.
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- Westman M, Eden D. Effects of a respite from work on burnout: Vacation relief and fade-out. Journal of Applied Psychology. 1997;82(4):516–527.
- Rook JW, Zijlstra FRH. The contribution of various types of activities to recovery. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 2006 Jun;15(2):218–240.
- Sonnentag S, Binnewies C, Mojza EJ. Did you have a nice evening?” A day-level study on recovery experiences, sleep, and affect. J Appl Psychol. 2008 May;93(3):674–684.
- Sonnentag S. Recovery, work engagement, and proactive behavior: a new look at the interface between nonwork and work. J Appl Psychol. 2003 Jun;88(3):518–528.