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The Ultimate Guide to Self-Care
5 Habits Proven to Improve Mental Health and Why

Scientists have found that there are five habits that reap you real benefits in the short and long run. Researchers recommend eating a balanced diet, exercising, having adequate sleep, taking breaks, and staying mindful!

1. Eat a Balanced Diet

Everyone knows that eating healthy is crucial to maintaining our physical health, but seldom do people acknowledge that physical health affects mental health too! A study in 2017 found that eating high sugar, heavily processed foods is linked with depression and impaired brain function. Furthermore, deficiencies in nutrients like omega-3 that play a role in brain development and functioning are linked with mental health problems (Clay, 2017). Other studies have also found that children who ate fewer vegetables, fruit, and fatty fish were more likely to have ADHD symptoms (Clay, 2017). In contrast, eating healthy foods with essential amino acids can help the body produce serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep, appetite, moods, and inhibit pain. (Selhub, 2020). Although eating unhealthily certainly is not the cause of depression, ADHD, or other mental illnesses, eating healthy helps with mental health.

How do we eat a balanced diet? (NHS, n.d.)

  • Aim to eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day.
  • Base males on starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, and others.
  • Have some dairy or dairy alternatives such as soya drinks and yoghurts.
  • Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein.
  • Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts.
  • Eat foods high in fat, salt, and sugar less often and in small amounts.
  • Drink 6-8 cups of water a day.
  • Do not skip meals.
  • Stop when you feel full.


2. Exercise

Just as eating healthy improves mental health, so does exercise! Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood. It may also improve self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise increases blood circulation in the brain which improves communication in the brain. As a result, our physiologic reactivity to stress is improved. Exercising can also offer a distraction, an activity to build self-efficacy, and an opportunity for social interaction which may further help with mental health.                 

What is the best way to exercise for our mental health?

  • Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise for 3 days a week.
  • These 30 minutes does not have to be continuous. 3 sets of 10-minute exercises are as useful as a session of a 30-minute exercise.

(Sharma et al., 2006)


3. Have Enough  Sleep

Is getting enough sleep still part of yet another of your new year resolution? Researchers have found that sleep disruption affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones which may impair thinking and emotional regulation. Furthermore, Insomnia or other sleep disorders may amplify the effects of psychiatric disorders, and vice versa (Harvard, 2009). It is time to follow through and get enough sleep for your mental health!

How much sleep do we need? 

  • Infants need 12-15 hours of sleep.
  • Toddlers need 11-14 hours of sleep.
  • Children from 6-14 years old needs 9-11 hours of sleep
  • Teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep.
  • Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep.

(Singh, 2020)


4. Take Breaks!

In the hustle and bustle of today’s working culture, taking breaks is often at the very last of our agenda. But studies show that breaks can do more for your productivity than you think! Taking breaks can improve mood, overall well-being, and performance capacity. It can help restore energy in the short term and prevent burnout in the long term. Effects of low energy such as reduced focus can be dangerous in some jobs and have a notable impact on academic performance. A 2016 study found that when tests were given right after a 20–30-minute break, scores improved to a degree equivalent to 19 extra days of school (Sievertsen et al., 2016). Yes, you heard me right! Long working hours does not always result in better performance!

How should we take breaks that help with our mental health?

Not all break activities are stress relieving even though they feel good. Here are ways to take breaks that are supported by research:

  • Relaxation Techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and performing stretches may be more effective than spending time on hobbies and activities.
  • For those who work in jobs that require mental effort, exercising and spending time in nature provides a mental relief. 
  • Take 5–15-minute breaks in the morning.

Although people commonly save their breaks for the afternoon, taking breaks in the morning prevents afternoon health symptoms.

  • Take nights, weekends, and vacations to disconnect from work demands.

According to a research done in 2012, employees who experience more psychological detachment from work during their off-hours report higher life satisfaction and experience less psychological strain, without being any less engaged in work than their non-detached colleagues. 

  • Make them a priority!

(Weir, 2019)

self awareness
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5. Stay Mindful!

Hold on, hear me out! Mindfulness is science not junk! Mindfulness is a practice of being aware of the present with an attitude of openness and acceptance (Mindfulness for Mental Health, n.d.). Becoming aware of the present can help us to enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better. When we are aware of our stream of thoughts, we recognize thoughts that are helpful and unhelpful and ultimately realize that our thoughts do not have to control us. Many studies have shown that mindfulness can help with stress, anxiety, pain, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. It has also been shown to improve attention, decrease job burnout, improve sleep, and improve diabetes control.

What are simple ways to practice mindfulness? 

  • Learn to pay attention to what is going on around you.
  • Learn to find joy in the simple pleasures.
  • Accept yourself.
  • When negative thoughts arise, sit down, take a deep breath, and close your eyes. Be aware of your negative thoughts, label them, acknowledge that all negative feelings are temporary and when you’re ready, deal with them!
  • Try more structured mindfulness exercises.

Body scan meditation

“Lie on your back with your legs extended and arms at your sides, palms facing up, Focus your attention slowly and deliberately on each part of your body, in order, from toe to head or head to toe. Be aware of any sensations, emotions, or thoughts associated with each part of your body.”

Sitting meditation

“Sit comfortably with your back straight, feet flat on the floor and hands in your lap. Breathing through your nose, focus on your breath moving in and out of your body. If physical sensations or thoughts interrupt your meditation, note the experience and then return your focus to your breath.”

Walking meditation

“Find a quiet place 10 to 20 feet in length and begin to walk slowly. Focus on the experience of walking, being aware of the sensations of standing and the subtle movements that keep your balance. When you reach the end of your path, turn and continue walking, maintaining awareness of your sensations”.

(Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2020)

While having five additions to your new year resolution may seem burdensome, meaningful changes comes from making meaningful choices! Start off by making small realistic commitments with yourself. You can decide to switch your snacks to fruits, have a 30-minute afternoon walk with a friend, or have Friday nights free from work. However you decide to do it, make it enjoyable and make it yours!  Pursuing health and happiness does not have to feel burdensome!


Clay, R. A. (2017, September). The link between food and mental health. Monitor on Psychology. 

Harvard Health. (2009, July). Sleep and mental health. Harvard Health. 

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020, September 15). Can mindfulness exercises help me? Mayo Clinic. 

Selhub, E. (2020, March 31). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. 

Mindfulness for Mental Health. Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing. 

NHS. (2018, November). Mindfulness. NHS Choices. 

NHS. The Eatwell Guide. NHS Choices. 

Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry, 8(2): 106. 10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a 

Singh, A. (2020, December 11). How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? Sleep Foundation.,to%208%20hours%20per%20night. 

Weir, K. (2019, January). Give me a break. Monitor on Psychology.

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