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Simple ways to boost your mental health

Three mental health experts share tips for calming stress and boosting mood

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Illustration by Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

If you happen to be house hunting — or scoping out a new apartment — a study in the journal Building and Environment says you’d do very well to pay attention to the size and placement of the windows.

It’s a mental well-being issue, and that’s no small matter as people continue to claw their way out of both the COVID-19 pandemic and an epidemic of depression and anxiety that spans generations and has been accelerating in recent years.

The issue with the windows is light — or more precisely, morning light — as Utah therapist Jenny Howe points out, although she had nothing to do with the study from researchers at the University of Sheffield in England.

“Our research reveals that the natural light in our homes has a considerable impact on our emotional well-being,” said study lead author Dr. Pablo Navarrete-Hernandez in a written statement. “Given that we live, work and spend more time than ever at home, urban planners and property developers should consider improvements to natural lighting conditions in the home through factors like window placement and size.”

That light matters is no surprise to mental health experts. And most adults have probably heard something about seasonal affective disorder, often aptly shorthanded to the acronym SAD for its impact on mood. The Mayo Clinic says it’s a type of depression that begins and ends about the same time each year and is connected at least peripherally to the amount of natural sunlight, which can impact serotonin and melatonin levels, messing with mood and sleep alike.

The study summary notes that “poor natural light at home could be detrimental to your mood.”

Obviously, we’re not all house hunting and there are lots of us who can’t change our windows, beyond opening or closing the curtains. And it’s equally clear from experts like the American Psychiatric Association that mood disorders and challenges like depression vary greatly in terms of condition and severity and often require therapy and medication for effective treatment.

Regardless, though, there’s a lot individuals can do to boost their mental well-being. And so much of it is stunningly simple.

The Deseret News asked Howe of Jenny Howe Consulting; psychologist Sam Goldstein, who is also an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah; and Laurie Singer, a marriage and family therapist in Camarillo, California, what people can do to boost their own mental health.

Here, in no special order, are 10 more tips that make a difference and don’t require a down payment or rent deposit:

  • Help at least one living thing a day is Goldstein’s top advice.
  • Always have something fun on your schedule. Singer says it’s important to have something planned that can be looked forward to — and while a vacation or big event is great, it can be something as small as meeting a friend or going to a movie or taking a hike.
  • Exercise every day. That’s advice from both Goldstein and Singer. Goldstein says to get at least 10 minutes of aerobic exercise daily, while Singer points out that people “forget how beneficial a brisk walk is in the morning. It can set the tone for the day.”
  • Do at least one thing that you enjoy every day, says Goldstein.
  • Never go to bed angry is another Goldstein imperative.
  • Write one positive sentence in the morning, Singer says. Then copy it 10 times. It can be simple: “I am going to take today one step at a time, not rush through the day and stay in the moment.”
  • Give yourself time in the morning to prepare for the day and time in the evening to wind down, Goldstein suggests.
  • Try “thought vs. reality,” says Singer, who notes she uses the strategy when clients regress and start having negative thoughts. She tells them to look at what happened: I didn’t get to walk before work. Next, they consider their thoughts, which are really opinions: I should have managed my time better; now my day is ruined. Then it’s reality’s turn: I can walk during my lunch break or after work. That process puts things in perspective, she said.
  • Try something new, because novelty’s a great well-being booster, says Howe. Even tasting a new ice cream flavor is great for boosting mood.
  • Finish something, says Howe, who notes that dopamine is a feel-good and motivating chemical that is released in the process of completing a task — even if it’s as simple as folding the laundry.