There’s been a surge of interest in self-care in the past decade. With 77 percent of U.S. adults experiencing physical symptoms of stress regularly and 33 percent experiencing “extreme” stress—according to the American Institute of Stress—it’s a good sign that more people are prioritizing their mental health and investing in self-care.
But if you look at Instagram, self-care means meditation retreats, “healing crystals,” and yoga on the beaches of Thailand. News flash: You don’t have to spend a lot of money or believe in chakras to improve or stabilize your mental health.
If you’re looking for a simple wellness goal to commit to, consider one or more of these habits to give your mental health a boost.
1. Don’t read magazine covers while checking out at the register.
While you’re waiting in line with your grocery cart, resist the temptation to scan the magazine covers. The magazines placed at the check-out line tend to be gossip magazines and tabloids that are known for spreading rumors, body-shaming celebrities for leaving the house without makeup or eating a bagel, or displaying heavily airbrushed actresses and models. And there’s *always* a headline promising the secret to lose 20 pounds before “bikini season.”
This kind of media exposure is linked to low self-esteem and body image, unhealthy weight control behaviors, and negative mood—particularly among women. (By the way, here are signs you have a healthy relationship with food.)
2. Keep healthy snacks stocked, always.
You know that being hungry can make you more irritable, but it can affect your mood in other ways, too. Skipping meals or not eating enough can lower blood sugar and mess with serotonin levels. The sensations of low blood sugar—like lightheadedness and shakiness—can worsen anxiety by mimicking its physical symptoms.
“Make sure your body’s needs are being met,” says Marianne van den Broek, MD, PhD, licensed psychiatrist. “Sometimes we confuse our body’s response to hunger [and] low blood sugar … with the way our body feels when we are anxious. The mind then makes up a story to explain why our body feels this way (and the anxious mind will easily think up all sorts of scary scenarios).”
3. Turn off your news alerts.
If you’re sensitive to “bad news,” the constant stream of drama coming from news networks and newspapers may prove to be a bit too much. “I encourage people to identify the everyday things (like the news) that cause them to experience increased levels of anxiety and set boundaries around those things when possible,” says Julie Williamson, LPC, NCC, RPT therapist at Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis, LLC.
You’ve got several options. If you like staying informed but just need to “cleanse” some of the ultra negative stimuli, you can try “hiding news alerts on mobile devices, unfollowing particular people on social media who tend to post articles that cause increased anxiety, and setting time limits on news consumption,” says Williamson.
You might have to go a step further. “I tell all my clients who have anxiety to avoid watching network news,” says David Johnson, LMFT, marriage and family therapist in Tennessee. “The news presents aberrant events as if they are happening everywhere all the time, which increases anxiety.” Instead, seek out more even-tempered, less sensationalized news sources that do more than list off bad news (yes, they exist!).
4. Laugh out loud—even if it’s fake.
“Making yourself laugh out loud in an exaggerated way can actually release calming chemicals in your brain,” says Casey Lee, MA, LPC, NCC, therapist at Rooted Hearts Counseling LLC in South Carolina. “Also, you may end up really laughing as you feel how ridiculous you are behaving.”
Laughing because something funny happened, and laughing because you forced yourself to laugh, triggers the same good feeling in your brain; it can’t tell the difference, according to a 2010 study in the Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine journal. That’s good to know, because laughter has been shown to boost both physiological and psychological health and improve quality of life. In fact, laughter therapy is now a thing.
Self-care doesn’t have to be a major investment. As Williamson mentioned, it can be as simple as identifying negative triggers and finding ways to eliminate or cope with them. Self-care can also be as simple as spending time on the things you enjoy. For example, check out how filmmaker Elyse Fox uses a “depression toolkit” for self-care.