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Habits that Improve Mental Health (At Any Age)

green neon lights spelling out: "Habits to Be Made" Habits thatt improve mental health (at any age)

What is Mental Health?

The WHO (World Health Organization) defines health as:

“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Mental Health, as defined by the American Psychological Association: 

“Mental health is a state of mind characterized by emotional well-being, good behavioral adjustment, relative freedom from anxiety and disabling symptoms, and a capacity to establish constructive relationships and cope with the ordinary demands and stresses of life.”

close up on blue hydrangea flowers. habits to improve mental health (at any age) Stellar Insight Counseling, Alaska

Mental Health: To Improve, or Not Improve

Mental health is an aspect of overall health; monitoring your social, emotional, and psychological well-being is just as vital as monitoring your physical health.

Some ways to monitor your mental health in a *general* sense include reflecting on areas such as: 

  • Sleep quality

  • Engaging in hobbies 

  • Seeing friends more or less often than before

  • Ability to regulate emotions

  • Changes in mood or energy 

  • Changes in appetite

If you notice a change in any of these areas of your life, consult with your healthcare providers or team.

If you suspect your mental health may be in need of a lift but you don’t know how to find a therapist, check out 5 Steps to Find a Therapist (How to Start Therapy)

Understanding the Relationship Between Behavior & Mental Health

Behaviors can influence mental health, and mental health can influence behaviors. 

While adding new habits or activities into your life can promote better brain health, lower levels of stress, and more satisfaction in life; some people can “do all of the right things” and still struggle with mental health. If that’s the case, consult with your healthcare providers.

Habits vs. Coping Skills

Habits are repeated actions, activities, or behaviors that come easily and do not require much thought or effort to carry out.

white hand holding cup of coffee on a white table, time reading 10:28, there is an open book and glasses on the table.

Examples of Habits:

  • Waking up/ going to bed 
  • Drinking water
  • Daily hygiene
  • Taking care of pets

Coping skills refer to tools or activities which assist in regulating emotions. 

Coping skills are often used “in the moment." 

An example would be when a person with anxiety notices a faster heartbeat and he/she/they use deep breathing to help decrease that symptom.

man wearing office work clothes sitting on a desk meditating, while two blurry figures walk by. Each are oblivious to one another

Examples of Coping Skills:

  • Listen to music 
  • Blow bubbles 
  • Practice mindfulness 
  • Hold onto an ice cube
  • Go for a walk, roll, or run

Want to learn more coping skills? 9 Anxiety Coping Skills or 6 Ways Alaskans can Beat the "Winter Blues"

Coping skills can be habits, though it depends how frequently the coping skills are used.

light blue sky over calm ocean

Incorporating coping skills into daily or weekly habits is a fantastic way to promote mental health; and can help prevent symptoms of mental health diagnoses such as anxiety, depression, OCD, to name a few.

(As I wrote about in Misconceptions About Mental Health – mental health issues can be prevented!)

Habits that Improve Mental Health:

1. Consistent and High-Quality Sleep

Koala sleeping on a branch. Habits that Improve Mental HealthAs thousands of other mental health guides have covered ad nauseam: having a regular restful sleep schedule is good for your health.

Chronic poor-quality sleep has short-term and long-term impacts (Hale, Troxel, Buysse, 2020); while you realistically won’t sleep great every single night for the rest of your life; it’s ideal to wake up feeling rested more often than not.

an alarm clock in sheets being turned off. Habits to improve mental healthSleep hygiene refers to behaviors and actions that (ideally) encourage healthy sleep (Irish, Kline, Gunn, Buysse, Hall, 2014). To learn more about habits to improve sleep quality, read this UCSF sleep guide: Improve Your Sleep Hygiene.

Fully rested brains and bodies are better equipped to manage stress or emotionally distressing situations. Be mindful of getting enough sleep and avoid oversleeping.

2. Eat Nutritiously

granite counter top with various foods scattered around the border including carrots, celery, tomatoes, corn, eggs, broccoli, eggplant. Habits to improve mental health

95% of serotonin is produced in the gut (Appleton, 2018).

The gut-microbiome influences mental health symptoms (Appleton, 2018; Michie, Abraham, Whittington, McAteer, & Gupta, 2009); studies continue to find connections between the gut-microbiome and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, brain cognition, and more (Michie et al.).

model of brain showing the sagittal view. Habits that improve mental health

While this does not imply labeling foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy;” consult with your healthcare providers about changes in diet or how to incorporate more nutritious foods into your meals.

Adding more sources of ruffage (fiber) and using up salmon in the freezer can help gut health; and salmon promotes brain health!

blueberries. Habits that improve mental health(Foraging season is nearly upon us here in southcentral Alaska, along with early gardening season!)

Aim for balanced nutritious meals, and don’t fret about enjoying ice cream if you want ice cream. 

And remember: body size does not singularly determine health, we’re talking about nutrition!

3. Get in Touch with Friends

Feeling connected to friends and a community promotes health, social connectedness, and can help prevent early death (Holt-Lundstad, Robles, Sbarra, 2017).

groups of people sitting at a public park. Habits that improve mental health

Begin evaluating your relationships with a few starting questions: 

  • How many close friendships do you have? 

  • Are those relationships healthy, supportive, fun, and/or bring you meaning? 

  • Do you feel valued and cared for by the people in your life?

Having a social support system aids in the ability to manage stress and reduce symptoms (or risk) of diagnoses such as anxiety or depression.

4. Learn (and Practice) a New Skill

Brain health matters in the context of mental health.

Scrabble tiles spelling out, "I am still learning." Habits that improve mental health

As humans grow older, so does the brain.

While brain aging could easily be a separate post I’ll aim to be focused here: as the brain ages people experience changes in brain functioning related to cognition.

colorful picture of teal and orange. Habits that improve your mental health

Common symptoms of changes in cognition include difficulty with memory, slower-thinking, and difficulty finding words. While this is a normal process in brain aging, it's important to highlight that symptoms can be delayed, mitigated, and/or lessened with treatment.

(There are other factors that impair cognition, such as Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI))

To help delay or prevent cognitive decline (or to improve current cognition) one incredible tool is to learn something new (Leanos, Kurum, Ditta, Rebok, & Wu, 2018).

white hands playing the piano as viewed from above. Habits that improve mental health

Learn a new skill whether it’s a new language, instrument, art form (such as painting), or a new dance. The benefits of learning a new skill such as playing an instrument are achieved regardless of age or skill level: all that matters is trying a new thing (Shipman, 2016).

Learning a new skill is not only fulfilling, but it encourages the brain to find new neural pathways; serving as a workout for the brain.

5. Move Your Body

View looking down at the ground at hiking boots and gray sand. Habits that improve mental health

Whether it’s the form of a walk, stretch, jog, run, yoga, chair yoga, weight lifting, kickboxing, swimming, kayaking, or play tug-of-war with your dog: exercise positively impacts mental health (Michie, Abraham, Whittington, McAteer, & Gupta, 2009).

You don’t need to run a marathon or set a new personal record every week: do what your body allows you to each day. 

Some days a 45-minute exercise may feel like warm-up, while other days a 5-minute walk may feel impossible.  small pink candles arranged in shape of heart. Habits that improve mental health

If you notice a change in your energy level, consult with your healthcare providers.

In the scope of mental health, changes in energy may reflect early symptoms such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or difficulty managing stress.

6. Walk (or Move) Backwards

To promote healthy aging, walking backwards may be fun exercise for your brain.

Arrows. Habits that improve mental health

Encouraging the brain in new or “different” activities can help keep our brains in tip-top shape, especially as the brain ages. 

Mental health issues such as dementia can be delayed and prevented; incorporating brain-health promoting activities (starting at any age!) can promote improved memory (Aksentijevic, Brandt, Tsakanikos, & Thorpe, 2019).

To state the obvious: Attempt this safely on flat terrain if you are willing and capable (you do not need to give up on walking forwards).

You can give your brain a hefty workout by walking backwards for just a few minutes. The more you practice, the longer you can go.

tablet with the text, "Mental health amtetrs." Habits that improve mental health

Once you are confident in walking backwards try adding another challenge (slowly!): walk backwards while playing an instrument, reading a book, solving a Rubik’s cube; the variations are endless!

7. Spend Time in Nature

As I’ve written about before, spending time in nature has positive impacts on mental health (and physical health) (Jimenez et al., (2021).

pathway down a nature trail. Habits that improve mental health

Whether this takes the form of visiting a local park, spending time with your indoor plants, gardening, hiking, camping, paddling, or sitting under a favorite tree: being in nature helps calm the brain and can lead to a better mood and improved cognitive functioning (Jimenez et al., 2021).

8. Pause: Take Mindful Breaks

sign on wall reading, "mind your head" Habits that improve mental health

Mindfulness takes many forms. 

In my clinical work (and personal life) I often use diaphragmatic breathing during sessions, along with other Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) interventions.

MBSR can benefit people struggling with an array of issues such as anxiety, stress, depression, OCD, chronic pain, and more (Khoury et al., 2013). 

Check below under “Resources” to learn more about getting started with mindfulness.

Other forms of mindfulness can include:

  • Mindful walking

  • Mindful eating

  • Playing with a pet with your full attention

woman sitting on a lawn petting a happy collie dog.

  • Listen to a Song

  • Practicing an Instrument

  • Visualization

field of poppies. habits that improve mental health

  • Journaling

  • Body Scan

  • Enjoy a sunset

While incorporating health promoting habits such as these into your lifestyle can improve mental health; habits and coping skills cannot “fix” sources of stress rooted in oppression, racism, sexism, or societal stigmas against race, gender identity, religion, or choice in partner(s).

Managing mental health is more than individual-level habits; it also includes social safety nets such as affordable housing, access to healthcare and education, and a sense of belonging to a community.

How to Add New Habits

Start Small

If you’re trying to add new habits into your life, set achievable goals.

goals tetxt on fabric. habits that improve mental health

Perhaps instead of, “exercise every day this week” and you currently exercise zero times a week (no judgement, by the way!); try setting a goal closer to “exercise twice this week.” 

Get in that groove for a few weeks, and then add to your goal.

small weights and jumprope on floor. Habitst that improve menttal health at any age

Be kind to yourself, and celebrate making small changes! Plus, smaller changes are more likely to stick over time.

two white hands, one passing a cut out valentive shape to the other. Habits that improve mental health

Disclaimer: This information is provided as general knowledge and may be used for self-improvement purposes but is not suitable to replace medical advice from your healthcare providers.

This information does not constitute a diagnosis, medical advice, or treatment.

Additional Resources

About the Author:

Nicole, a white woman with short brown hair smiling gently at the camera. Nicole is wearing a button down chambray shirt and gray/blue cardigan indoors against a blue background.Image Caption: Nicole, a white woman with short brown hair smiling gently at the camera. Nicole is wearing a button down chambray shirt and gray/blue cardigan indoors against a blue background.
Hi, my name is Nicole! I am a pre-licensed psychotherapist working under supervision (supervisor info: Psychologist Dr. Ekstrom #196093, #125200). I earned a master's degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

I provide individual and group therapy services to adult Alaskans via telehealth. I am an LGBTQ+ friendly and neurodivergent affirming provider.

My work often supports people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, chronic illness, life transitions, new health diagnoses, and people who have experienced trauma. 

Learn more about my therapeutic approach and practice, Stellar Insight Counseling here!


Aksentijevic, A., Brandt, K. R., Tsakanikos, E., Thorpe, M. J. A. (2019). It takes me back: The mnemonic time-travel effect. Cognition, 182. 242-250.

Appleton J. (2018). The gut-brain axis: Influence of microbiota on mood and mental health. Integrative Medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 17(4), 28–32.

Hale, L., Troxel, W., & Buysse, D. J. (2020). Sleep Health: An opportunity for public health to address health equity. Annual review of public health, 41. 81–99., L. A., Kline, C. E., Gunn, H. E., Buysse, D. J., & Hall, M. H. (2015). The role of sleep hygiene in promoting public health: A review of empirical evidence. Sleep medicine reviews, 22, 23–36.

Jimenez, M. P., DeVille, N. V., Elliott, E. G., Schiff, J. E., Wilt, G. E., Hart, J. E., & James, P. (2021). Associations between nature exposure and health: A review of the evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research and PublicHhealth, 18(9), 4790.

Keunen, K., van Elburg, R., van Bel, F. et al. Impact of nutrition on brain development and its neuroprotective implications following preterm birth. Pediatr Res 77, 148–155 (2015).

Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., Chapleau, M., Paquin, K., Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6). 763-771

Korecka, A., & Arulampalam, V. (2012). The gut microbiome: Scourge, sentinel or spectator? Journal of Oral Microbiology, 4(1).

Kumar, A., Pareek, V., Faiq, M. A., Ghosh, S. K., & Kumari, C. (2019). Adult neurogenesis in humans: A review of basic concepts, history, current research, and clinical implications. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 16(5-6), 30–37.

Leanos, S., Kurum, E., Ditta, A., Rebok, G., & Wu, R. (2018). The impact of learning multiple new skills on cognitive development and functional independence in older adulthood. Innovation in Aging, 2(1). 1004.

Michie, S., Abraham, C., Whittington, C., McAteer, J., & Gupta, S. (2009). Effective techniques in healthy eating and physical activity interventions: a meta-regression. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 28(6), 690–701.

Péter S, Eggersdorfer M, Van Asselt D, Buskens E, Detzel P, Freijer K, Koletzko B, Kraemer K, Kuipers F, Neufeld L, et al. Selected Nutrients and Their Implications for Health and Disease across the Lifespan: A Roadmap. Nutrients. 2014; 6(12):6076-6094.

Shipman D. (2016). A prescription for music lessons. Federal practitioner: for the health care professionals of the VA, DoD, and PHS, 33(2), 9–12.