How to Take Care of Your Mental Health and Calm Stress, From a Psychiatrist
Everyone is talking about mental health in light of Simone Biles pulling out of the Olympics, prioritizing her mental health, and not wanting to compete through self-doubt in the face of overwhelming pressure. Obviously, a gymnast who gets "lost in the air" can break her neck, so the stakes are incredibly high. But we ordinary mortals can experience our own versions of mental health issues, often out of the public eye, and Biles standing up and saying: "My mental health is not where it needs to be right now," has created a much-needed dialogue about mental health and how we can all learn to take better care of ourselves.
In the United States, almost half of adults (46.4 percent) will experience a mental illness during their lifetime, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Among adults, one in five experienced mental illness in 2019, and those figures are pre-pandemic. That means more than 50 million Americans are suffering from more than the usual levels of stress, anxiety, and a sense of "overwhelmedness" and yet we rarely talk about it or seek the help we need.
How can we recognize that we have an issue, and take the time we need to slow down, practice self-care, and take better care of ourselves, physically and mentally? Dr. Samantha Boardman, a New York-based psychiatrist with the Department of Medicine and the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical Center, has seen this in her practice and is eager to share tips and strategies to help people live their best lives. She has just completed an upcoming book: Everyday Vitality: Turning Stress Into Strength. She has tips for how to be more resilient, and how to take care of our mental health, which is actually the same as our health.
Simone Biles made mental health Topic A in America this week
"Simon Biles is courageous and exemplar, for standing up and saying, I need to hit pause," Dr. Boardman said. "Mental health is health, and if you don't take care of your mental health, you can't be healthy." When no less a human than Biles, and in the days before her, Naomi Osaka wrote an essay for Time Magazine that said: "It's Okay to Not Be Okay," suddenly the rest of us find ourselves nodding in agreement: Yep, I have struggles too. We all do. That's human.
Dr. Boardman welcomes the surfacing of this critical topic now, as we try to come out of a pandemic that continues to tighten its ugly grip on our society and our health, and how we react to the ongoing stress creates a divide in our communities and families. As Osaka says: It's okay to not be okay, and as Biles showed us by withdrawing from competition at the Olympics, it's okay to hit pause and say: I need to no longer pretend that everything is going according to plan. I need to say that I'm not in a good place right now. And I need support.
It's often not the big scary issues that bring us down, but the day-to-day issues that cause us the ongoing stress that begins to create a mental health problem over time, Boardman explains. Like the pebble in our shoe, that begins to be unbearable. But you can feel pummeled by the pebbles, she says. "We can climb a mountain but it's the little things: the cat that needs to go to the vet, the fight with a child, the endless to-do list, that leaves us feeling drained, depleted, drowning, or spent."
Here she gives us five actionable ways to find resilience, take care of ourselves, and create easy strategies that will leave us more in control, calmer, and less mentally fraught. Dr. Samantha Boardman has your Positive Prescription for living life on your terms, and taking care of your mental health, starting today.
Three ways to take better care of our mental health, starting today
1. Recognize that you're having an issue with how things are going.
If you are not in a mindset or economic situation to be able to slow down, then ask your friends and family for help and support, and then also be willing to listen to their advice. They love you and if they say: "You've taken on too much," let them help you lighten the load.
"We all give such great advice but we rarely follow it," says Boardman. "Go to your support group and ask them if they can help take some of the pressure off. None of us can do it all alone. Tell them what you need. Start by saying: I feel stressed and need more help. Then find resources, such as talk therapy, and meditation. But the first step is acknowledging that something has to change."
"People like people better who are not perfect," Dr. Boardman asserts. "There's a study that shows it only takes 17 seconds of looking at social media to feel worse about ourselves" because the images everyone puts forward are of their perfect lives, homes, events, or perfect vacations, but in fact, she says, it's healthier to "embrace being imperfect. People like imperfect people." Simone Biles is still the Greatest of All Time, but now she is also human, which people love.
2. Do what you need to do to practice self-care
Every day is a chance to start over. "People wait for New Year's Day or their birthday or the beginning of the month to make a change or get healthier. They'll say: This year I'm going to start doing yoga! But every morning is a fresh start. Every day, wake up and decide that you are going to take better care of yourself, mentally and physically," the doctor says.
Do the thing that your future self would be proud of. Look back from some future point in time, and it can be just a few hours from now. Were you happy you got out of bed and took that run or went to the pool and did your swim? If so, she says, that's the decision to make. If you're the kind of person who likes to lie around and dwell on a miserable situation, ask yourself to shake it off and get outside of your usual behavior pattern. "I say to patients, when that happens: 'What's the Un-You thing to do?' and do that!"
"It can be as simple as putting on your athletic bra and sneakers and getting out the door to walk before the emails and other to-do's get in the way. Tell yourself this is as important as any other appointment: because it is! You can't understate the importance of prioritizing your mental state."
When you start to practice self-care, whether it's meditation, talk therapy, a morning ritual such as a walk or exercise class, and eating healthier, your brain begins to feel more resilient, and these small practices begin to pay off mentally and physically.
3. Prioritize diet and exercise and eating to boost your mood
We underestimate the role of our physical health on mental health. The impact of how much we move or exercise or sleep on our mental health. It was not something that was taught much in medical school. I literally proscribe exercise to my patients. We are all experiencing a lack of getting outside and being in nature.
"When we feel bad we often reach for the wrong thing or cancel going to the gym. When that happens and you have the urge to reach for the candy, ask yourself: "What's the Un-You thing to do right now? The not-so angel part of me may want to go lie down but I think: What is the Un-You thing to do when I have that propensity. What advice would you give to your friend at that moment? Try to make the decision the future you would be proud of."
Those who engage in exercise have fewer mental health days a month and those who engage in sports with others like on a team don't want to let them down. Do what is called "bundling" where you say I am only going to listen to that podcast I love while I'm walking or only watch that TV show on the treadmill, that's reward bundling.
Spending time outside in nature makes us happier, according to, so spending time in the natural world is one of the best ways to maximize well-being. Most of us have Nature Deficit Disorder, but even just walking through the park on your way to an appointment is enough to hit reset on your mood.
We talk about rumination and one of the best ways to interrupt rumination is by being in nature. but being in nature is shown to allow you to let things go. It's good for the individual and our relationships. An interesting study showed that mothers and daughters who went for a walk in the park versus in the mall got along better.
4. How do you snap out of it and get active and eat healthily?
"Make decisions your future self will be proud of. What are the decisions you are making every day without being conscious of? How many times do you pour salt on your food without tasting it? Why do we always eat dessert after a meal? Why do we eat popcorn with a movie? All of these things are preprogrammed that we are not aware of.
We often have good intentions, but how do you close the intention action gap? Make it easier to do the thing that you want to do. Leave your sneakers by the door. I have a patient who puts on a jog bra when she gets dressed in the morning, and that way she will go for a run later that day. Make it easier.
There is something called WOOP goals to help you close the intention-action gap
- W is for Wish. What do you WISH to do?
- O stands for outcome: How will you feel when you complete that wish?
- The second O is for Obstacle and what is getting in the way of you doing it.
- P is for the plan. Make a plan to close the intention-action gap.
If your goal is to not look at your phone during dinner with your kids but it's happening night after night, how are you going to accomplish it? Plan to leave your phone in the other room.
Mental health is not just in your head, It's in your actions and what you are doing, but you have to understand that your intentions are not the same as your actions. In psychiatry we have insight but there is something called insight imperialism since unless you act on those insights it's just in your head.
"Nature is the antidote to ruminating, and we all get caught in that negative thinking loop, like Groundhog Day, complaining about the same things over and over. When you see that happening, break the pattern," Boardman says. "Instead of calling your same friend to complain about the same topics, take a walk and don't be on your phone, or listening to music, just let the sounds and sights of the natural world fill your brain with positive vibes."
Just 20 minutes outside can boost your mood, broaden thinking and improve memory, according to research. If you can get to the beach, the trail, or the mountains that's great but even if you're stuck in a large city, the park or riverfront will do it. Any amount of time outside is restorative for your mood and health. "I walk everywhere I can," says Dr. Boardman. Just start walking whenever your schedule allows.
4. Eating a diet of mostly whole foods, especially plant-based foods
We all have a tendency to grab the bag of chips to soothe ourselves, or perhaps it's sweets or other processed junk food. But your brain craves healthy foods that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids like walnuts, seeds, and avocados, which are full of the good kind of fat, in the form of alpha-linolenic acid. "I snack on nut butter and apple, and I love nuts," says Dr. Boardman. When you think about what your brain needs, it's healthy whole foods that will help reset your mood and keep you from experiencing highs (from sugar) and lows (when the sugar wears off).
"What would you tell a friend? We never take our own advice. But be the expert. Studies say if we teach it to others, how to do something, we feel more mastery over it," Boardman explains. "And If you splurge tell yourself that's okay too, We are all human!"
The best foods to improve your mood are full of fiber, such as vegetables, leafy greens, legumes, fruit, nuts, and seeds. High-fiber foods come with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, and plenty of fiber to feed your healthy gut microbiome and sends signals to the brain that nutrients are readily available, which is like saying you are taking care of yourself and to feel good about that.
If you’re looking for more ways to incorporate a healthy, plant-based diet into your day-to-day life, check out our Health and Nutrition articles.