7 simple habits to protect your mental health

While everything on this list is simple, it’s far from easy.

By Sarah Greenberg

Published: Tue 23 Mar 2021, 11:28 PM

The following seven health behaviours are key ones linked to prevention or symptom improvement of anxiety and depression.

While everything on this list is simple, it’s far from easy. Change is hard. And if you currently have depression or anxiety, it can be especially challenging. That’s why one of the key behaviours is being kind to yourself.

If moved to do so, choose one area to work on at a time, perhaps an area you feel especially motivated or confident to address, or an area that feels aligned with your most important values. Then take it one step at a time.


While 10-18 per cent of US adults experience chronic sleep issues, this number jumps to 65-90 per cent of those with depression, and over 50 per cent of those with generalised anxiety disorder. Addressing sleep issues can alleviate symptoms of mental health conditions, and given they are a risk factor, can also help protect your mental health.


A disposition that tends towards self-critical, or perfectionistic, can be a risk factor for anxiety and depression. This can include feeling like you must be perfect to be accepted, an inability to accept flaws within yourself, intense self-scrutiny, or an unrealistic sense of others’ expectations and your capacity to meet them.

Social connection

From the time we are born, we need social connection in order to thrive. A recent study lead by researchers at Harvard found that social connection was by far the most important protective factor.

It’s been a lonely year for many. And many are anxious at the prospect of going back to normal. But connection doesn’t mean a big party or bustling office. It can be confiding in one trusted person about how you’re really doing, listening to how someone else is really doing, giving a meaningful thank you, or having a (safe) visit with any family member or friend.


Exercise can be important for preventing depression since having a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor. One study found that 15 minutes a day of vigorous exercise significantly prevents depression. Another study found that 12 weeks of vigorous exercise at 30 minutes, 3-5 times per week reduced symptoms by 47 per cent.


Traditional diets (like the mediterranean diet) high in vegetables, whole grains, and good-for-your-brain fats are associated with a 25-35 per cent reduced risk of depression compared to the typical western diet which is higher in sugar, processed foods, and dairy.

Meaning and purpose

No list could be complete without a nudge to meaning and purpose. If we struggle with mood and negative emotions, it may be especially important to define happiness for ourselves. As Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning: “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”

It’s hard to control “happy.” It’s much easier to control “meaning.”


Through mindfulness you can shift how you relate to difficult thoughts and feelings. One study found that after 8 weeks on mindfulness practice, practitioners showed increased grey matter concentration — which is associated with emotional regulation, among other benefits. Mindfulness is not a cure all, but it can be quite a helpful tool for shifting how you experience challenge.

Which of these is most effective? Well that really depends on what works for you! If someone tells you mindfulness is “the only way” let that notion drift away like leaves on a river. As a 2021 review from the University of Cambridge found for instance, mindfulness is helpful in most clinical settings, but necessarily more so than other wellness approaches, like exercise. So really the best approach: Get whatever support is in reach (for clinical levels of anxiety and depression professional therapy and medical evaluation is the gold standard) and care for your mind based on what works for you. — Psychology today

Sarah Greenberg is a licensed psychotherapist and leadership coach

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