25 Things We're Doing That Hurt Our Mental Health
Avoiding these behaviors matters for your mind.
Even if you aren't one of the millions of Americans living with a mental illness like depression or anxiety disorder, your mental wellbeing is still something you need to keep in check. Sure, feeling constantly stressed out and overwhelmed may seem like the norm these days, but there are ways to keep those feelings at bay—and it starts with avoiding behaviors that can hurt your mental health. Want to know if your habits or any elements of your lifestyle are making you more susceptible to a negative mindset? Read on to learn about some of the worst things you can do for your mental health.
We live in a culture that bases our worth on how busy we are or appear to be, which can cause us to bite off more than we can chew. But "functioning like this can lead to burnout and signs of anxiety and depression," says Yael Katzman, LMFT, a psychotherapist in Encino, California.
Saying "yes" when we want to say "no"
Also because our culture glorifies productivity, it's tempting to take on nearly every task that's presented to us. "Even the thought of saying 'no' can sometimes evoke feelings of guilt, fear, or anxiety," explains Samantha DeCaro, Psy.D., assistant clinical director of The Renfrew Center in Philadelphia. Saying "yes," on the other hand, "helps us avoid these uncomfortable emotions"—or so we think.
According to DeCaro, saying "yes" to one thing invariably means you're saying no to something else—or are at least, it leaves you struggling to get through an overbooked schedule. So before committing to anything, DeCaro suggests taking a pause and identifying your needs first. "Ask yourself, 'What are the pros and cons of taking this on?' 'What will I be sacrificing by agreeing to this?'" she says. "Instead of answering right away, try requesting more time to think things through before making a final decision."
Responding with "I'm fine"
When someone asks, "How are you?" many of us instinctively reply that we're "fine." But responding in this habitual, superficial way can limit daily opportunities for genuine connection.
"If you have developed a level of emotional trust with someone, try taking the extra time to identify what you're actually feeling and respond in an authentic way," DeCaro suggests. "One small act of self-disclosure could be the impetus for a much deeper, more meaningful interaction."
Judging who we are
Being self-critical rather than self-accepting is one of the easiest ways to hurt your mental health. That's why Dr. Steven Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University, emphasizes that you should "accept who you are by embracing that 'I am doing the best I can given all the circumstances.'" The easier you are on yourself, the less susceptible you will be to the physical and emotional symptoms of depression and anxiety.
And judging how we feel
"All emotions serve a function and can give us valuable information about what we should do next in a situation," says DeCaro. "When we immediately judge an emotional experience, we set ourselves up to feel a secondary emotion that might not be relevant to the present situation."
Take anger, for instance. DeCaro explains that "if we're too busy feeling guilty about feeling angry, we lose the opportunity to examine the anger and carefully choose a behavior that might actually serve us in that situation." Instead of letting your negative emotions create even more negative emotions, she suggests engaging in mindfulness practices, which can help with acceptance, tolerance, and recognition.
Not prioritizing our stress relievers
We all have our own coping mechanisms that we rely on when we're feeling overwhelmed and out of sorts. However, Sultanoff says that when we're anxious, the first thing we tend to do is eliminate those stress relievers so that we have more time to deal with our stressors. "You may sleep less, cut out social activities, and shorten or eliminate meals," he notes—and those are the last things we should be doing.
Sultanoff also says that anxious people have a tendency to "cut out nurturing activities such as playing music, playing sports, reading, crafting, and so on," despite the fact that these very activities could keep their mental health in check.
"Foregoing exercise because we 'don't feel like it' is a self-defeating habit that many of us have," says psychotherapist Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, author of Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food: A Five Point Plan for Success. "The times when we feel the least like moving are the times when we need it most. The serotonin that induces a sense of wellbeing—often dubbed 'our body's Prozac'—can only be experienced when we overcome our inertia and take that first step … to the gym."
Dwelling on the past
Dwelling on past mistakes is another self-defeating exercise that only serves to worsen mental health. And yet, far too many of us torture ourselves by thinking about what we should have done.
"Rather than blaming ourselves for past mistakes, it's best to remind ourselves that we did the best we could at the time, given who we were, and what we knew then," Englander says. "Focus on the take-away lesson, noting what [you] can learn from the past experience to do better next time."
Not being mindful of our budgets
Dr. Derek Mihalcin, PhD, BCBA-D, a clinical psychologist at Oakwood Counseling Center in Warren, Ohio, cautions that "not living on a budget and spending more than you make is a recipe for disaster." That stress related to money issues is one of the most common things Mihalcin hears about, both in his practice and out in the world.
"We have the ability to reduce or eliminate financial stress, but sadly, most people don't do anything and live with the worry it creates everyday," he says. "Do you need an Amazon Prime membership when you cannot pay the electric bill consistently? Do you need a 2019 vehicle when a five-year-old used vehicle will do? We spend too much time trying to justify our actions instead of changing our habits."
For better mental health (and money habits), Mihalcin recommends cutting unnecessary costs and using the extra money to create an emergency fund so you don't have to build up credit card debt.
Striving to be perfect
Perfectionism can lead to anxiety and unhealthy and obsessive work habits, according to Samantha Smalls, LCSW, a social worker and therapist at New Chapter Counseling Services in Bloomfield, Connecticut. According to Smalls, being a perfectionist "adds irrational expectations to yourself."
"When a perfectionist makes a mistake, it can cause anxiety, depression, and the development of negative self-talk," she explains. Remind yourself that you're human and, like everyone else, are bound to mess up sometimes.
Spending too much time alone
Most of us enjoy having some alone time every now and then—and flying solo can indeed be beneficial for your physical and mental wellbeing. But even if you're an introvert, you should be interacting with other individuals on a daily basis to avoid feeling too isolated.
"Staying inside your house all the time can lead to feelings of depression and loneliness, so I recommend making time to go for a walk or to socialize with friends and family," says Dr. Bryan Bruno, MD, medical director at Mid City TMS, a New York-based transcranial magnetic stimulation clinic focused on curing depression.
Staying in an unhealthy relationship
Unhealthy romantic relationships can also cause a decline in mental health that some people may not even realize. "If your partner treats you in a way that is not consistent with a loving relationship, this can impact your self-esteem and lead to anxiety and depression," Bruno explains. One 2014 study from the University of Wisconsin even found that marital stress can make people more susceptible to depression.
Not setting long-term goals
These days, it's all too easy to become distracted by constant feeds of news and social media. And, as a result, many people struggle to see the big picture—either they don't set important goals for themselves or they neglect the goals they have set. This can lead to poor mental health down the road, including "a feeling of life 'passing [you] by,'" says Dr. Forrest Talley, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Folsom, California.
"A set of priorities linked with goals that one is constantly progressing toward driven by discipline is the cure," he says. "People that do this are happier and mentally healthier."
Starting and ending the day on our phones
We're all guilty of becoming dependent on technology, but it's important to put down your phone for the sake of your mental wellbeing, especially as you begin and end your day.
"Often our phone is the first thing we grab in the morning and last thing we see before bed. Whether it's a never-ending barrage of things to address and follow up on [via] email or the simple temptation to distract, none of this is helpful for mental wellbeing," explains Kelly Bos, MSW, RSW, a psychotherapist in Ontario, Canada. Her suggestion? Keep technology out of your bedroom entirely.
Spending too much time on social media
It's easy to spend hours mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, but this common habit has a negative impact on mental health, too. As one 2018 analysis published in the American Journal of Health Behavior notes, obsessive social media usage is linked to both depression and anxiety.
Not getting enough sleep
Studies have indicated that not getting enough sleep increases our risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, according to Harvard Health Publishing. This is true of both adults and children, so prioritizing a full night of sleep for yourself and (if applicable) your kids is incredibly important to maintaining your mental health.
Worrying in the middle of the night
According to Bos, many people have trouble not giving in to their worries or anxious thoughts in the middle of the night. But if you can instead try to ignore your late-night anxieties, you can give yourself some time to cool down and get some much-needed sleep, which will help you think more rationally in the morning.
"If we can get behind the idea that whatever we are worrying about can't be dealt with at 3 a.m. [or] might not be as big a problem in the rational light of day, then we can challenge the productivity of the worry and [will] likely be able to go back to sleep," Bos says.
Suppressing our negative thoughts
Suppressing negative emotions doesn't make them go away, says Dea Dean, LPC, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professional counselor in Mississippi. "When we deny or distract from sadness, fear, or anger, our negative emotions tend to become pressurized and 'spill over' in moments we don't intend for them to," she says.
Dean explains that, for the sake of our mental health, it's best to instead "practice noticing, acknowledging, and validating how we feel." When we do this, the intensity of our negative emotions tends to decrease (as does their negative side effects).
Not drinking enough water
It turns out that dehydration isn't just detrimental to physical health—it can mess with mental health as well. Two studies conducted at the University of Connecticut in 2012 found that even mild dehydration can have a negative impact on your mood and can cause both concentration problems and fatigue. So, even if you don't feel thirsty, make sure you're drinking enough water throughout the day.
Having clutter everywhere
According to research published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2011, chronic clutter in your living space can result in prolonged stress. And a separate 2016 study conducted at Cornell University found that stress caused by clutter can lead people to use unhealthy avoidance strategies such as watching television, eating junk food, and oversleeping.
Not being honest with loved ones about our needs
It's common for people to not speak up about what they need or desire due to the fear of being perceived as demanding, burdensome, or selfish. "We can also misguidedly buy into the idea that we don't want to 'make someone do something they don't want to,' in regards to acknowledging our feelings or granting our requests for partnership," Dean explains.
Instead, she urges us to believe in the validity of our desires and express them, while also showing confidence in our loved ones' abilities to say "yes" or "no" to a request or a need. Our friends, families, and romantic partners can't read our minds, so it's important that we be honest with them about what we're thinking.
Comparing ourselves to others
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, a psychotherapist in Sarasota, Florida, says that when we compare ourselves to others rather than focusing on our own talent, skill, and potential, we usually end up feeling badly about ourselves.
"It's better to consider what our capabilities are—an internal focus—than to constantly measure ourselves against others—an external focus," she advises. "For example, rather than looking at how friends are doing in their careers, consider what you could do to improve your chances of a better work life."
Never taking a mental health day
We tend to tell ourselves that we don't deserve mental health days or, when we do take them, feel guilty about missing work. But Dr. Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, California, emphasizes that "it's important, especially during a period of intense stress, to take … a day off from work that we spend nurturing ourselves with massages, walks in the park, or anything else that makes us feel good and relaxed." We can't function properly when we're stressed, and so taking a mental health day every now and again could actually make us more productive and less anxious.
Having bad posture
It turns out, our parents' request for us to "sit up straight" wasn't just about proper dinner table etiquette—our mental health woes might just be resolved with better posture, too. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Therapy found that sitting up straight reduced symptoms of depression. What's more, the research showed a correlation between good posture and both a positive attitude and less fatigue.
Not taking time to reflect
Dr. Anna Yam, PhD, a clinical psychologist in San Diego, California, says that because we're so focused on always doing something "productive," we don't allow ourselves the time to just think, which can hurt our mental health in the long run. "Our brains need time to process all the various inputs we get throughout the day," Yam explains. "Without this time, we feel 'put upon' and ultimately anxious and irritable." And for tips on improving your mental health, Steal These 16 Mental-Health Secrets of Famous Geniuses.
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