26 Things You're Doing That Are Hurting Your Mental Health
These behaviors might be doing harm to your emotional health without you even realizing it.
Sure, feeling constantly stressed out and overwhelmed may seem like the norm these days, but that doesn't meant it should be. Even if you aren't one of the millions of Americans living with a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety, your emotional well-being is still something you need to prioritize. There are ways to keep those negative feelings at bay—and it starts with understanding the daily mental health mistakes you may be making without even realizing it. So, if you want to know if any of your habits are making you unhappy, here are some of the worst things you can do for your mental health.
Having bad posture
When your parents told you to "sit up straight" when you were a kid, it was probably more about proper dinner-table etiquette. But it turns out that slouching isn't just a matter of bad manners, it actually influences how you feel internally. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Therapy found that sitting up straight reduced symptoms of depression. The research also showed a correlation between good posture and having a positive attitude and more energy.
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. What's more, 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.
Ignoring your budget
Derek Mihalcin, PhD, 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." Money-related stress is one of the most common things Mihalcin hears about, both in his practice and in life.
"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 every day," 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.
Eating too much junk food
Your diet is just as important for your emotional health as it is for your physical health. In one 2012 study published in the Public Health Nutrition, researchers found that people who enjoy copious amounts of fast food and commercial baked goods are 51 percent more likely to develop depression than those who stick to healthy, natural options.
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 California-based psychotherapist. If the mere thought of your schedule makes you overwhelmed, it might be time to slow things down.
Saying yes when you want to say no
However, because our culture glorifies being busy as a point of pride, 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," says Samantha DeCaro, PsyD, assistant clinical director of The Renfrew Center in Philadelphia. Saying yes "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—and if not, it leaves you struggling to get through an overbooked schedule. Before committing to anything, she 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."
Saying that you're fine when you're really not
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 says. "One small act of self-disclosure could be the impetus for a much deeper, more meaningful interaction."
Striving for perfection
Perfectionism can lead to anxiety and unhealthy, obsessive work habits, according to Samantha Smalls, a social worker and therapist at New Chapter Counseling Services in Bloomfield, Connecticut. She says 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 says. Remind yourself that you're human and, like everyone else, are bound to mess up sometimes.
Comparing yourself to others
Once you realize that perfection is unattainable, it will be easier to grasp that the people around you aren't perfect either, so there's no need to measure yourself against anyone else. Karen R. Koenig, MEd, 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."
Being too hard on yourself
Being self-critical rather than self-accepting is one of the easiest ways to put a strain on your mental health. To avoid this self-inflicted stress, try to "accept who you are by embracing that 'I am doing the best I can given all the circumstances," says Steven Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University." The easier you are on yourself, the less susceptible you will be to the physical and emotional symptoms of depression and anxiety.
And telling yourself what you're feeling is wrong
"All emotions serve a function and can give us valuable information about what we should do next in a situation," DeCaro says. "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. According to DeCaro, "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.
Dwelling on the past
Dwelling on past mistakes is another self-defeating exercise that only serves a negative mindset. 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," says Arlene B. Englander, a psychotherapist and author of Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food. "Focus on the take-away lesson, noting what [you] can learn from the past experience to do better next time."
Not prioritizing activities that relieve stress
We all have our own ways of coping with stress that we rely on when we're feeling overwhelmed and out of sorts. However, according to Sultanoff, 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 the stress inducers.
"You may sleep less, cut out social activities, and shorten or eliminate meals," he says, also noting that anxiety ironically drives people to cut out stress-reducing activities like listening to music, reading, and exercising.
Or getting enough exercise
"Foregoing exercise because you 'don't feel like it' is a self-defeating habit that many of us have," Englander says. "The times when we feel the least like moving are the times when we need it most. The serotonin that induces a sense of well-being—often dubbed 'our body's Prozac'—can only be experienced when we overcome our inertia and take that first step to the gym."
Not setting long-term goals
These days, it's all too easy to become distracted by constant news updates and social media feeds. 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 Forrest Talley, PhD, a California-based clinical psychologist.
"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."
Spending too much time alone
Most of us enjoy some alone time every now and then, and flying solo can indeed be beneficial for both physical and mental well-being. 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 Bryan Bruno, MD, medical director at Mid City TMS.
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.
Starting and ending the day on your phone
We're all guilty of being too dependent on technology, but it's important to put down your phone for the sake of your mental well-being, 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," explains Kelly Bos, MSW, a psychotherapist based in Canada. "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 well-being," Her suggestion? Keep technology out of the bedroom entirely.
Spending too much time on social media
What you look at on your phone makes a difference, too. It's easy to get caught up spending time scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, but this common habit has a negative impact on your 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 your 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 when it comes to maintaining your mental health.
Worrying in the middle of the night
Many people have trouble not giving in to their worries or anxious thoughts in the middle of the night. But if you can 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 your negative thoughts
Suppressing negative emotions doesn't make them go away, says Dea Dean, 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 explains.
For the sake of your mental health, Dean says it's best to "practice noticing, acknowledging, and validating how we feel." When we do this, the intensity of our negative emotions tends to decrease.
Not being honest with loved ones about your needs
Speaking up about what you need or desire emotionally does not mean you are demanding, burdensome, or selfish. Unfortunately, those are the reasons people sweep their feelings under the rug, out of fear they'll be seen as difficult. "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, family, and romantic partners can't read our minds, so it's important that we be honest with them about what we're thinking.
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—and this can hurt our mental health in the long run.
"Our brains need time to process all the various inputs we get throughout the day," she explains. "Without this time, we feel 'put upon' and ultimately anxious and irritable."
Not drinking enough water
It turns out that dehydration isn't just detrimental to your physical health. It can mess with your 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.
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, according to Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, California, "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.