New year, new mindset – 10 easy ways to improve your mental health

Resolutions don’t have to be about diet and exercise – our mental health needs a reset, too. Try these changes, which are all backed by science.

As the clock ticks down to 2024, is a wave of renewal washing over you? You’re not alone.

A recent survey by Finder reveals that two-thirds of Brits will be crafting New Year’s resolutions for the shiny new year, with more than a third vowing to elevate not just their fitness, but their mental well-being too. Interestingly, for the over-50s, mental wellness trumps even love, money, and career when it comes to desired change.

So, if your inner compass is nudging you towards mental well-being in 2024, keep reading for some inspiring changes you can easily make.

Hands holding a blue smiley faceCredit: Shutterstock/SewCreamStudio

1. Go on an wonder walk

Make your walk awesome

Heading outside can make a real difference to your mental health and scientists have found that you really can walk yourself happy.

Instilling a sense of wonder into your wanderings can also measurably boost your happiness. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, recruited 52 older people to go on one 15-minute walk a week. Half were given no parameters, the other half were encouraged to experience awe.

This is felt in a new place or by appreciating details often overlooked, such as leaves crunching underfoot. The ‘awe’ group reported more positive moods than the control, which grew over the eight-week study. 

2. Schedule your worry

Set worry aside

Left unchecked, anxious thoughts can play on repeat, but there is a way to control them that’s routinely used by NHS cognitive behavioural therapists. Set a time each day for worrying (not too near bedtime).

  1. When an intrusive thought pops up in the day, don’t ruminate on it, note it down.
  2. Then, when your ‘worry period’ arrives, take 20 minutes to process the anxieties quietly, making a written plan to solve where possible or noticing if they have resolved themselves.
  3. Do daily to help develop control and perspective. 

3. Try the 54321 technique

Use all your senses to anchor you

“Humans do not like to be in the present moment,” says Dr Sam Akbar, clinical psychologist and author of Stressilient: How to Beat Stress and Build Resistance.

A Harvard study found that people spend 47% of their time thinking about things that aren’t happening now, have already happened or may never happen. This is an excellent predictor of happiness – you can be doing the best activity in the world, but if you’re not present, you won’t appreciate it.”  

Dr Akbar has a straightforward exercise to bring you back to the present: “Breathe deeply, look around, now name five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can touch, two you can smell, and one thing you can taste.” 

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4. Take a digital detox

Put down your phone

Unplugging from your phone could be one of the easiest mental health resolutions to make. An hour less scrolling a day decreases anxiety and increases life satisfaction. Scientists at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany asked 226 people to give up their smartphones for 60 minutes a day.

After a month participants reported feeling less anxious and depressed, while life satisfaction and physical activity increased. The study’s authors thought reduced use was more sustainable than complete abstinence, with people using phones for 45 minutes fewer a day four months later. 

5. Use positive words

The power of positivity

Next time you’re doubting your abilities, say, ‘Yes, I can.’ Using positive words, in particular action verbs, reduces stress and increases motivation, according to studies.

Researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences in France discovered that hearing a positive verb automatically increases the physical force with which people grip objects.

And, at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, scientists used MRI scans to monitor people’s reactions to negative words, and found they activated the part of the brain responsible for feeling pain. 

6. Get you daily dose of Vitamin B

B happy 

A daily dose of Marmite can fight anxiety, according to two recent studies. Scientists at the University of York gave participants one teaspoon a day to see if its high concentration of vitamins B6 and B12 would raise levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that calms the brain.

The participants had reduced brain responses to flickering visual stimuli after four weeks, suggesting an increase in GABA.

Academics at Reading University backed this up when they found that students who ate high levels of vitamin B6 (in spread or supplement form) for a month reduced their anxiety by 13%. 

7. Go easy on yourself

Show yourself some love

“Self-compassion, the cornerstone of Buddhism, is about showing the same kindness to yourself that you would to a friend or child who is suffering,” says Dr Akbar.

“A robust body of research shows that self-compassionate people experience less psychological distress, greater resilience and higher levels of satisfaction. Scans have shown that our brains react in the same way to self-criticism as they do to a physical threat. So treat yourself with understanding and recognise that we all make mistakes.”

8. Eat some chocolate

Chocoholics rejoice!

This is one of the mental health resolutions we can easily get on board with! Daily dark chocolate consumption has been scientifically proven to increase happiness.

Researchers at Seoul National University, South Korea, recently found that eating 30g a day of 85% cocoa content chocolate was linked with significantly improved mood. But those who ate 70% cocoa chocolate felt no benefits.

Academics put it down to microbial changes in the gut after discovering that the 85% group had higher levels of Blautia, a type of good bacteria associated with better mood. 

9. Find reasons to be thankful 

Practice gratitude

Counting your blessings creates positive changes in your brain.

“It can be difficult to evoke feelings of gratitude if you’re depressed, anxious or feel hopeless,’ says psychotherapist Owen O’Kane, author of How To Be Your Own Therapist.

“The mind won’t automatically produce grateful thoughts at these times because it’s too busy producing fearful thoughts. But neuroscientific research indicates that when we are in gratitude mode, even if we force it, our brain will produce more feel-good chemicals, which will reduce anxiety quickly.”

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O’Kane suggests the following for showing gratitude.

  1. Close your eyes and think of three things you’re thankful for, big or small – family, pets, the weather, say.
  2. Repeat them to yourself a couple of times to consolidate the beneficial impact.
  3. Do this on waking each day and it will become more effective. 

10. Volunteer

Give up your time

Giving your time is a win-win – for you and the cause. A study by the University of Exeter found that volunteers reduced their risk of dying by up to 22%, and were less likely to suffer from depression.

It’s not only a great way of staying physically and mentally active, it’s also a great way to stay connected.

A US study among recently widowed older adults found that those who volunteered for two or more hours a week reduced their loneliness to the level of their married peers. The positive effects are only felt if volunteers don’t feel over-burdened, so choose wisely.

If you’re not sure where to volunteer, this website is a good place to start or you can pledge time to ITV’s One Million Minutes campaign.

Written by Ruth Tierney

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