7 Ways to Strengthen Your Emotional Health

1 Improve Your Social Network

You can enhance your emotional stability, flexibility and resilience with regular exercise, a healthy diet and ample sleep. It’s just as important to have good friends and strong family ties. A trustworthy support system adds an element of pleasure to your life while buffering you from depression and anxiety. Loneliness seriously harms your health, studies show, whereas people with strong social networks tend to have better heart health and live longer.

Your emotional exercise: Practice being a good friend. To broaden your social circle, pursue a passionate interest: Take an art class, join a book club or volunteer for a worthy cause.

2 Know Your Limits

To avoid stress overload, it’s important to understand what’s reasonable for you to take on and to recognize when your plate is already full, says Alice Domar, Ph.D., director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, MA, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School and author of Be Happy Without Being Perfect.

Your emotional exercise: Create a list with three categories: the things you have to do, the things you’d like to do and the things you really don’t want to do. Now, use your list to delegate or say “no” to nonessential requests. You’ll manage your time better and that alone can lower your feelings of stress.

3 Say “See Ya” to Stress

You can’t avoid stress entirely (and life might get kind of boring if you could) but the way you deal with it can make a huge difference in your emotional and physical health. By regularly incorporating relaxation techniques—such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga or Tai Chi—into your day, you can prevent stress from taking a toll on your mood and mindset, says Allen Elkin, Ph.D., director of the Stress Management and Counseling Center in New York City. Indeed, studies suggest that practicing yoga or relaxation techniques regularly can lead to a significant reduction in anxiety and tension and an increased sense of well-being

Your emotional exercise: Practice diaphragmatic breathing. Inhale deeply, allowing your chest and abdomen to rise to a count of four, then exhale slowly to a count of four; repeat four times. Do this several times throughout the day, every day.

4 Start a Gratitude Journal

Research at the University of California, Davis, found that people who kept records of what they’re grateful for had more positive moods and a better sense of well-being than those who tracked their hassles. “It feels good to experience gratitude, to express it and to receive it,” says study co-author Michael E. McCullough, Ph.D., professor of psychology and religious studies at the University of Miami and author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. “It’s good for your state of mind and your relationships.”

Your emotional exercise: Get in the habit of jotting down 3 to 5 specific things you’re grateful for, each day. They could be good things that happen to you, to a friend, to a stranger or just good things, like a sunny day.

5 Cut Yourself Some Slack

Perfectionism can set you up for anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and a never-ending series of guilt trips, notes Domar, whose latest book is called Be Happy Without Being Perfect. That’s why it’s important to strive to do the best you can, instead of aiming for perfection, and to forgive yourself for any goofs you make. When you do commit a blunder, ask yourself how serious it really is. “The key is not to blow it out of proportion,” Domar says. “Then think of how you can compensate for it, learn from it or let it go” and move on.

Your emotional exercise: Remind yourself that sometimes doing a “good enough” job on something is good enough. It’s okay to bring store-bought cookies to your child’s class party!

6 Do Something for Someone Else

Whether you volunteer at a soup kitchen or engage in random acts of kindness, “there’s a sense of self-worth that comes from helping someone else,” Elkin says. “It also gets you to consider other people’s situations, which puts your own into perspective.” And if the other person expresses gratitude, well, that can boost your mood, too. Really, altruism is a no-lose proposition.

Your emotional exercise: Help a colleague who’s in a jam. Volunteer at a local organization. Doing something nice for someone else will help you feel good, too.

7 Look at the Bright Side

The goal isn’t to become a Pollyanna who thinks everything is wonderful, even when it’s not. The idea is to focus on what’s positive in your life—or how a problem could have a relatively happy ending—because this can engender a sense of optimism and hope, Elkin says. An extra perk: A substantial body of research suggests that people who have positive emotional well-being, along with a sense of optimism and hope, have a reduced mortality risk.

Your emotional exercise: Consider the positive possibilities. Remind yourself that your financial picture will improve now that you’ve started a savings plan, for example. And expect to enjoy the warmer weather by taking walks in the sunshine at lunchtime.

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