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Big warning about understatement * The last two and a half years have been tough on mental health. “This is almost the second pandemic in which people feel alone, isolated and disconnected,” says Dr. Sara Guptapsychiatrist and medical writer from San Francisco. GoodRx.

So many factors are intimately intertwined with our mental health, and almost all of them have been affected by the COVID era. While many of these things are out of our control as we keep returning to a sense of normality, it’s important to pay attention to the habits we can actually change.

Here, Dr. Gupta describes some of these less obvious factors and shares simple tips to make sure you’re doing the best you can to protect your emotional well-being.

your posture

Anyone who’s been to WFH knows how tempting it is to move to the couch around 3:00 pm, but hunching over your laptop can change your mood. (Going somewhere other than your living room? It probably still applies to you.)

“Many people don’t realize that their body position is actually sending information back to their brain,” explains Dr. Gupta. This 2017 study published in Cognition and emotions confirms this by finding that people who sat in a slouching posture struggled more with negative moods than those who sat upright.

Dr. Gupta’s advice

Set a reminder or alarm on your phone every hour to improve your posture. When it works, make sure your shoulders are over your hips and your head is in a neutral position. “Sit back, sit down, take a deep breath down to your diaphragm, and just let your body feel this different posture,” says Dr. Gupta. “If you feel anxious, remember that you have this tool.”

Your friends

In 2022, we commit to cherish our friends for many reasons. And first on the list is our mental health. “It’s not just about being proud of having friends or knowing you have a community—human connections actually boost the levels of feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain,” Dr. Gupta says.

What’s more: the number of your friends doesn’t matter (we asked). The key is to surround yourself with people around whom you can be yourself.

Dr. Gupta’s advice

Be honest with yourself about how much time you need to spend with friends to feel replenished, refreshed, and energized, and then make it happen—even if it’s just a follow-up dinner once a month, it matters.

Want to expand your circle? Dr. Gupta recommends trying something new. “Taking classes, joining a Zoom support group, volunteering, or being a member of a local museum or garden can help you expand your world and open doors to new connections and new friends,” she says. (Here nine more ideas.)

your laugh

Spending hours watching your favorite show is often notorious, but if it makes you laugh, you can consider it at least a partial win (bonus points if you’re doing it with a friend).

“Smiling and laughing send messages to your brain: “Hey, everything is fine. I can rest and relax. Life is beautiful,” explains Dr. Gupta. “There is evidence that such a rested and relaxed state protects against anxiety, depression and stress.”

In particular, people who laughed often reported feeling less depressed during stressful life situations compared to those who laughed less often. 2020 study published in PLOS One.

Dr. Gupta’s advice

Set a goal to laugh once a day (it’s a self-improvement challenge we can stand behind). Queue up your favorite show, call a funny friend, browse your favorite meme account – anything that will add lightness to your day. (Check these five health benefits of laughter.)

Your water intake

Social media might say something about a water bottle for emotional support – drinking enough water is key to both physical and mental health.

“When you don’t drink enough water and tiptoe to the point of being mildly dehydrated, your body gives off an alarm that you’re in a life-threatening situation and starts releasing stress hormones, especially cortisol,” says Dr. Gupta.

It’s not a good place to stay regularly, she says, as elevated cortisol levels have been linked to anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.

Dr. Gupta’s advice

“If you’re feeling thirsty or overwhelmed, try drinking a good glass of cold water,” says Dr. Gupta. “And if you like more order, use alarms or trackers to remind yourself that drinking water is part of your self-care.” (Here’s how to know how much you should be drinking).

Your access to nature

“The brains of our ancestors largely control our response to stress,” says Dr. Gupta. We are programmed to spend time in nature. “Over the course of evolution, humans preferred environments where we had fresh water, sunlight and nature because they gave us the resources we needed to survive,” she says. “But these days, nature doesn’t just let us survive, it helps us thrive.”

Spending even small periods of time in nature—yes, you can count the local park, which over the past two and a half years has become your gym, social meeting place, and self-care oasis—can greatly improve your mental health. 2019 Frontiers in psychology study found that spending just 20 minutes outdoors significantly reduced stress hormone levels.

Dr. Gupta’s advice

Be outdoors as much as possible. And so you get the privilege on days when you’re stuck inside, bring in nature by putting a plant on your table.

For more advice from Dr. Gupta, as well as other doctors, pharmacists, and health professionals, visit the website GoodRx Health.

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