Being a mentally healthy dad can feel like spinning plates. There are the stressors of parenthood and raising a person without screwing them up. Then there’s demand to climb the career ladder, or simply to provide for your family when so much of your financial situation is out of your control. On top of all of that, you’re expected to maintain a healthy, loving, and romantic relationship with your partner and model that for your child so they’re happy, balanced, and don’t bring home a significant other who sucks one day.
Therapy can, of course, provide necessary relief. But when you have so many obstacles working against your psyche everyday, it makes sense to have a multifaceted line of defense. Simply put, you need a list of actionable things you can do for your mental health every day, especially when you’re too stressed to think about “self care.” Fortunately, we have you covered with these 15 habits to improve your mental health.
1. Get Sunlight In Your Eyes Each Morning
One of the simplest ways to decrease stress and sleep better is to make sure to get two to ten minutes of direct sunlight each morning. That’s really it. Why? It gets complicated fast —and is all about our circadian clocks.
As Stanford University neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. explains, circadian clocks are a collection of neurons in the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus crucial for telling our bodies what time of day it is. Getting exposure to light first thing in the morning sets our clocks to give us energy during the day, while priming our brains and bodies to sleep better at night.
There’s more: Light triggers a release of cortisol that jumpstarts your day. Although cortisol is a stress hormone known for its association with negative outcomes like weight gain and stress, it also gives us a necessary energy boost to alert the body that its morning and time to wake up. In this way, cortisol is kind of like nature’s coffee.
Like coffee, the key is timing this release out first thing in the morning, allowing cortisol to be utilized throughout the day, rather than setting it off at night with blue light from screens (Tip 1.5, shut off your phone 1 hour before bed). It only takes two to 10 minutes of sunlight exposure to schedule this cortisol release, so get out there. Huberman also notes that because there are light-sensitive cells in your eyes specifically, so you’re better off going without sunglasses. Just, you know, don’t look directly into the Sun.
2. Take Cold Showers
Great news for dads whose families use up all the hot water before them: Ice cold showers below 60 degrees Fahrenheit are good for your mental health. Although it may seem like a bunch of trendy Wim Hof nonsense on the surface, exposure to cold temperatures from a shower or ice bath stimulates the vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve that runs from the brain all the way down to the abdomen).
This has a huge impact on our ability to cope with stress because much of anxiety has to do with a person’s capacity to control two parts of their central nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system, known for launching us into fight-or-flight mode, including when there is no real danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as “rest and digest” mode. In a state of fight-or-flight, the sympathetic nervous system activates and floods the body with stress hormones. But by stimulating the vagus nerve daily, you can increase your “vagal tone,” or your ability to snap out of fight-or-flight by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. A cold shower for two minutes should help you do precisely that.
3. Pay Attention To Your Breathing
If frigid showers aren’t your thing, learning how to control your breath can also help you hone your ability to regulate your nervous system and deal with stress. Research confirms that breath work can be an effective strategy for improving your mental health, because shallow breathing can decrease oxygen in your blood, add to your stress, and activate your fight-or-flight mode.
One study found that “paced breathing” or inhaling and exhaling to a set rhythm (inhale for four seconds, exhale for six seconds), offsets this by activating the insula, which is part of the brain that regulates the autonomic nervous system and is connected to body awareness, and the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain involved in moment-to-moment awareness.
The findings suggest that simple breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 method, tactical breathing, box breathing, and other methods that increase breath awareness can help people stay present and override fight-or-flight mode by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.
Don’t stress about which breathing exercise you choose. Most expert-endorsed breathing exercises are not particularly superior to any other. It’s mostly a matter of finding a practice that works best for you, so it can be integrated into your day-to-day life.
4. Move Your Body
A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that regular exercise can be 1.5 times more effective at treating depression, anxiety, and psychological distress compared to therapy and medication. And luckily for time-strapped parents, shorter bursts of intense exercise were more effective than longer workouts. (If you want an incredible fitness-altering deep dive on all things movement, be sure to pick up Built To Move by Kelly and Juliet Starrett).
Likewise, there is evidence that it only takes about a 15-minute workout to trigger a mental boost, and research shows that even one-minute long workouts, three times a day, can benefit our health overall. The point is, you don’t need to devote an hour in the gym to feel better.
Plus, the psychological upside of weirding out your colleagues at the office by doing jumping jacks and burpees throughout the day cannot be overstated. You could go for a walk instead, but where’s the fun in that?
5. Watch More Comedies
There’s something to be said about the power of laughter. Research shows that watching funny movies increases people’s pain tolerance. In an older and more masochistic study, scientists discovered that watching funny videos even reduced anxiety about receiving electric shocks.
Sure, the stressors of everyday child-rearing may not be as jarring as shock therapy. But picking up your phone and looking at a funny reel or meme when you feel like you’re on the verge of losing your cool can help, especially if it’s something that’s appropriate enough to share with your kid too. Cue up the clean comedy of fellow dads like Sebastian Maniscalco, Brian Regan, or Jim Gaffigan. Or if the content is more questionable, excuse yourself to the bathroom for a brief moment.
In the spirit of modeling healthy screen time, you don’t want to be going to your phone all the time in front of your kid. But in those moments when distraction can make the difference between yelling in front of your kid or worse, a smartphone is not the worst thing to keep in your back pocket.
6. Listen to a Podcast
Modeling healthy screen time habits in front of your kid is important — as is limiting your own screen time — and one of the best things about podcasts is that you don’t have to look at your phone to enjoy them. Studies show that people who listen to podcasts while completing everyday tasks feel more fulfilled and productive, as well as socially connected to the show hosts, guests, and community of listeners. Which raises the question, why do I need friends when I have all these podcasts?
7. Call or Text a Friend
Spoiler alert: You still need friends for your mental health. Data indicates that social support can minimize symptoms of depression and maximize the likelihood of recovering from it — particularly for people who might be already isolated by sickness, disability, or in your case, the responsibilities of raising young children.
Much like with exercise, people can often overestimate how much work it takes to move the needle when it comes to friendship. Similarly, according to recent research from the American Psychological Association, people tend to underestimate the positive impact of shooting an old friend a text to simply say “hi.”
So go ahead and text your buddy a funny meme, rant about fatherhood, or just let them know you were thinking of them. Who knows, you might improve his mental health too.
8. Keep a Journal
Researchers have found that journaling reduces anxiety, not to mention symptoms of arthritis, lupus, asthma, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome, all of which can lead to further mental distress. If writing isn’t something you enjoy naturally, there are plenty of guided journals made for men like The Daily Stoic or Monk Manual.
9. Read Some Inspirational Quotes
Although inspirational quotes can seem cliché — you have to look through the rain to see the rainbow — they’re actually mentally motivating, according to psychologist Jonathan Fader.
“There’s a little bit of implicit coaching that’s happening when you’re reading it. It’s building that self-efficacy in that kind of dialogue that you’re having with yourself,” Fader told Fast Company.
Similarly, mindfulness cards with inspirational sayings on them are available by the deck, so you can make sure you’re operating with a full one.
10. Write More Lists
Whether it’s a gratitude list that helps pave more positive neural pathways in your brain, or a to-do list that increases focus and causes a dopamine boost, keeping lists can keep you sane in a lot of ways. Even grocery lists have been found to lead to healthier food choices and better budgeting decisions, which can both decrease stress and increase well-being. So if you don’t know where to start your to-do list, put “make more lists” at the top of it.
11. Eat a Little Healthier
Eating healthy whole foods is generally linked with better mental health outcomes. The mood-boosting flavonoids in blueberries, for example, make them great brain food. Dark leafy greens improve gut and brain health, while replenishing essential nutrients such as folate and vitamin B, which are easily depleted from stress.
Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids are important to keep on the menu as well because deficiencies have been linked to depression, dementia, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric disorders, and a majority of adults in the U.S. don’t consume enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. If fatty fish like sardines don’t appeal to your taste buds, walnuts and chia seeds are also great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and one study found that eating banana bread with walnuts for eight weeks improved the moods of men, but not women (more for you). No wonder why so many people in quarantine were making it.
Likewise, studies suggest that fermented foods such as kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, and kefir are linked to certain kinds of gut bacteria in the microbiome, and that they could have a positive influence on brain health.
Combined, all of the above makes for an unpleasant smoothie, but individually, these are relatively easy items to introduce into your diet.
12. Chew Gum
One study found that chewing gum reduced student’s anxiety and improved their focus and short-term memory prior to an exam. Although it’s unclear if this extends to dads, a review of literature concluded that chewing gum is an effective way to manage stress, which may be why you see most football coaches doing it. The researchers observed that chewing gum appears to weaken the impact stress has on the brain. They suspect that if chewing gum can reduce feelings of stress, it might be able to do this with other stress-related disorders like depression too.
If you came here to chew bubblegum and kick depression’s ass, like professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s catchphrase, well, don’t run out of gum.
13. Read a Book Before Bed
Getting enough sleep is incredibly crucial for your psychological well-being, so much so that it’s annoying as a parent who is looking at a minimum of six years of sleep loss after having a baby. That said, it’s still important to make small, incremental changes for better sleep hygiene, and reading before bed instead of watching TV is one such adjustment.
For instance, one study found that people who read before bed experienced improved sleep compared to those who didn’t read. Another experiment showed that reading fiction any time of day had positive effects on participants’ moods and emotions.
If you’re not ready to dive into the Game of Thrones books yet, reading a bedtime story to your kid can be a great start.
Historically speaking, prayer has garnered an understandably religious reputation. But scientifically speaking, it can be an effective mindfulness practice that doesn’t have to hinge on a belief in God. And for parents prone to anger, research reveals that prayer can potentially curb outbursts.
David H. Rosmarin, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital, has compared prayer to meditation. The main difference is that meditation is often associated with having a quiet mind, which can be difficult to do as a stressed out parent. Prayer, on the other hand, is something you can do with a very noisy brain — you can even do it out loud, to whomever you want.
“I would never advise a patient who doesn’t want to pray to pray,” Rosmarin told the Association for Psychological Science. But for those who are curious, he advises imagining a conversation with a person they’ve missed. “If you think, ‘Yeah, I should probably pick up the phone but am not sure what to say,’ then it might help.”
Whether it’s to a higher power, a deceased relative, or to the late rock star Prince, the benefits of prayer mostly have to do with mentally letting things go. In other words, pray tell.
15. Smile More
As much as it sounds like something a cat-caller would yell from a construction site, all of us should smile more — mostly to reduce our response to stress. Experts believe that even forcing a smile can trick the brain into releasing dopamine and elevating mood.
In the end, smiling is a lot like going to therapy. Choosing to do it on your own can be a highly effective strategy for improving your mental health. But being told to do it by someone you barely know is just asking for a fight.
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