There’s a phrase that therapists and mental health experts like to use: You need to put on your own oxygen mask first. In other words: you need to take care of yourself so that you can truly be there for your family. Its advice everyone needs to hear, but it’s especially so for men. The men’s mental health crisis is real: According to the World Health Organization, three times as many men as women die by suicide in high-income countries. And men, as a whole, are less likely to reach out for help or even discuss their mental health because of underlying stigmas. Considering the stress of everything from coronavirus to job insecurity right now, it’s more important than ever to take small steps to better your mental health and reduce exhaustion, burnout, and other such symptoms.
Indeed, you should be doing the basics: eating well, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of good sleep — now and all the time. But to stay happy, healthy, and mentally fit — and to be the best version of yourself for your family — try incorporating a few of these mental health practices into your daily and weekly routines. Recommended by therapists and men’s mental health experts, they’re small steps to take to make sure your oxygen mask is secured.
1. Check in with Yourself — and Check Your Self-Talk
How you see yourself dramatically affects how you process and understand what happens to you. That’s why it’s essential to stop, think, and ask yourself how you feel about yourself regularly. Check in with these kinds of questions: Do I think I am a failure because of something that happened to me? Do I think I am weak because I have certain feelings or reacted in a certain way? Have I learned how to forgive myself? “It’s these kinds of thoughts that can really impact how we feel not only about life, but also about ourselves,” says cognitive neuroscientist and host of the Cleaning Up The Mental Mess podcast Caroline Leaf. “And they can lead to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and mental exhaustion.”
2. Set Short-Term Goals
It’s important to work towards something, to better yourself for the sake of your family. Establishing personal goals can help you feel a sense of purpose. But vague, long term goals with no benchmarks are easy to ignore. Instead, set a goal at the beginning of each month and examine how you’ll take care of yourself over the next 30 days. Then, check in with yourself weekly and adjust accordingly. Do you need to make more time for yourself? Do you need to shift your goals? Do you need more support? At the end of the month, do a quick recap on what went well and what areas you want to change next month. Good goals might include anything from completing a fitness challenge to reading a certain number of books. “People often think they’re exhausted or ‘burned out’ when they’re stuck in a rut,” says psychotherapist and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind Amy Morin. “Having more purpose and focus helps men feel more energized. Boredom is often at the root of burnout. It’s important for men to feel like they’re working toward something while also working on caring for themselves.”
3. Adjust Your Expectations
Unmet expectations can wear away at mental health. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to set smaller, more achievable goals for ourselves and our relationships. “We can’t make sure our kids are 100-percent engaged in their remote learning or getting enough socialization over Zoom,” says Traci Maynigo, a psychologist and head of the Supporting Healthy Relationships/Fatherhood program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “But we can embrace the small moments and provide them closeness and safety that the external world can’t.”
In other words? Cut yourself some slack. “One thing that comes up for dads is, What is my role? Am I as important as Mom? How can I make myself as valuable to my kids? They’re fighting against a perception that they don’t serve as an important role as mothers,” says Maynigo. “Trying to counter those expectations causes stress, and leads to the idea that, I’m not going to do a good enough job anyway, so why even try?” Know that your role is crucial for your kids and that you don’t have to be perfect or know everything intuitively — it’s okay to ask questions and for help.
4. Set Boundaries
To stave off burnout, you need to be vigilant about maintaining boundaries between work and home. If your job is too demanding and there’s no end in sight, think about what it’s costing you in terms of not being present and engaged around your family. Then, take inventory of your stress and figure out what can be taken off your plate. “I see parents in therapy that feel they can’t let anything go,” says Chicago-based psychologist Paul Losoff. “But if you’re in a high-pressure job working 60 hours a week, there are consequences.” If you know this is the lifestyle and it’s causing anguish, Losoff advises to think long and hard about whether you want to stay there — or whether it’s time for a change.
5. Communicate and Coordinate with Your Partner or Co-Parent
Though “talking to your spouse” is as elemental a practice for maintaining your sanity as sleeping at night or exercising daily, it bears repeating — especially if you’re not communicating honestly about where you’re at and what you need.
“Use communication to advocate for yourself when you need something,” Losoff suggests. “Everyone has different needs. As guys we tend to sacrifice our own needs for the family and that can take us into a downward spiral.” Tell your partner when you’ve reached your limit with your kids, for instance, so they can step in before you lose it. And coordinate breaks, so you both get regular alone time.
6. Hold Family Business Meetings
Related to communicating and coordinating with your partner or co-parent, scheduling regular “business” meetings can help ensure you’re talking about stuff and that you’re both (or all) aligned. Check in with each other about your needs, responsibilities, and upcoming plans. “It’s important for all families, but especially so for co-parents and blended families,” Maynigo says. “With back-and-forth between homes, there are different sets of rules and expectations for kids. Both parents need to be in communication so they’re on the same page about how to parent their child.”
7. Take 30 Minutes for Yourself Each Day
Hopefully, all the talking you’re doing with your partner or co-parent has made one thing clear: that you both need time for yourselves to recharge. Give yourself 30 minutes each day to do something that is enjoyable or relaxing, burns energy, or involves social connection. Consider reading something for pleasure, taking a hot shower (see below), jogging with the dog around the neighborhood, or playing an online card game with friends.
“Engaging in these activities helps to decrease stress in a variety of ways,” says Texas Children’s Hospital pediatric psychologist Kelly N. Banneyer. “They activate your brain with something other than thinking about your stress.”
Distraction by doing a puzzle, notes Banneyer, takes your mind off stress and onto something more activating, thus regulating your mood and helping with positivity. If 30 minutes seems like too much, consider that, by setting time aside for yourself, your mood will improve and you’ll be better able to concentrate — so your other activities may take less time since. And if 30 minutes can’t happen, 15 minutes is better than none.
8. Get Into a Hobby
Wondering what to do with your 30 minutes of “me” time? Look for an activity or hobby that gives you pleasure and that doesn’t add stress. “You want something that fills up your gas tank,” Losoff says. “Virtual classes can be fun, such as those for cooking. It’s different for every person, so look for things that you don’t have to put too much thought into, that you can have fun with, and that make you feel better after doing them.”
9. Spend 1:1 Time With Your Child Each Day
And make the most of these moments by letting your child take the lead and not asking too many questions or giving too many instructions. “Child-led activities improve the parent-child relationship, emotional regulation, and frustration tolerance,” Banneyer says. “Kids have so little control with what goes on in their day. They’re told when to wake up, when to eat, what to eat, and when to sleep. When kids are feeling they have no say, they try to find control somewhere – they’ll act out.” Child-led play, she adds, is the one time of the day when they take control. By giving them a little space and letting them call the shots, you’re giving them an appropriate place to have control, so they’ll be less resistant when they have less control. Incorporate this time into your daily routine — for example, 20 minutes of special time with you happens every day after dinner — so it can become a habit. “The more parents can get their kids’ behaviors under control,” Banneyer says, “the more the parents’ stress improves.”
10. Bring Back Date “Night”
Plan it. Don’t just “find time for it.” Plan it. And stick to that plan as often as possible. “Adults need adult time!” Banneyer says. “Stress is higher in isolation. Feeling like you have to take on the world by yourself is stressful.” To make the time, get creative. It can be 30 minutes after the kids’ bedtime together on the couch to watch an episode of TV, or walking the perimeter of the playground where your kid is playing. “It could be once a month when you know you’re going to go to bed late, but you’re going to stay up and have date night after the kids are in bed. Yes, you’ll sleep less that one night, but the benefit of the support outweighs that.”
You could also use your “adult time” to tell your partner that you love them and how much they mean to you.The words you say have an impact on your mood. “The act of saying ‘I love you’ ignites neurons in your brain and changes your facial expression, giving off a ‘look of love’ that is reflected and picked up on by the other person,” Leaf says. “Your tone, intonation, verbal and non-verbal cues — they all create a calming flow in the brain.”
11. Reach Out to Your Support Network, or Create a New One
There’s a lot of isolating going on right now. Do everything you can to maintain connections with people — especially those who support you. “We underestimate how being able to relate to people, emotionally connect, and hang out can be very nourishing to our mental health,” Maynigo says. “We handle difficult times better when we’re nourished by the people around us.” Find ways to hang out with your friends outside (socially distanced), via phone and video calls, and online meetups like game nights. “There’s research that shows that when we have a close attachment with another person, it causes our brains to experience and perceive stress and pain differently — our perception of threat and pain decreases when we’re in the presence of someone we have an emotional connection with.”
12. Give 8 Hugs a Day
Hear us out: We’re not recommending hugging specifically or only eight hugs, but rather to set a daily goal to connect with others in a measurable way. “Eight is to keep things in your conscious awareness,” explains Leaf. “We’re familiar with eight glasses of water a day. Focus on something consciously and specifically to train yourself to make it a habit.” You can still give as many hugs as you want, or you could make it to eight hugs or touches a day — like a pat on the arm or back, a light touch on hand. Or over Zoom, reaching out to screen or giving a high five. “These actions create reactions in the part of the brain linked to feelings of compassion and is connected to our reward system. Touch reduces stress. As a father, touching your child will reduce both your stress levels, creating a flow of good energy back and forth. There’s reciprocity and cooperation which are very calming.”
13. Take a Hot Bath or Shower
While a cold shower in the morning may jolt your system and improve your mood, a nice hot bath or shower can help you relax. “We need thermal regulation,” Leaf says. “Heat is very calming in terms of your brain chemicals, bringing balance and coherence to the two sides of the brain.” Even a cup of hot tea can help achieve the calming effect.
14. Give a Gift (or Two)
A gift can be of your time, an item, or a donation — whatever works for you. By reaching out to others, you’re helping yourself. “When you give a gift, something changes in you,” Leaf says. “There’s research that shows by reaching out, you increase your resilience and your ability to help yourself by 60 percent or more. When you’re in a bad place, reach out and help someone else. Ask, How are you doing today? Can I help you? It has a very positive effect that works very quickly. And it brings perspective and the positive feedback you get when they reply, ‘I needed that.’”
15. Sing Along to Music
Music positively affects your brain, and singing taps into spiritual and emotional parts of you. “Music pulls us into a deeper part of ourselves,” Leaf says. “When you listen to music, your brainwaves start slowing down and move into a happy pattern. The extra dimension of signing out loud stimulates your throat and encourages movement, which in turn creates balance and coherence for you brain and body. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, singing out loud can break the freeze reaction we get when we’re stressed.”
16. Create a Happiness Jar
Practicing gratitude is another essential way to maintain your peace of mind. It can help to make a list of things and people you’re thankful for, or to mentally go through three events from your day that you’re grateful for as you’re going to sleep. Take it a step further with a happiness jar. Write down what makes you happy — which should overlap with the things you’re grateful for — on small slips of paper and collect them in a box or jar. If you’re feeling down, pull out a note and read it aloud. “This will remind you that you are loved and that you are more than what is happening in the moment,” Leaf says.