Practicing little bits of self-care every day can have a big impact on mental health, notes Janis Whitlock of Cornell University. She’s a developmental psychologist, based in Colorado, who studies mental health in teens and young adults. And she’s shown her patients how to create a personal “mental-health menu.” The idea is that Gen Z’ers can draw from things on the menu every day — or at least when things get stressful.
“It’s actually kind of fun to make the menu,” says Whitlock. She asks kids to come up with 10 things — small things — that might give them a little lift.
“One of the sweet and hard things about adolescence is that you like things to be big,” she says. “This is about finding the things that make a little change, help you find a little bit more spaciousness, a deeper exhale.”
When you feel anxious or upset, instead of scrolling through social media — which might make you feel worse — you can pick something off the list to try.
It’s important to fill the list with things that don’t feel like chores. “The goal here is self-compassion and care,” Whitlock says. “You don’t want to be mean and give yourself rules. You don’t say ‘I’m going to journal every day at x time, or exercise at y time.’ Do it,” she says, “as an act of kindness.”
And try to do at least one thing from the list every day. Make it a part of your routine.
No two people will necessarily benefit from the same menu, she notes. So to get you started, we’ve put together some ideas suggested by experts — and scientific research.
1. Get a little exercise. Go for a walk, or a run. Do some jumping jacks. Shoot some hoops. Play with your dog. Dance alone in your room. It doesn’t matter what it is, getting up and moving can be a great way to “reset” your brain.
Research shows that daily exercise can improve mood, prevent depression and help deal with anxiety and anger. It can even change the structure of your brain and boost memory. Getting just 15 minutes of exercise is good for your whole body. It can stop you from developing high blood pressure and extend your life.
2. Make art. You can go free-form, or even use an adult coloring book. Maybe you’ll want to fill in mandalas. If you start to feel agitated or stressed, making art can be a soothing way to occupy your hands and mind.
“Keep some paper and art supplies beside you,” says Whitlock. Later, when you start to feel bad or like you’re in decline, “grab a pen and paper,” or maybe paints or charcoal. Use these media instead of reaching for your phone to try and soothe your mood with social media (which all too often backfires).
3. Make a playlist of 10 songs that make you happy and listen to it. This is one of Whitlock’s faves. “Pick songs that soothe you or uplift you authentically,” she says. Just finding the songs and noticing how you react to them “can be very powerful. That’s part of cultivating self-awareness.”
Listening to music lights up different parts of your brain. Research shows that listening to music can even improve your mood. There are music therapists who help clients improve their well-being through listening to or perhaps making music.
4. Connect with nature. Audrey Wang is a high school senior and a youth mental-health advocate. Spending time in nature is a part of her self-care practice. “I love going on walks, or even just watering my plants and watching them grow. Connecting with Mother Nature is really something that I enjoy.”
A review of research on young people has found that spending time outside can reduce stress, make you more resilient, improve quality of life and even help with ADHD symptoms. In other words: Go touch some grass.
5. Practice journaling. Many people include journaling in their self-care routine. “I really enjoy journaling and reflecting on all of my thoughts,” says Audrey, “I think one of the really cool things is looking back at journal entries I wrote maybe three or four years ago. The things that used to pain me in the moment are all so small, so distant. I’m so much stronger and better than the Audrey I was three or four years ago.”
6. Make a sensory self-care toolkit. Munya Hayek is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. She has some clients take a small box and fill it with things that trigger good memories. You might also “put in some essential oils that you like to smell. And maybe something that you like to feel and touch. Or maybe a memory you like to look at.” Later, when you’re feeling bad or anxious, open the box. Sift through what you had stored away. This, she says, can be “a sensory toolbox of self-care.”
7. Go old school and pick up a book. In this digital age, books you hold in your hands may feel like relics from the past. But the stories, ideas and facts they offer won’t hit you at the breakneck speed typical of digital media. You can slow down, take breaks when you need — and tune out the stressful news and challenges of social media. The imagination that books foster as you picture people and places in far-flung places and times also stimulates the brain, encouraging the development of new neural pathways.
Like meditating, reading a book can also give your body a quiet way to decompress and find balance, notes Kathleen Adler with the Morris School District in New Jersey. In a review she authored in 2021, she cited one study that reported reading for just a few minutes can reduce someone’s stress levels by 68 percent. Adler quotes the study’s author as saying: “This occurs because ‘the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction eases the tension in muscles and the heart.’”
Many people even come to view favorite books as “friends” that can be counted on to regale you with enjoyable tales or laughs.
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