4 Things I Did To Help My Mental Health Last Year (And How I’m Bringing Them Into the New Year)

A woman walking outside at dawn.

As much as we all might have hoped 2021 would be full of metaphorical sunshine and rainbows, for most of us (myself included), it was another challenging year for mental health. 

The lingering pandemic and its many effects on daily life, relationships, and, well, everything this past year made me realize that prioritizing my mental health wasn’t just a nice-to-have. It was a must. I knew if I didn’t take time for my emotional self-care, I very well could have ended up taking out my frustrations on my family (or, more embarrassingly, via a Twitter meltdown).

Fortunately, life experience has taught me that some simple habits can help me maintain a sense of inner calm. In 2021 I was able to build several of them into my regular routine.

Here are four mental health-boosting practices I plan to carry into 2022 and beyond.

Choosing wholesome entertainment

I’ll confess, I’m a sucker for the true crime genre. Since I have a personal history of trauma, for me, entertainment with a darker bent has been a means of catharsis and “finding my people”—aka fellow victims of crime. (I’ve even been featured on a true crime podcast and TV show!) 

But though true crime books, shows, and movies have been a tool in my healing journey in the past, during the pandemic, I found that anything dark or scary wasn’t giving me good vibes. Rather, these forms of entertainment seemed only to compound 2021’s burden on my mental health. I began to try focusing on more wholesome inputs.

Case in point: On a road trip when my husband and I got stuck in some heavy traffic, I decided an audiobook was in order. For a moment, I had my finger poised to download the lengthy narration of Stephen King’s “The Stand” (because, okay, I sometimes like horror, too)—but a little voice whispered that 60-plus hours of content about a weaponized flu pandemic might not be the best choice. 

Then another option came to mind: Catherine Marshall’s “Christy,” about a young missionary woman serving Appalachia in the early 20th century. It ended up being the best, most spiritually affirming book I listened to all year.

Listening to worship music

Much like choosing a peaceful missionary story over a slasher novel, my choice of musical input mattered to me in 2021, too. Filling my ears with the uplifting message of worship music never fails to reorient me to my Christian worldview. Being reminded of God’s providence, goodness, and care soothes my soul and even (I believe) calms my nervous system. 

In fact, when I came down with COVID-19 recently and was tempted to give into anxiety about all the what-ifs of my illness, I decided to make my house a mini temple of praise by listening almost exclusively to worship music. I can confidently say keeping my ears fixed on God as my healer did my body and mind a world of good. I’ve created a couple of Spotify worship playlists I’ll continue adding to in 2022.

Catching and redirecting obsessive thoughts

Obsess much? I sure do. These days, it’s all too easy to get hung up thinking obsessively about the bad in the world. But repeatedly rehashing negative thoughts steals my joy. Deep down, I know I don’t want to devote precious mental energy to unsolvable problems. For this reason, I’ve tried to catch myself when I get stuck in a thought loop and offer myself redirection.

My personal minefield for obsessive thinking is the shower. (Some people sing in the shower; I obsess over dumb things I’ve said and aggravating posts I’ve seen on social media.) Now that I’ve identified this daily activity as an obsession trigger, I’ve begun giving myself a predetermined “Shower Thought of the Day.” Perhaps it’s “God is in control” or “I am thankful for my health.” Or I think about how a friend once told me that every time he showered, he took it as a reminder of his baptism cleansing his soul—what a beautiful thought! 

Going for regular walks (and jogs)

I’m a recreational runner, but even at my most disciplined, I don’t run every day. On the days I skip lacing up, I find I crave time outdoors moving my body. Getting active in the sunshine – even for just 15 minutes or so—never fails to clear my head. (And since I live in Arizona, sunshine is almost always in abundant supply.) 

My husband and I both work from home, so we’ve made it a habit to synchronize our schedules for a near-daily walk. Even if it doesn’t happen during the workday, we try to make it a family affair with the kids after dinner or on the weekends. Our regular neighborhood walks have become one of my favorite tools for mental recalibration on stressful days. And with my family members to join me, I’ve got built-in accountability to keep a good thing going. 

As 2022 unfolds, I know I can’t predict the future of world events – but it helps to know I can make solid choices in my own little world. No matter how things play out this year, I believe these simple mental health strategies (and others like them) are a best bet for a sunnier outlook.

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