“Get better mental health.” It’s a goal that sounds relatively simple — it’s not like you’re trying to take over the world, right? Yet when it comes down to it, reaching that “better mental health” stage is easier said than done.
How do you intentionally improve your mental health? One step at a time and through the creation of healthy habits.
Habits describe regular routines or practices. These behaviors are done every day or often enough that they occur automatically and without thought. Small steps that improve your mood and overall well-being are excellent additions to your daily routine, and can be attained through a behavioral strategy called habit stacking. What is habit stacking? We’ve put together a guide to habit stacking for mental health so you can feel balanced, energized, and whole.
What is habit stacking?
Habit stacking is an effective way of building new healthy mental health habits by leveraging already-existing routines. Because your brain and body are so used to your current routine — which could include waking up, then getting dressed, then drinking a cup of coffee — using your current routine as a springboard for new habits can be an effective way to instigate change.
Any habit can be difficult to start, even those that aren’t mental health habits. Many people feel immense motivation to make a change at the beginning, however struggle to maintain that change after a few weeks
The concept of habit stacking was created by a behavior scientist named BJ Fogg. Fogg wrote and published the Tiny Habits Program, which bases itself on the brain’s natural functionality. The brain relies on neural connections — the stronger the neural connection, the easier it is for the brain to complete an action. As an example, when someone has 10 years of experience speaking a second language, the neural connections in their brain responsible for understanding and producing that language become so strong that they hardly have to think during a conversation. If your brain has strong neural connections for your daily routines, you can piggyback off of these connections with a new behavior. This is called habit stacking.
What are healthy habits?
Healthy habits are small routines that promote well-being. They can be habits that focus on your physical health or your emotional health — which are often connected.
Healthy habits not only help you feel comfortable in the moment, but they also set you up for sustained well-being. By taking care of yourself, you’re prioritizing your health, which pays off in the long run as it leads to stronger connections to others, a greater sense of meaning, and resilience in the face of challenges.
What habits improve mental health?
There are so many types of habits that, when implemented and maintained, improve mental health. A few examples of healthy habits include:
- Going to bed at 10pm each night so you can get eight hours of sleep, which leads to feeling rested in the morning
- Eating fruits and vegetables with each meal so you have enough energy to get through the day
- Spending 10 minutes meditating before you start work each day to hone your focus
- Taking a break after each meeting so your brain can refresh, leading to less risk of burnout
- Writing in your gratitude journal before you go to bed each night to cultivate a sense of meaning
Not everyone is going to benefit from the same habits. The habits that are right for you will depend on your lifestyle and your preferences. Do you prefer to sleep in? Then perhaps the morning isn’t the best time to schedule a workout. Do you enjoy socializing after work? Then you might not want to plan a 6pm solitary meditation. It might take some trial and error to find the behavior that’s most helpful for your well-being, but being thoughtful about what would actually help you means that you’re setting yourself up for success.
How to stack habits
Once you decide which behavior you want to turn into a habit, it’s time to start habit stacking. Here’s how habit stacking works:
- Figure out what your current habits are: Write out a list of the things that you do every day. These are the activities that you do on autopilot, without thinking. Similarly, you could also use cues that exist outside of your own routines such as the sunrise or receiving an email. You’re going to leverage these habits or cues to implement your new habits.
- Define what new habit you want to start: Identify what new habit would bring you closer to your well-being goals. You might have to workshop several habits to find the ones that feel attainable and meaningful for you.
- Pair your new habit to a current one: Match up your new habits to a relevant current habit or cue. Make sure that your pairs naturally fit together, as this will give you a greater chance of success. Each time that you complete your current habit, also complete your new habit.
The next step is to be consistent. Dedicate yourself to being intentional about your routines, so that even when you would rather go to bed instead of doing a mindfulness exercise, you’ll find the motivation. Being consistent will also help those habits stick so that they lead to lasting change.
Start with small changes
Small increments of healthy behaviors have the potential to help you lift your mood and improve your overall mental health into the future. Changing your life starts with small changes.
If you’re just starting with habit stacking, try to find an easy, bite-sized action to add to your routine. Perhaps you pick one habit to add in, rather than taking on several at the same time. Or you could pick what you think is the easiest habit to implement, which can give you the momentum you need to tackle larger habits next. This way, you don’t become overwhelmed by the amount of change in your life — or burn through your willpower reserve, leaving nothing left. Going too big, too fast can lead to frustration and abandonment of your mission to improve your mental health.
Examples of stacking habits for mental health
Ready to give it a try? Here are a few examples of how you can stack habits for mental health:
- After I drink my morning smoothie, I will text someone that I care about to let them know that I’m thinking about them.
- Before I turn off the light to go to sleep, I will reflect on three things that I was grateful for that day.
- When someone sends me a text, I will take a deep, mindful breath.
You can even extend your stacks to include multiple behaviors in a row. This could look like:
- When my alarm goes off, I will turn it off and take three deep breaths. After my deep breaths, I will get up and stretch. After stretching, I will write out my top three priorities for the day in the journal that I left beside my alarm clock.
- When I leave the office, I will listen to my favorite song to get me in the mood for my evening. After the song ends, I will do a body scan to see where I’m holding my stress. After I’ve identified tension in my body, I will do a self-visualization.
Each piece of the process is a cue for the next piece. This is why it’s called “stacking” — and your stacks can get as big as you would like!
Consider support from a therapist
Working with a therapist is a great way to maintain your motivation to make healthy changes. Building new habits is hard, even when you feel motivated. Some days, you’ll feel the fireworks of progress. Other days, you’ll feel like the last thing you want to do is complete your routine.
Therapists can give you the support you need to stay consistent in your daily routines, and to find the habits that will be the most effective in boosting your mental health. Therapy is a space to talk openly about how you’re feeling, and can help you benchmark your progress. Your therapist will be your cheerleader. They’ll also give you an outside perspective and ideas to reflect upon as you continue to improve your mental health.
To find a great therapist who is right for you, check out Zencare’s therapist directory. You can watch introductory videos to get a sense of the therapist’s style, or you can learn about what types of therapy they specialize in. By working with a therapist, you can be intentional about making lasting change.