best mental health exercises like meditation

Today I’ve been interviewing all sorts of mental health experts to find out the very best mental health exercises like meditation that are good for your brain.

In the list below you’ll find mental health exercises like meditation, journaling, cognitive behavioural therapy, sound baths and much more. Try each exercise to find the best ones for you. Note that I have not included physical exercise in this list simply because it is already well known that exercise is good for mental health.

Best Mental Health Exercises Similar To Meditation

1: A Twist On Mindfulness

Jay Shifman, the man behind the Choose Your Struggle Podcast, recommends a twist on mindfulness.

“I’m a strong believer in Mindfulness,” says J, “but I’ve never received the benefits of meditation that I’ve heard others rave about. More, when I finished meditating, I often found myself still just as tense as before. Fortunately for me, a therapist taught me another mindfulness technique, the Daily Check In, which I’ve taught to countless clients since.

“The idea is simple,” says J. “Our brains process thousands of thoughts, ideas, and emotions every day. Some we register in our conscious brain. Others never make it out of the subconscious. Further, some merely pass through our brains and are gone, easily forgotten. Others lodge, either in our consciousness or in our subconscious, and these are the thoughts, ideas, and emotions we work with every day.

“If left unchecked, those thoughts that lodge in our subconscious can create a problem. Imagine a balloon filling throughout the day with hot air. If left unchecked, what happens? It pops. For us, that ‘pop’ is an emotional release. Something we aren’t in control of and probably will regret.

“To prevent this, checking in with yourself daily can help release some of that air in a healthy way. And it’s pretty simple. Open a notebook or a note on your phone and write “I feel…” then complete the sentence. At first these will be surface level, such as ‘I feel angry’ or the like. But if you push through the awkwardness and reluctance, and remind yourself that no one will ever read this, you’ll eventually get down into your subconscious. What comes up may surprise you or worry you. But you can’t deal with what’s down there if you don’t know it’s there.

2: Attentive Listening

Michael Joly, one of the creators of the Sol Sound Therapy System [Amazon] says that one of the best mental health exercises like meditation is attentive listening.

“[Attentive Listening] means really listening to the sounds around you in a non-judgmental way. This is a wonderful mind-stilling exercise because…

“When one is deeply listening, one cannot be thinking. It’s impossible. Try it for yourself right now. Take a good cleansing inhale / exhale breath, then bring your focus to some sound in the space wherever you are at this moment. Just listen. Do not analyze. Do not like or dislike the sound. Simply bring your intention (this is super important) to be attentive to this sound.

“If thoughts enter, that’s OK. It simply means your intention and attention has slipped. Let the thoughts pass, resume your intentional, attentive listening and feel the peace.

“This exercise stills the mind and allows one to feel one’s essence-identify. It produces a gentle loving glow.

3: Digital Detox

Dr. Tricia Wolanin Psy.D. [.   Clinical Psychologist, Author, Speaker   RAF Mildenhall United Kingdom]    recommends getting away from the digital life.

“Do not look at your phone first thing in the morning,” says Tricia. “You will look at it the rest of the day. Instead, choose to start your day with intention.  I generally choose to have a one or two word intention for how I want the day to go. If I’m facilitating a retreat, it may be presence and wisdom. Or if I’m travelling it may be “centered.” See what works for you.  Louise Hay once said, “how you start your day is how you live your day, how you live your day is how you live your life.” Be intentional with it.

“Take a weekly digital sabbatical. I have been implementing this in my life for over the past year. It’s work wonders.  See how not googling away your worries can be freeing and fulfilling. Initially, there may be some anxiety from not being able to check things out FOMO [fear or missing out], but to know you don’t have to respond and you don’t have to look things up, it sets paramaters and allows you to be free for a day.

“Take a walk in nature without your phone.  Practice mindfulness as you observe what’s around you in your environment. Take in the color of the sky, the smells, sounds, strangers on the street. Note the unexpected beauty around you.”

4: Disconnect

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a Clinical Psychologist, recommends disconnecting.

“Disconnect. In a world where we are constantly processing information, listening to music, staring at screens, and receiving notification on our phones, one of the most effective ways we can practice self-care is to carve out time to be alone with ourselves. Not in the service of ruminating about that problem at work, or that conversation you had with your sister. But instead giving ourselves time to be present in the moment without any obligation.

“Practice mindfulness meditation. Ultimately, meditation helps to improve an individual’s ability to detach from negative thoughts, images, and sensations. We tend to react to thoughts as if they are facts. We get entwined in the events in our minds and struggle to discern the difference between a fact in the external world and thoughts in our minds. Mindfulness can improve an individual’s skills to recognize the difference between facts and thoughts about facts. Ease yourself into mindfulness. Start with a 3-minute video on YouTube, the HeadSpace app, or a mindfulness track on Spotify. Not into guided meditation? You can also practice mindfulness through experience. Enjoy an experience with consideration of the sensory elements (what you hear, see, feel, smell, and taste). This can be done in the shower, with food, or during exercise.

“Reflect on your actions, thoughts, and emotions. Don’t live on autopilot. Consider your reactions. Are you proud of your actions from this day? How could you do better? An excellent way to do this is through writing. Writing helps to externalize and organize your thoughts. And in turn, you can begin the process of cognitive diffusion, which is when we make the distinction that we are not our transitory thoughts or emotions. Start small. Keep a notepad by your nightstand and do this for 10 minutes before bed. Keep a running note in your phone for a situation you want to try to see more clearly or further examine.”

5: Use Your Creative Brain

Corry from Creating Healing With Corry, says one of the best mental health exercises at home is to use the creative mind.

Most people are operating from their Thinking Mind (centred in the head) far too much with very little awareness of their Feeling Mind (centred in the heart),” says Corry.

“The new science coming from HeartMath.org reveals that the heart’s magnetic field is 100 times stronger than the brain. That is a lot of power to access. Creating art naturally shifts the focus from the head to heart and into flow state, much like in meditation. The art serves as a container in a way for the stress allowing for a person’s heart rate to slow down as their mind state deepens to lower their stress levels.

Below are two effective art exercises to try. All that is required is some paper, crayons and your imagination with the emphasis on the process, not the product.

Exercise 1 – Stress Ball Shift

  1. Sitting at a desk or table in a quiet room spread your crayons out around a piece of paper.
  2. With your eyes closed 4 seconds inhalation, hold, and 6 seconds exhalation.
  3. Imagine all the stressful thoughts in your head forming a ball. See it roll down your arm and into your drawing hand.
  4. Pick up a crayon that feels ‘just right’ to express this stress ball and flow it from your crayon onto the paper. Let your hand do what it wants to – spiraling, zig-zagging, or scribbling. If you want a new color or feel you need another paper to ‘hold’ everything do so.
  5. Continue until you feel you have completely shifted your stress out. Fold, tear or throw the paper away and feel your stress completely shift.

Exercise 2 – Map Your Breath

  1. With one hand holding a color and with the other hand on your paper close your eyes.
  2. As you inhale draw a line from the top of your paper downward. As you exhale shift the same line upward to ‘map’ your breath. Repeat 5 times then open your eyes. Take note if your breath (and the lines on your ‘map’) seems short and shallow or long and deep.
  3. Turn your paper over with the intention to lengthen the lines on your ‘map’ while deepening your inhalation and exhalation.
  4. Repeat 10 times then open your eyes and notice how you feel now after deepening your breath. If you so desire, continue for as long as you like.

6: Journal

Gina from WellnessWithGina says that one of the best mental health exercises like meditation is a gratitude journal.

“Start a gratitude journal,” says Gina. “We all have automatic negative thoughts to deal with but the more time we spend focusing in on the positive aspects of our lives the more those positive thoughts become well established habits.

“Start by writing down three things every day you appreciate.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, just get it on paper in your own handwriting.  This practice is best done as part of your morning ritual.  Set a positive intention for the rest of your day and watch your mood begin to shift.

7: CBT and Meditation

Sharon Grossman from CoachingBySharon is a CBT trained psychologist specializing in stress, anxiety, and burnout, recommends CBT and meditation.

“[Meditation] helps calm down the amygdala, the emotion center of our brain [and] helps us have more self-awareness, which is crucial for managing our thoughts and feelings.

“So in order to get added benefits from this brain gym practice, I recommend journaling. As you meditate, you might have deep insights into the core issues that lead you to feel afraid. Instead of having the same automatic thoughts on a loop, you can find new perspectives to your situation. When you arrive at these, it’s great to write them down so you can retain them.

“In addition, it is helpful to practice a mantra. You can do this as part of your meditation or separately. Depending on which limiting belief is holding you back, you can reverse it so that it is serving you and silently repeat it to yourself over and over again for a minute or so. For instance, if you believe that you are inadequate, you might say to yourself, “I am enough.” By practicing this on a loop, you create new neural pathways that help you believe more in yourself.

“Lastly, I recommend setting an intention. After meditation, especially if you are using it as part of your morning routine, it’s nice to think about the day ahead and intend to let the benefits derived from your meditation practice seep into your day. You might say something like, “Today I will pause before responding to others” if you tend to be reactive.”

8: Sound Bath

Selma Studer is a certified sound practitioner (resigested with the Complementary Medical Association) and founder of GONG, a sound meditation studio in Central London.  She recommends a sound bath.

“Sound baths are a very effective mental health exercise to complement classic meditation practices,” says Selma.

“Sound helps to entrain the mind to lower brainwave states. It’s especially helpful for working through difficult emotions and releasing stress because of the calming effect and because it’s a chance to sit with yourself for an extended time while still being stimulated. People who struggle to meditate in silence find sound baths really helpful to focus and calm an active mind.

9: Gratitude

Vanessa De Jesus [Board of Education and creator of FreeToBeMindful] recommends a daily doze of gratitude.

“There have been many studies which show a link to positive thinking and mental health, which is directly connected to physical health,” says Vanessa. “Thinking of 5-10 things you’re thankful for each and every day primes the brain to look for the positive, instead of getting stuck on the negative, especially during times of stress and overwhelm.. Showing appreciation for the not-so-great events and experiences can help us appreciate our experiences and helps us create space for positivity to enter our lives.

“One can take 5-20 minutes of the day and meditate in silence to reflect on gratitude. However, there are other ways one can engage in mindfulness while keeping a focus on gratitude, and have the same benefits as engaging in meditation. At the start or end of the day, taking 5-10 minutes to think about all of the things one is thankful for can make a big impact on mindset, resilience and even on the quality of relationships we hold with others. Reflecting on gratitude can be a practice in it of itself. Journaling with pen and paper, or using apps like Grateful can also bring the same benefits.

10: Focus on wins

Dr. Ericka Goodwin, one of the nation’s top board-certified Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrists, recommends focusing on your victories.

“One of the best mental health exercise is to list at least one win everyday,” says Dr. Goodwin. “This helps you focus on wins, which increases positive energy and confidence. This also helps shift the focus from failures or what you didn’t do in the day.

“Often we spend much more time on what we did wrong or didn’t do and totally ignore anything we accomplished or actually did right. It’s easy to use it as a journal entry or to keep a note on your phone. This is also an excellent strategy to do 1-2 sentence journaling, which is a great way to make journaling manageable.”

11: Focus on the positive

Brittany Sherwood, a Psychiatric/Mental-Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP), suggests focusing on the positive.

“An easy way to increase positivity is to practice gratitude and positive thinking. This helps to exercise or reinforce the “positive pathways” in your brain. This is a great way to start with something smaller.

Write down your answers to these 2 questions (start with a goal of 1 or 2 days a week and work up to daily):

-1 good thing that happened today

-1 thing you’re looking forward to tomorrow.

What you write down is can include anything such as a good movie, food, weather, etc. I find this exercise so beneficial that I use it with most of my patients.”

12: Affirmations

Licensed Therapist and Holistic Wellness Expert LeNaya S Crawford (The Holistic MFT) recommends affitmations.

“Affirmations are a great and simple mental health exercise anyone can do at home. Think about the things you want to cultivate for your mental health, calm, happiness, joy, confidence, etc and create your affirmation by placing I AM in front of that very thing. For example: I AM calm, I AM happy, I AM healthy. Once you have created these it is important to speak them aloud and write them down. A mantra is any word, phrase, or sound that helps to keep your mind focused. Comparable to affirmations, mantras help shift our thoughts that shape our reality.

Affirmations are like a workout for your mind and perspective, similar to how we do repetitive exercises to improve our physical health, affirmations help improve mental and emotional health. Affirmations help reprogram our thinking patterns so that, over time, we begin to think – and act – differently.

Affirmations can calm you down, boost your confidence, and improve your chances of a desirable outcome. Similar to affirmations, mantras can also help with stress, anxiety and low self esteem.”

A few of my favorite affirmations are.

1. I LOVE MYSELF

2 .I CAN DO ANYTHING I PUT MY MIND TO

3. I AM GETTING BETTER EVERYDAY

4. I AM IMPORTANT

5. I AM SUCCESSFUL IN EVERYTHING I DO

6. I RELEASE ANYTHING THAT DOES NOT SERVE ME

7. I AM ENOUGH

13: Awareness

Jacent Wamala [Licensed Therapist from Las Vegas] recommends pure awareness.

“The best mental health exercise you can do at home is to practice awareness. We are hearing a lot about mindfulness and meditation right now and awareness is the core of that. Awareness gives us feedback on our current state and the ability to decide what we want to do. It can elevate your mood and make challenges more manageable. Practice awareness first in your body. I call it getting out of your head and into your body. What are you feeling and where are you using your senses to support your practice. Do this for 1 minute and extend the length of time as you progress.”

14: Deep Breathing

Dr. Patricia Celan, a postgraduate psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada, recommends deep breathing.

“Deep breathing exercises are beneficial for mental health, especially if integrated into your daily life even when you’re not in a moment of crisis. \

“One of the main reasons why yoga is so beneficial for mental health is because of the breathing techniques inherent in a proper yoga practice, which can relieve stress, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of poor mental health. Regular yoga can therefore be beneficial as a mental health exercise. Even without yoga, you can incorporate deep breathing exercises in your life, such as box breathing. That means take a break for a few minutes at least once a day to focus on your breathing to the exclusion of any other distractions, then take a deep breath for 4 seconds, pause for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, pause for 4 seconds, and restart.

“Doing breathing exercises can ease your stress, but can even benefit your mental health if you do them when you’re generally feeling well. When you make the habit of becoming more aware of your breathing, you may notice that your breathing pauses or becomes shallow when you are anxious or stressed, while many people don’t notice that tendency. Awareness will allow you to realize it is time to do a deep breathing exercise to calm your mind.”

Conclusion

Above we’ve looked at the best mental health exercises like meditation, with our special guests.

Through my interviews I heard a great deal of talk about gratitude and journaling, which is why I’m personally going to commit to doing a gratitude journal every day!

Which of the ideas above is your favourite?

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About Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.

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