Self-help for mental health disorders

Naomi Carr
Author: Naomi Carr Medical Reviewer: Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD Last updated:

Mental health conditions can significantly impact daily functioning, mood, behaviors, and general well-being. Often, treatment for mental illness includes professional intervention, such as therapy and medication. However, many self-help techniques and strategies can be utilized to aid in the management and improvement of mental health symptoms.

What is mental health self-care?

Mental health self-care involves taking steps to look after and improve your own mental well-being. Professional treatment for mental health often involves medication and therapy. However, there are several techniques that an individual can use to help improve their mental health that don’t require professional intervention.

This can include learning tools to help you cope with emotional distress, increase self-awareness, or implement healthy routines. Many of these techniques benefit both physical and mental health, as one often impacts the other. As such, physical health self-care is also a part of mental health self-care [1][2].

Why is self-care important?

Self-care is essential as it can help to improve and maintain general health. Looking after your physical and mental well-being can have many positive effects. This includes [2][3][4][5]:

  • Reduced risk of severe physical illness
  • Improved mental health
  • Improved work-life balance
  • Improved quality of life
  • Improved recovery time from illnesses
  • Improved functioning
  • Increased concentration
  • Increased energy levels

People who experience mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may find that self-care helps to improve their symptoms. As such, it can be an important part of treatment, whether used alone or alongside professional interventions [2][6].

Self-help techniques

Numerous techniques can be used as self-care to improve mental health, such as:

Learning about your condition

Many people find it helpful to learn more about their mental health condition. This can increase your understanding and acceptance of the symptoms you are experiencing and help you to explain your condition to your loved ones. Also, it can help you find useful self-help techniques, understand how different treatments work, and learn how to manage your condition.

Similarly, it can be helpful to learn how your condition affects you so that you can spot triggers and warning signs and use strategies to intervene. You could keep a diary of your mood changes and triggers or keep a list of techniques that you find helpful [1][7].


There are many different types of relaxation exercises. Typically, these exercises help the individual to focus on their breathing or sensations within the body to help them feel calmer and more aware of the present moment. This could include spending time with a pet, taking a bath, or listening to music [1].

Breathing exercises

Another of these relaxation techniques is breathing exercises. Research shows that breathing exercises can be very effective for many conditions, especially anxiety disorders. This involves taking deep, slow breaths in and out. Some people find it helpful to count while breathing, for example:

  • Breathe in for a count of 5
  • Hold for a count of 3
  • Release the breath for a count of 7

You can alter the timing of each step to suit your needs and comfort.

Breathing exercises can help to reduce physical symptoms such as a racing heart, increased pulse, and shaking, and reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear [7][8].


Mindfulness refers to the practice of becoming more aware of the present moment and what is happening internally and externally. By becoming more aware and focused on the present moment, it is possible to reduce negative emotions and thoughts associated with the past or future [1].

Similarly, mindfulness can help with recognizing any changes in mental or physical well-being, the impact this is having, and what needs to be done to improve this.

Mindfulness can be practiced in many ways. For example, using the five senses can help to bring awareness to the present. This can be in a single moment or as you go through your day, reminding yourself to notice smells, tastes, sounds, sensations, and images you encounter [8].

Similarly, meditation and yoga can be used as mindfulness techniques. These practices also help to focus on the present by being aware of breath and movement within the body, diverting the mind from thoughts and worries [9].


Engaging in regular exercise can be very beneficial for mental health while also improving fitness. This could be solo or group activities and anything from gentle to rigorous exercise, for example, going for a walk, playing tennis, swimming, running, or playing soccer.

Finding an activity you enjoy is important so you don’t become disinterested and disheartened. You can also partake in several different types of exercise. Try to engage in around 30 minutes of exercise per day if you can. This can improve your mood and self-esteem and may also provide social opportunities [2][6].

Another benefit of exercise is the possibility of spending time outside. Exposure to natural sunlight and fresh air can improve your mental health while allowing you to experience and appreciate nature [1].

Social activities

Many people with mental health conditions become socially withdrawn and isolated. This can worsen symptoms such as depression and anxiety and negatively impact self-esteem [1][10].

It is important to form and maintain a support system with friends and family who can be there to help you with emotional or practical difficulties. Talking to others about your experiences and concerns is also often beneficial, as this can reduce emotional distress and help you feel supported [2].

Additionally, spending time with loved ones and engaging in enjoyable activities can help to lift your mood and improve your self-esteem, self-worth, and sense of belonging [6].


Similarly, it is important to have hobbies and activities that you enjoy. This can provide a sense of purpose, a way to unwind and relax, and something to look forward to outside of work or other responsibilities.

Hobbies could be social activities or something you do alone, for example, playing games or sports with friends, or spending time reading, painting, or learning new skills independently [6][10].

Acceptance and reframing

Learning how to accept your condition can be a positive step toward managing symptoms. Rather than trying to fight against the condition, it can be helpful to accept that these symptoms will occur, acknowledge them, and manage them with positive strategies.

This can involve cognitive reframing, recognizing and challenging harmful thoughts. By noticing negative thoughts when they arise, you can question their validity and try to reframe these thoughts using logic and understanding to find a more positive outlook. This may take time to perfect, but it can be a very useful tool in managing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors [2][8].


Eating a healthy and nutritious diet can positively impact both mental and physical health. Similarly, studies have shown that certain foods negatively affect brain functioning and mental health [2].

For example, diets high in fish, fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods result in a significantly reduced risk of depression and anxiety, improved physical health, and increased energy levels. In contrast, diets high in processed food, fat, and refined sugars are found to impair brain functioning and physical health and increase the chance of mood disorders such as depression [5][7].

This doesn’t mean you must entirely cut out these foods and never treat yourself. However, to see the positive effects on your mental health, most of your diet should include unprocessed foods high in vitamins and minerals [5].

Sleep hygiene

Sleep is vital for good mental and physical health, and a lack of good quality sleep can have hugely detrimental effects on your well-being. Unfortunately, mental illness often affects sleep quality and quantity, but a sleep schedule can help improve this [2][11].

Good sleep hygiene includes [11]:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • Exercising during the day
  • Avoiding caffeine before bed
  • Avoiding screens before bed
  • Relaxing before bed, such as reading or having a bath
  • Sleeping in a dark and quiet room

Avoiding substances

While it can be common for people with mental illness to turn to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism, these substances are often very harmful to mental health and can worsen symptoms. Furthermore, substances can worsen sleep, decrease the effects of medication, and increase the risk of accidental injury.

As such, it is advisable to avoid or reduce the consumption of alcohol and drugs. If you need help with this, many services and organizations can provide support with quitting, and your doctor may be able to advise you or make a referral [1][10].

Can self-help prevent mental health conditions?

Mental health conditions often emerge due to a complex combination of biological, genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. As such, it may not always be possible to prevent the development of some conditions.

However, by utilizing self-help techniques, it can be possible to reduce the severity of symptoms, prevent a relapse, and help manage long-term conditions. These techniques can also reduce stress which may help to prevent severe physical and mental illnesses [1][2][3].

Furthermore, self-care can increase independence and self-reliance. It can help individuals recognize signs of worsening mental and physical well-being and implement strategies to improve their own health. As such, these techniques can also help to prevent the need for professional intervention, such as medications [1][4].

When to seek professional help

You should seek help if you are experiencing symptoms that become more severe or have an increasing impact on your level of functioning. Similarly, if you have tried several self-help techniques and they do not help to reduce or alleviate your symptoms, you may require professional intervention [2].

Most mental health conditions are treated with a combination of medications and therapy. There are many different types of mental health medications. Your doctor can discuss these options with you, depending on your condition and the severity of your symptoms.

Medications can take several weeks to have an effect, so taking them exactly as prescribed is vital. If you experience worrying or persistent side effects, you should consult with your doctor, and they can alter your dosage or medication.

Furthermore, you can engage in psychotherapy, or talk therapy. Many types of therapy are available, which can help you to manage emotional distress, change harmful thoughts and behaviors, improve interpersonal relationships, and learn coping strategies. Again, your doctor can discuss these options with you and make an appropriate referral to a specialist if required [12].

  1. Mind. (2017). Mental Health Problems – Self-Care. Mind. Retrieved from
  2. National Institute of Mental Health. (Reviewed 2022). Caring For Your Mental Health. NIMH. Retrieved from
  3. Mills, J., Wand, T., & Fraser, J.A. (2018). Exploring the Meaning and Practice of Self-Care Among Palliative Care Nurses and Doctors: A Qualitative Study. BMC Palliative Care, 17(1), 63. Retrieved from
  4. Martínez, N., Connelly, C.D., Pérez, A., & Calero, P. (2021). Self-Care: A Concept Analysis. International Journal of Nursing Sciences, 8(4), 418–425. Retrieved from
  5. Selhub, E. (2022). Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food. Harvard Health. Retrieved from
  6. National Health Service. (Reviewed 2022). 5 Steps to Mental Wellbeing. NHS. Retrieved from
  7. Mental Health Foundation. (2023). How to Manage Anxiety and Fear.Mental Health Foundation. Retrieved from
  8. Pombo, E. (2019). Self-Help Techniques for Coping with Mental Illness. NAMI. Retrieved from
  9. National Health Service. (Reviewed 2022). Mindfulness. NHS. Retrieved from
  10. University of Michigan. (2023). Ten Things You Can Do For Your Mental Health. University Health Service. Retrieved from
  11. Suni, E., & Dimitriu, A. (Updated 2023). Mental Health and Sleep. Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from
  12. Mental Health America. (2023). Mental Health Treatments. MHA. Retrieved from
Medical Content

Our Medical Affairs Team is a dedicated group of medical professionals with diverse and extensive clinical experience who actively contribute to the development of our content, products, and services. They meticulously evaluate and review all medical content before publication to ensure it is medically accurate and aligned with current discussions and research developments in mental health. For more information, visit our Editorial Policy.

About is a health technology company guiding people towards self-understanding and connection. The platform offers reliable resources, accessible services, and nurturing communities. Its mission involves educating, supporting, and empowering people in their pursuit of well-being.

Naomi Carr
Author Naomi Carr Writer

Naomi Carr is a writer with a background in English Literature from Oxford Brookes University.

Published: Jul 27th 2023, Last edited: Feb 21st 2024

Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD
Medical Reviewer Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD LSW, MSW

Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD is a medical reviewer, licensed social worker, and behavioral health consultant, holding a PhD in clinical psychology.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Jul 27th 2023