Baby Steps to Improve Your Mental Health

I am a creature of habit. I tend to form and fall into routine fairly quickly, as my brain is most comfortable with familiarity and repetition. I wake up, I go to the bathroom, I make tea, I turn on my computer. Every morning. For years. When I have to adapt and add something to that routine, it takes me a lot of conscious effort to make those adjustments because my brain hates when I deviate from the routine.

Adding something to one’s daily, weekly, or monthly routine can be painful and usually results in utter failure. Every day I tell myself I need to go for a walk more often, but my brain pushes back against me working in time to walk. The idea of spending a large chunk of time walking just for the sake of walking is confusing to my executive function. “Why would you just walk when you’re not really going anywhere?” it says.

The trick to forming a new habit for me is to take baby steps. I can’t fully incorporate walking around the neighborhood every night into my routine. I have to start small. I have to walk to the mailbox and back. Then work my way up to walking to the end of the street and back. Then I walk two streets up and back. And I have to do this at the same time every day. This way, my brain can start anticipating me walking at a certain time and I can mentally prepare to do so. Eventually, my brain will start telling me, “Hey, you should be walking right now. Put the controller down and go walk.”

The idea of baby steps seems logical, but when you’re depressed, logic goes out the window. I think this is why I took so long to learn how to use them. Change cannot happen at once. It is a slow process that requires patience and persistence. Depressed people have neither. We want something to change so we can feel better now. Once we start thinking about ways to improve our mental health, it always looks way to complicated and requires far more effort than we’re willing to give. That’s because most things are complicated and require lots of effort.

That’s where baby steps can be so beneficial. Breaking up the task into small, manageable parts that can be done with less effort and in the moment is key to igniting changes. Eventually, progress can be built upon those baby steps, as the last step will become less and less sufficient in making us feel better. We’ll always need to take the next little baby step.

Another thing about taking baby steps is that by accomplishing little pieces of a task over and over again will cement that task, and ultimately the change we’re desiring from it, into our routine. As each step becomes easier to take, the momentum to take the next step gets greater. Soon, your brain will just start incorporating the change into your comfort zone and you won’t feel stress or anxiety about it. Once you hit that stage, you did it. You won.

Change is hard and messy and usually comes with lots of stress. That stress can be lessened by minimizing the actions you take towards that change. Small, incremental changes will lead to big, life improving changes that can help you deal with your mental illnesses. It does take time and effort, which are things that are hard to come by when you’re suffering. But once the effort has been made to start, baby steps will help you stay on track and keep the anxiety to a minimum.