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Session 229: 10 More Ways to Optimize Your Mental Health

The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.

In Session 37 of the podcast, I shared 10 ways to optimize your mental health to give you some ideas of some small things you could consider to begin taking better care of your mental health. As we find ourselves almost 2 years into a pandemic, it felt important to offer some additional strategies that you might find helpful during this time.


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Session 229: 10 More Ways to Optimize Your Mental Health

Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 229 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get right into the episode after a word from our sponsors.


Dr. Joy: In session 37 of the podcast, I shared 10 ways to optimize your mental health to give you some ideas of some small things you could consider to begin taking better care of your mental health. In case you missed it, here are the tips I shared.


Today I want to talk with you about 10 ways that you can optimize your mental health. The first tip is to get better sleep. Do you have anything that even remotely resembles a sleep routine? If not, then it's time to get serious about establishing one. Those late nights and early mornings may have felt sustainable in college, but as we get older, they definitely are not. When we don't get enough quality sleep, we can see drastic impairments in things like our mood, our ability to concentrate, and overall alertness. I want you to work on getting a routine together that will work for you, and in the show notes I will link you to a blog post that I've written previously about establishing a healthy sleep regimen.

Tip number two is to tighten up your circle. You know those friends that you've been hanging on to just because you've been friends since second grade? Or the ones who never seem happy for you but expect fireworks anytime they accomplish something? It may be time to reevaluate the role of these people in your life. Sometimes we get so caught up in just moving along that we don't really pay attention to whether a relationship continues to be healthy or beneficial to us. Pay attention to the dynamics of the people in your circle and make decisions based on things like reciprocity instead of history.

Third tip is to get a mental health checkup. We commonly go to our primary care doctor or OB-GYN for yearly exams, but what if we started doing the same thing with our mental health? You've heard me and other guests discuss this on the podcast but it bears repeating. You don't have to (and frankly should not) wait until a crisis to seek mental health treatment. Maybe you’ve realized that you're often giving more in relationships than others or maybe you've noticed that your reactions to situations don't quite match the intensity of the situation. These, and pretty much any other things that you would like some feedback about, are great ways to use therapy. I think many people would be surprised by how much you learn about yourself and how your life might feel more fulfilling with even just a few sessions of therapy.

Tip number four: examine your relationship with food, sex and substances. All of these things, of course, are incredible but sometimes our relationships to these things are not. You heard Lisa talk in Session 34 [not 33 as mentioned in the audio 0:05:09] about how our relationship to food is sometimes rooted in trauma. And next year, we'll also have episodes exploring our relationships to both sex and substances and how sometimes our decision-making in these areas comes from a place of lack, trauma, or dysfunction. I think it's important that we explore how we feel about food, sex, and substances, and determine if our relationship to them is healthy, or are we using these things to avoid dealing with something else?

Tip number five is to get physical and this is definitely at the top of my list–getting more daily physical activity. There are lots of research that indicates that a moderate level of physical activity every day significantly improves mood. It can help to manage symptoms of depression and anxiety, relieve stress, and help you feel more connected to and powerful in your body. To have the best chance of success at this, make sure you choose something that you think you will enjoy. If you've always loathed and hated running, joining your local black girls run club might be a hard thing for you to stick to, but you might really enjoy something like kickboxing classes or swimming. And since this is often one that is on so many people's lists for the new year, I wanted to dig a little deeper into what makes it so hard for us to stick with exercising, so I found an article from the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology that states:

Of all the questions that remain to be answered, perhaps the most perplexing is this: If exercise makes us feel so good, why is it so hard to do? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008, some 25 percent of the U.S. population reported zero leisure-time physical activity.

Starting out too hard in a new exercise program may be one of the reasons people disdain physical activity. When people exercise above their respiratory threshold—that is, above the point when it gets hard to talk—they postpone exercise's immediate mood boost by about 30 minutes. For novices, that delay could turn them off to a treadmill for good. Given that, the author recommends that workout neophytes start slowly, with a moderate exercise plan.

That speaks to the idea of both choosing something that you think that you will enjoy but also giving yourself time to ease into the routine. You don't want to act as if you are training for an Ironman competition when you're just starting out. Give yourself some time to get into the groove.

Tip number six: assess your social media patterns. How much time are you spending scrolling, liking and swiping? I know we've talked about this in previous episodes about the impact that social media has on our mental health, as too much time on here can lead to feeling as though you're not doing as well as other people. It can make you anxious and it can really do a number on your self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Much like we discussed in terms of exploring our relationship to food, sex and substances, I'd also encourage you to pay attention to when you are grabbing for your phone. Is it when you're feeling anxious? Is the fear of missing out kicking in? What else could you be doing with that time that might improve your mood or increase your productivity?

Tip number seven: look at your boundaries. Y'all know boundaries are like my favorite thing in the world! Where do you need to tighten yours up? Are you saying no to yourself way too often because you're too busy saying yes to other people? Make sure to go back and listen to Session 14 to remind yourself why boundaries are important and how you can set better ones. And if you haven't listened to this episode yet, I highly recommend that you do so.

Tip number eight: stop participating in celebration procrastination. Tell me if this sounds familiar. You get amazing feedback on the recent presentation you did at work, then you start worrying about your performance evaluation, only to get a glowing review. Then it's time for decisions to be made about annual raises and you're stressed out about that. Sis, when are you going to stop and celebrate all of your awesomeness? I think we often get so caught up in worrying about the next thing, or we're moving so fast in our lives, that we don't take enough time to really celebrate ourselves. That A on the Stats final was a big deal. Losing 10 pounds was a big deal. Publishing your first piece for your dream magazine, that was a big deal. Defending your thesis, that was a big deal. Slow it down and bask in your own glow, and invite others to celebrate you as well.

Tip number nine: stay in the moment. Let's work on staying more in the moment. Anxiety is given space to creep in when we focus too much on what was or what might be instead of what is. Challenge yourself to do what you can in this very moment, for it is indeed all we have. Pay attention to your breath. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice the sights you see in front of you. Engaging with your surroundings in this way is what we call grounding and it's what lets you know that everything is okay. Challenge yourself to be in this space as often as you can and especially when you feel like everything else is out of control, for this is something you can control.

And finally, tip number 10 for optimizing your mental health: get better at letting go. This is one that too many of us struggle with. Some things are meant to be with you for a lifetime and many other things will only be temporary. You have to learn when it's time to let go. Pay attention to when you're staying in spaces simply because it's what you've always done. Y'all have been dating for three years but you're not really happy and your needs aren't being met–you probably don't need another three to figure that it's probably time to walk. You are afraid to go after your dream job so you're sticking with the safe job while quietly beating yourself up about it. You've got to let that go. Many times, we hold on to things so tightly because it's comforting, it’s familiar, but I invite you to remember that you can't catch with coming to you with a closed hand. You've got to let that thing go.

One way that I am hoping to optimize my mental health is to choose a short phrase that I'm hoping to kind of be my leading mantra and the phrase that I have chosen is “Show up.” I am really challenging myself to be comfortable with discomfort, and really just showing up in all areas of my life. And so if you have chosen a word or a short phrase, I would love to hear it. Aand if you haven't, then I'd invite you to choose a word or a short phrase so that you can be more intentional about creating a space that looks like what you want it to look like. By your own rules, disregarding anybody else's ideas about what your life should look like. More tips right after the break.


Dr. Joy: As we find ourselves almost two years into a pandemic, it felt important to offer some additional strategies that you might find helpful during this time, so here are 10 more ways to optimize your mental health.

Number one: develop a practice of showing gratitude. Research has shown that practicing gratitude can help to lower stress, help you focus on the present, and may help you to sleep better. Taking some time on a regular basis to say what you're thankful for can also help to shift your perspective. One easy way of getting started with this is through keeping a daily gratitude journal. As I've told y'all before, journaling doesn't have to be fancy, you can just use the Notes app on your phone. But by all means, if you love cute notebooks like I do, grab one and spend some time in the morning before your day starts or in the evening to jot down a couple of things you're grateful for.

Number two: move as quickly as you can towards acceptance. In one of my most recent therapy sessions with my therapist, I came to the realization that my disbelief over the fact that we're still in a pandemic almost two years later can be immobilizing for me. The fact that I'm not facing the reality of the situation and accepting it for what it is means that I'm not taking action to shift and rebuild around this new reality.

I wonder if this might be something you've seen in your own life–you refuse to deal with a thing because you refuse to accept the fact that the thing exists. It doesn't make it go away; it just means that you might not be paying attention to ways that you can actually support yourself or get support around your new reality. Keep in mind, there are plenty of reasons why we sometimes don't want to or can't face the reality of a situation. Sometimes we're in shock or sometimes we're overwhelmed by other things and can't process the situation. All of this is protective but, when you can, moving toward accepting situations as they are can help to free up some bandwidth and help you explore options that you might not have seen before.

Number three: practice asking for and allowing others to help. Many of us pride ourselves on being the one that everyone else can come to for help, but sometimes have a hard time being the one to ask. I know asking for help can be hard, especially if we feel like we've reached out in the past and didn't get what we needed. But just because one person didn't step up, doesn't mean that no one will. It's important to allow the people in our circles to show up for us too and sometimes that means taking the step to ask for help. And before you get too far in your head thinking, “Well, they see I'm struggling, why don't they just offer?” I want to gently encourage you that, yes, it may be great for someone to anticipate what you may need, but the help is not any less valid or necessary just because you asked for it first.

Number four: disconnect your worth from your work. I recently had a good conversation with the good sister Keia from the Gettin’ Grown podcast about how we're often socialized as little black girls to over function. Get good grades. Work twice as hard. Always go after that next thing. And we often get praise and accolades for these things, which means they become closely tied to our identities. And while these things are great and nice to have, they are accessories. In the words of the great Toni Morrison, “You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.” We must be careful in having our identity tied to what makes us productive because that often means that we're less likely to take time for rest and play because these things seem less valuable, when in fact, they are incredibly valuable and necessary.

Number five: have some things that are just for you. At a very early age, we're taught the importance of sharing and I feel like that's great because sharing is an important social skill to have. But I feel like there's also a point at which we have to learn the skill of not sharing and having something that is just ours. Whether it's a hobby, a favorite author, a skill no one else knows about, or a favorite getaway. It's okay, and I think important, to have something that is just for you. More tips right after the break.


Dr. Joy: Number six: do small things to care for your future self. Especially right now when the weather is getting cooler and days of less sunlight are right around the corner, it's important to think about some things you can do to care for your future self. This might be making an extra serving of a favorite stew or soup this weekend so that you can freeze it and have it on days when you just don't feel like feeding yourself. Or it might mean prepping for the next week on Friday afternoon so that you don't have to do it on Sunday night. If you have the bandwidth, thinking ahead of small things you can do to give your future self a little bit of pleasure and delight can be an excellent practice in self-care and compassion.

Number seven: go outside. There is nothing like the warmth of the sun or the briskness of the wind to help remind you that you're a part of something way bigger. You often hear me talk about grounding practices to help connect with the present moment. And going outside to listen to the things you hear, the things you smell, and the things you observe, are an excellent and no-cost way to do this.

Number eight: find the mindfulness practice or practices that work best for you. One of the most profound things my therapist has shared with me is that when you can't control the chaos on the outside, what you can control is your internal experience. Mindfulness is an excellent way to do this. In Session 78 of the podcast, Shawna Murray-Browne shared excellent information about what mindfulness is and tips to get started with developing a mindfulness practice. Definitely check out that episode if you missed it.

Number nine: give yourself permission to reimagine. No matter the topic, whether it be having children, getting married, changing careers, a theme that seems to reemerge in many of the conversations I have with y'all is this idea that things must continue in a certain way because that's how they've always been, or because that's what others told you should happen. I want to gently encourage you to give yourself permission to rewrite, revise and rework as many things in your life as you can so that it looks like what you truly desire. You want a new career at age 50? Go for it, sis. Not interested in having a big family gathering for the holidays and you'd rather travel? Book the trip. Does the idea of having somebody live in your house (even though you love them dearly) make your skin crawl? Get neighboring apartments. Everything somebody told you about what your life needed to look like right now was a lie. Do what works for you.

And number 10: be still. Did anyone else's grandma consistently have to tell them “go sit down somewhere and be still?” No, just mine? Well, I heard it quite a lot. And while I may not have appreciated it then, I so appreciate this message now. Being still is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. It's an opportunity to be with our thoughts and feelings, a chance to clearly hear the desires of our hearts, a chance to practice listening to our intuition. We can only do these things if we're quiet and still. And this is a practice just like anything else. It may be harder to do this if you're typically a person on the go a lot or if sitting in silence makes you uncomfortable. Let's start with just five minutes and notice what comes up for you. Try not to judge it or make commentary about it; just allow it to come up and then maybe journal about it after the five minutes are up. As you continue to practice, it gets easier and you may find yourself eager for this part of your day.

I’d love to hear if there are other things you've been doing or practicing to attend to your mental health, especially during the pandemic. Please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession, and be sure to text two of your girls right now and encourage them to check out this episode as well. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, be sure to check out our therapist directory at

And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Thank y’all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

Looking for the UK Edition?
Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here