Need a pick-me-up? Try one — or several — of these evidence-back strategies to relieve stress and improve your mood.
It’s normal to have moments of feeling down or stressed. Sometimes the reason is obvious. (You’re running late. Foul weather ruined a planned outing.) Other times, the culprit is a mystery. Either way, what you want is to turn the day around — fast.
The good news is that there are many simple things you can do in the moment to boost your mood. Not only will you feel better, your overall health will reap the benefits, too.
Finding meaningful ways to brighten your outlook can be good for your physical health, says Scott Kaiser, M.D. He’s a geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“Mental and physical health are not separate. They affect each other in powerful ways,” he says. “For example, if you do things to lift your emotional health, it can have a ripple effect on your sleep, energy levels, and chronic pain. So, it’s worth making the effort to find simple ways to find joy every day.”
Try adding one or more of these evidence-backed strategies to your daily routine.
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Instant Mood Lifter #1: Get Moving with a Friend
Exercise is a well-known mood-booster. An abundance of research shows it is effective for treating depression, according to a 2021 review published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. Any kind of movement works, says Dr. Kaiser. And adding a social component can help even more.
That doesn’t mean you need to recruit a pal every time you exercise. But if you’re feeling down, calling a friend while taking a walk can be a powerful combo, he notes.
Instant Mood Lifter #2: Go Outside
Whether you’re in a city park, on a woodsy hiking trail, or on your own front stoop, there’s ample evidence that being in nature can improve your mental health. Spending time in nature can improve everything from cognitive function and memory to happiness and general well-being, reports the American Psychology Association (APA).
A study in Frontiers in Psychology found that even looking at green space can lower stress levels. How much time should you spend outdoors? One 2019 study found that about 2 hours a week is the sweet spot. And it doesn’t matter if that comes from one long hike or short daily strolls in your neighborhood.
Instant Mood Lifter #3: Drink a Glass of Water
Research suggests that mild dehydration can affect your mood, thinking skills and alertness, according to a 2019 review published in the journal Nature. Dehydration creates a higher concentration of sodium in the blood stream, explains Barbara Bergin, M.D. She’s a surgeon at Texas Orthopedics in Austin.
“This causes a shift in cellular water from our brain cells into the blood stream,” Dr. Bergin says. “So, our brain cells shrink and they don’t work as well.”
That may result in confusion, sluggishness, and poor concentration. Stay hydrated by sipping water throughout the day — don’t wait until you feel thirsty.
Instant Mood Lifter #4: Do Deep Breathing Exercises
Try this: Breathe in for a count of four. Hold your breath for four more counts. Then breathe out for a count of six. Do this five times.
If you’re feeling calmer, it’s not your imagination. A research review in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests breathwork like this can have a significant effect on your nervous system and psychological status.
Those researchers noted that slow breathing can increase feelings of relaxation while also making you more alert. This type of exercise is particularly potent when you’re feeling stressed, angry or anxious.
Press play to try a mindful breathing exercise with SilverSneakers LIVE instructor Shannon Thigpen:
Instant Mood Lifter #5: Reach for a Different Kind of Comfort Food
Many of us turn to food for a mood boost. But so-called “comfort foods” might be having the opposite effect in the long term, says Stephen Perrine, coauthor of The Whole Body Reset.
For example, some studies have found that eating more refined carbs and sugar is linked to depression and mood disorders, according to a 2020 analysis in BMJ. On the other hand, diets high in fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and fatty fish may improve your mood.
Not sure where to start? Perrine recommends filling up on magnesium-rich foods. Magnesium is a mineral that plays a key role in brain function and mood. Leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, almonds, peanut butter and legumes are good sources.
Instant Mood Lifter #6: Turn on Your Favorite Tunes
There’s a reason you tend to feel better when you listen to your favorite music: it changes the chemistry in your brain, according to research published in Frontiers in Psychology.
This sweeping review of studies found that listening to music:
- Increases oxytocin — the hormone linked to warm-and-fuzzy feelings that also has been shown to help lower stress and anxiety
- Decreases cortisol — aka the “stress hormone” because one of its jobs is to regulate the body’s stress response
- Lowers blood pressure — stress contributes to risk factors associated with high blood pressure, notes the American Heart Association
All of that leads to serious relief from stress and anxiety.
Instant Mood Lifter #7: Take a Bath
Do the clichés about soaking away stress really ring true? Absolutely!
In one small Japanese study, for example, participants were asked to take 10-minute baths every day for two weeks, followed by two weeks of daily showers. Along the way, their levels of stress, anxiety, fatigue, and feelings of “dejection-depression” were closely monitored.
The result? At the end of the study, bathing was determined to be more beneficial to participants’ state of mind. There were even noted physical benefits, too.
A nice, hot bath increases blood flow, supplying more oxygen to your organs — including your brain. That can help relieve fatigue, stress, and pain. Use your time in the tub to meditate or practice breathing exercises for even more mood-boosting power.
The bottom line: Keep in mind that these are all meant to be mood boosters when you’re feeling lackluster. If you’re experiencing frequent or chronic bouts of anxiety, depression, or other mental health struggles, Dr. Kaiser suggests talking to your doctor about what’s going on.
Mental health problems are treatable — the first step is starting the conversation with your doctor or other trusted health care professional.
See our sources:
Frontiers in Psychiatry. The Effects and Mechanisms of Exercise on the Treatment of Depression. Published November 5, 2021.
American Psychological Association. Nurtured by Nature. April 1, 2020.
Frontiers in Psychology. The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Published October 21, 2014.
Nutrients. Narrative Review of Hydration and Selected Health Outcomes in the General Population. Published January 1, 2019.
Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Published September 7, 2018.
BMJ. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? Published June 29, 2020.
NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Magnesium. Updated June 2, 2022.
Frontier in Psychology. How Do Music Activities Affect Health and Well-Being? A Scoping Review of Studies Examining Psychosocial Mechanisms. Published September 8, 2021.
Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. Physical and Mental Effects of Bathing: A Randomized Intervention Study. Published June 7, 2018.
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