Rachel Goldman
The Breakout Issue

Filling Your Mental Health Toolbox With Dr. Rachel Goldman

Table of Contents

Many people think of self-care as a luxury. Maybe it’s a bubble bath, a massage, or sitting in silence and meditating for an hour. Maybe it’s even a day at the spa or a yoga retreat in the mountains. It sounds time-consuming, complicated, and expensive, doesn’t it?

Thankfully, there is much more—or much less—to self-care than the stereotypical idea of getting pampered. In fact, self-care is really anything that you do to be good to yourself. It’s taking the time out of your day for YOU. It’s about finding pockets of time throughout your day to do what you need to do. It’s those small pockets of time that add up and allow us to be our best selves.

So instead of thinking about what you can’t do, let’s focus on what you can do because I don’t know many people who can take a bubble bath in the middle of the day or stop what they’re doing to meditate for an hour.

Getting Started With Self-Care

The reality is that many people interested in self-care—or improving their mental health in general—don’t actually know how or where to start. Those assumptions about cost, time, and difficulty may get in the way before you even take your first steps.

There’s good news, however: Your mental health toolkit is already more full than you think. Much like the hand-me-down hammer and screwdriver you’ve probably got lying around somewhere, you’re pretty well-equipped to start thinking more about a self-care strategy that will work for you.

I can’t promise that making changes will be easy, but taking an inventory is a great first step. It’s also a step you can take right now since many of the things you can do for your mental health are, in fact, components of your everyday physical health—things you’re already doing or thinking about every day.

illustration of women looking at trees

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Look at Your Health Behaviors

Your mind and body need to work together to keep you feeling as close to 100% as possible. That’s why you should start your self-care journey by thinking about your key health behaviors throughout the day.

Look at your daily routine. This isn’t about learning new tricks or spending money; it’s about checking in with yourself and understanding the basics because when we are stressed out or feeling down, these tend to be the first things to go out the window—leading to more stress.

Conversely, disruptions in these physical behaviors could signal that something is going on with your mental health, and perhaps you need to make a change.


How are you sleeping? And when you ask yourself this question, don’t just count the hours. More sleep doesn’t always mean better sleep.

Did you have trouble falling asleep last night? Did you struggle to stay asleep? Was your mind racing? When you woke up this morning, did you feel rested? Did you struggle to get out of bed? Are you sticking to a regular sleep schedule and avoiding screens and late-night snacking before bed?

Thinking about and answering all of these questions can help provide direct insight into potential problem areas and point to solutions. You can’t fix a leak that you can’t find.


What does your water intake look like? While you may not need to buy a smart bottle that sends an alert to your phone if you’re not drinking enough water, the principle is sound. Your body needs water to function, and it’ll tell you when you’re not giving it enough of that fuel. If you’re dehydrated, you might feel dizzy or lightheaded, have a headache, feel very thirsty, or even feel tired (add water intake to your sleep checklist!).

If you think you’re getting plenty of fluids throughout the day, it’s worth a double-check. Too many sugary beverages, for example, can lead to a number of health issues like obesity or heart disease. Health issues which, in turn, can have a detrimental effect on your mental health.

When it comes to caring for your mind and body, every detail—or in this case, every drop of water—may be important.

Food Intake

Think about your relationship with food and eating. Are you having regular meals throughout the day? Do you find yourself snacking constantly? Are you finding yourself overeating at certain times of the day or grabbing snacks at a certain time each day? Are you using food as a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, or boredom?

Note that I haven’t said anything about weight. While it’s very common for people to set weight loss goals, the purpose of this part of your self-care check-in is to make sure that you are maintaining healthy habits, such as a nutrient-rich diet that limits the foods that can lead to health problems.

And, as with the rest of this “physical” check-in, food can impact your mental health. Research has shown that probiotic foods (yogurt, sauerkraut), omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, walnuts), and fruits and veggies (spinach, avocado) can have mood-boosting benefits. On the flip side, lacking nutrients or not eating enough can negatively impact your mental health and lead to poor concentration, lack of focus, lower mood, and more.

If you notice behaviors that may be contributing to negative outcomes, you can start to make plans to change those behaviors, whether that means writing firmer grocery lists or committing to try more whole foods.

Physical Activity

Are you moving your body enough? Exercising regularly? Taking standing breaks if you have a desk job? How do you feel when you're moving your body? Are you winded after a short walk or taking the stairs?

As with a spa treatment or professional massage, it’s perfectly fine if you don’t have the time or money to spend on a costly gym membership or extended workouts every day. Even a 30-minute daily walk conveys major benefits for both physical and mental health—and you could use that time to do the rest of your self-care check-in if you’d like.

woman sitting outside in the sun

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Stress Management

Your check-in doesn’t have to be purely physical. Too often, we choose to live with the stress in our lives, persevere, and carry on without really analyzing it.

Think about a recent time you felt stressed, maybe relating to work or a personal relationship. Did you react out of emotion? How did you respond? Did you take steps to think about not only your feelings of stress but the underlying issues as well? Is your first impulse not to think about it at all—to push it down and avoid it?

You might notice patterns or spot certain behaviors—such as overeating or binge drinking—in the aftermath of stressful situations that may contribute to further stress or be detrimental to your health in other areas. Once again, look at how connected your mind and body are.

Asking yourself these questions is an easy and safe way to think of the coping strategies you may already be using and better understand where you could stand to try something new.

What Now?

Congratulations! With that simple review of your daily routine and behavior patterns, you already have a better understanding of the tools and strategies you’re already using, and which could use a little sharpening.

And guess what? With this simple act of checking in with yourself, you’ve participated in active self-care without having to carve an hour or more out of your day. If you’re looking to make some changes in your life, you’ve taken the first steps.

While reflective, these actions are actually a form of preventative care because checking in even when you don’t need to is one of the best ways to prepare for those times when you do need to pull something out of your mental health toolkit. Think of it like muscle memory—the more you practice these simple self-analyses, the more useful they will be to you in a time of stress.

So, what can you do today with the information gathered in your check-in? Maybe your plan is as simple as committing to get outside and move your body today, drinking a couple more glasses of water, or turning off the TV a half-hour earlier. Sounds easy enough, right?

But hitting reasonable, attainable goals will help you realize that you do have the tools to make a change in your own life. Remember, small things add up and make a big impact.

Don’t wait until tomorrow. Start now, prioritize yourself, and a path to self-improvement will follow—you’ve got this!

By Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS
Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. She is also a speaker and wellness expert specializing in stress management and health behavior change, as well as weight management and eating behaviors. She serves on leadership boards of The Obesity Society and the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.