7 steps to stronger mental wellbeing

strong women

7 steps to stronger mental wellbeing

Updated July 2024 | 5 min read
Expert contributor Emma Tyers, head of Counselling at SANE
Words by Katherine Chatfield

While good mental health is essential for all women, so is good mental wellbeing, and it’s important to understand the difference.

“[Low] mental wellbeing encompasses feeling burnt out, experiencing stress at work or home, or simply going through a tough time emotionally,” says Emma Tyers, head of Counselling at SANE, a national mental health organisation for people with complex mental health issues and for the families and friends who support them.

“It’s not the same as having a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, but the two are closely intertwined. If your mental wellbeing is low, you’re more at risk of it becoming a mental health issue.”

Aussie women are strong and resilient but experience higher rates of anxiety than men, with 21% reporting a 12-month anxiety disorder. One study found 44% of women are living with anxiety, with another study finding many felt that unpaid labour like childcare and housework was a major contributor to their distress. Women are also more likely to suffer from depression than men.

“Lack of free time and time pressure can really impact wellbeing,” says Emma. “When you add this to the fact that mums are still generally bearing the brunt of child rearing, it’s no surprise that many women feel their mental wellbeing is low.”

The good news? There’s a lot you can do to improve how you feel mentally. “A range of different things affect your mental wellbeing, and often feed into each other,” says Emma. “In other words, if you can do a few things to boost your mental wellbeing, other [things] will follow more easily.”

1. Set your room up for better sleep

A good night’s sleep is proven to build mental wellbeing and emotional resilience, while not getting enough can create negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.

“Sleep gives your brain time to process thoughts and feelings, and helps you rejuvenate for the next day,” says Emma.

The Sleep Health Foundation recommends adults aged from 18 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. While this is ideal, sleep problems are common among women who are pregnant, have small children, have premenstrual syndrome, are managing perimenopause symptoms or simply dealing with the mental load. Women report more sleep difficulties and are at a greater risk of insomnia than men, thanks to hormones and physiological changes. This makes putting good sleep hygiene strategies in place crucial.

“Good sleep hygiene is about putting yourself in the best position to sleep well,” says Emma. “Switch phones and computers off an hour before bedtime, otherwise your brain can be affected by the blue light and can keep you awake. Keep your bedroom cool, and make sure your bed is just for sleeping – no watching TV or working. A ‘reverse lie-in’ can also be really beneficial, where you go to bed early a few nights a week.”

Thanks to our partnership with Sleepfit Solutions, eligible HCF members* can get a free 12-month subscription to the Sleepfit app, designed to improve sleep and overall wellbeing.

2. Keep learning

Learning isn’t just for kids. Adults who learn throughout their lives have been shown to maintain a strong sense of wellbeing, as well as finding it easier to foster connection with others.

“Working towards a goal, whether it’s learning to play a new sport or studying for an exam, is really beneficial,” says Emma. “Knowing you’ve achieved something can be a huge boost to your wellbeing.”

Learning something new can be as simple as watching your favourite chef make recipes on YouTube or reading a book about history. Keeping your brain focused and active is a key part of staying mentally healthy.

3. See your friends more

When life gets busy, friendships and catching up with family are often the first things to drop off the list, but don’t underestimate the power of a good laugh or debrief with the people closest to you.

People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression, as well as higher self-esteem, research shows.

“Humans are social creatures. We rely on interacting with others for support, and for help in understanding ourselves,” says Emma. “The key is finding a way to connect with people that works for you. Some people find online groups are an easier way of putting yourself out there if it’s too challenging to meet people face to face.”

Research into pregnant women confirms the crucial role social connections play in alleviating pressure and supporting the physical and emotional wellbeing of mother and child. Maintaining good quality relationships as you get older also has a positive effect on women’s health, with one study reporting that women with satisfying social relationships were less likely to develop multiple chronic conditions.

Social media is a form of social connection but be careful when it comes to leaning on it too heavily. “It can leave you feeling negative about your life. The rule is, if it doesn’t make you feel good, don’t engage,” says Emma. Nothing beats connecting with people in real life, so reach out to others and ask to meet for a coffee or a walk if you’re feeling starved of connection.

4. Focus on better nutrition

Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging field of research that explores how what you eat can affect your mood, mental health and wellbeing. It focuses on serotonin, the chemical in the body that helps control mood and boost happiness.

Around 95% of your body’s serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and its production is highly influenced by the amount of good bacteria in the gut. This good bacteria remains good when you eat a diet high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, so adding more of these foods into your diet could help boost your mood.

The food mood connection has also linked some processed foods and artificial sweeteners to inflammation, which is believed to affect people’s mental health; inflammation markers in the gut may be raised in people with depression.

“We also know that eating high-sugar foods can leave you feeling fatigued afterwards, which can impact on your desire to exercise or do other things – so it’s a double whammy against women’s wellbeing,” says Emma.

Women are more likely than men to be deficient in iron, which can lead to poor memory and concentration, brain fog, low energy levels, hair loss and mood disorders like depression.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, talk to your GP who can test your iron levels. It’s also important for women to eat foods rich in iron, like red meat, poultry, fish, leafy greens and legumes.

5. Get moving

Exercise and movement in any form is one of the best ways to boost your mental health. Not only does it release mood-boosting chemicals in your body like endorphins and serotonin, it also pumps blood to the brain, which can help you think more clearly and improve your concentration and alertness.

Although any type of exercise is beneficial: resistance training was found to improve depressive symptoms in young adults. Regular exercise also improves sleep quality, another essential aspect for women in feeling more able to cope with the stresses and demands of life.

6. Slow down and observe

Mindfulness is a simple, practical tool that’s proven to increase wellbeing and reduce stress. It can be done anywhere, at any time, and involves you taking a step back from your thoughts and observing what you’re doing. Research shows women may feel the positive benefits of mindfulness more than men; the more a woman’s mindfulness skills grow, the higher her self-compassion gets.

“Dwelling on the past can contribute to depression and anticipating the future can produce anxiety. Mindfulness is about staying in the present moment,” says Emma. “It’s about noticing your thoughts and senses, and being non-judgemental about where your brain is going. On the bus, pay close attention to the sounds you’re hearing; while you’re washing up, notice how the bubbles feel on your hands. Ground yourself in the present moment.”

7. Write down what you’re thankful for

It’s easy to make upward comparisons when we think other people are better off than us. A useful daily trick is to write down three things you feel grateful for each day. Reframing your situation to see what’s already good in your life can be helpful for your mental wellbeing.

Research shows that engaging in gratitude activities and reflections can be effective in improving mental health.

“Writing in a ‘gratitude journal’ every day is a great habit,” confirms Emma. “It can be something as simple as spotting a beautiful flower or enjoying your lunch. Rewiring your brain to think positively can have big effects.”

A randomised controlled trial among women found that actively acknowledging what they were grateful for soothed the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing fear and threat. An attitude of gratitude also led to reduced inflammatory responses in the body.

Taking these steps to prioritise your mental wellbeing is something all women can do to help not only tackle everyday stresses, but to thrive. Putting yourself first, and making sure you stay strong, both mentally and physically, will benefit you and your whole family.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

We’re also here to help

To support you with faster, easier access to qualified mental health professionals, we’re offering a free telehealth HealthyMinds Check-in with a PSYCH2U psychologist for eligible members^. Whether you’re looking for support for yourself or your loved ones, our unique range of mental health and wellbeing programs can help you understand and improve mental health challenges such as stress, anxiety and depression.


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Important Information

* Eligible HCF members with hospital or extras cover. Excludes Overseas Visitors Health Cover. The cost is $23.90 for 12 months for HCF members (RRP is $29.90).

^ 1 HealthyMinds Check-in available per member per calendar year. Service is available free to all members with hospital cover. Excludes extras only cover, Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic and Overseas Visitors Health Cover. 

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