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Looking after yourself is an important coping strategy. Let’s look at some self-care techniques you can try.

Teen eating noodles, sleeping and tossing a tennis ball

What is self-care?

Self-care is about meeting your basic needs so you can be physically and mentally healthy.

When we feel stressed, overwhelmed or burnt out, we can start to neglect the basics of looking after ourselves.

Our nutrition, movement and sleep health all affect on our brain and mental health, which is why it's so important to self-care – especially if you are starting to struggle with your mental health.

Sometimes, the term ‘self-care’ is misused to describe things you might buy – like a manicure or smoothie. 

These things might be pleasant, but they don’t necessarily add up to self-care.

Let’s look at some important areas where a little self-care goes a long way.

Exercise (or movement)

Did you know that 9 in 10 young people in Australia don’t move enough? Young people should do at least 60 minutes of vigorous exercise every day for optimal health. 

Exercise has social, emotional and health benefits, including reduced risk of diseases, increased concentration, increased confidence, and reduced aggression. Exercise shouldn’t be a chore or punishment and doesn’t have to be about weight loss or muscle gains to be beneficial. It’s important to find ways to move your body that work for you and that you enjoy. You could try…

Playing sport


Swimming or surfing

Using the stairs instead of an elevator

Doing an at-home workout

Walking the dog

Doing chores     

Riding a bike or walking to destinations 

Why is it important to move our bodies?

When we feel anxious or stressed, it activates our 'HPA axis’ (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) and triggers the release of hormones that activate our muscles, to help us run away from or fight danger.

Moving/doing exercise mimics our fight/flight response and triggers a ‘calm down’ response. Exercise is also as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. And it increases ‘Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor’ (BDNF) by up to 4x. BDNF is important for brain health, as it helps us grow and care for our brain cells. Low levels of BDNF have been linked to changes in the brain in people with depression.

Self-care: nutrition (diet) and mental health

Food is complex. It can be cultural, emotional, social, and many things in between. People have strong opinions on food - and the science can often be confusing.

Education about nutrition is important - and everyone should have access to the best in nutritional advice, based on the 'weight of scientific evidence' so you, and your family, can make your own informed decisions.

We recommend speaking to a qualified dietician for food and diet help unique to you - and the info we give you here will focus on the link between nutrition and mental health only.

Diet is a tricky thing to talk about because what you eat isn’t always a choice. Lots of things affect what you eat – and even whether you can get enough to eat. Everyone has a right to adequate food. If you/your family are struggling with food insecurity, you can get help here.

Your gut-brain connection

Our brain needs a lot of energy to function – and nutrients (from food) are its primary fuel. 20% of the nutrients we eat are used by our brain as energy.

Ever had butterflies in your stomach? This happens because your gastrointestinal tract (aka your ‘gut’) and brain are connected and communicate with each other. This is a link that goes both ways – which means your digestive system affects your brain and your brain affects your digestion.

Your gut is known as your ‘second brain’ because it contains neurotransmitters (brain chemical messengers) - as an example, 90% of serotonin (important for mood) comes from your digestive system. Your brain can affect your gut – stress can temporarily ‘turn off’ your digestive system and even cause digestive issues. And your gut can affect your brain, e.g., eating heavily processed foods can cause inflammation in your body, which may play a role in depression; being deprived in certain nutrients (like iron), can cause mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety. 

Gut bacteria and mental health

You've probably heard of 'probiotics' - good gut bacteria that help you stay healthy. Psychobiotics are gut bacteria that are beneficial for your mental health. This is a new area of research and is showing promising results in preventing and treating a range of mental health issues.

Psychobiotics eat fibre (found in fruits, vegetables and whole foods like grains and lentils) - unfortunately, over 80% of people in Australia don’t eat enough fibre to meet their health (and mental health) needs.

Compounds like antioxidants, phytonutrients and flavonoids (found in fruits, vegetables and whole foods) also increase ‘Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor’ (BDNF) - which is crucial for good mental health by helping you grown new brain cells and playing a big role in keeping your brain cells healthy. So, eating your broccoli is win-win for your gut bacteria and for your brain cells!

So, what should you eat for good mental health?

The current Australian Government guidelines are to do your best to eat a wide variety of nutritious foods (e.g. ‘eat the rainbow’ of fruits and vegetables) and to limit ‘discretionary foods’ (foods that contain saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol).

The latest research suggests that you should be eating a minimum variety of 30 different plant based whole foods a week (regardless of what diet you eat) for optimum physical and mental health.


Lack of sleep can contribute to mental health issues.

You need about 8-10 hours of sleep per night. That amount of sleep is harder to get than it sounds, because the ‘body clocks’ of teens and young adults naturally keep them up late at night and make them want to sleep in until mid-morning.

Having a smartphone, feeling anxious, etc. can all impact on falling asleep and quality of sleep. 

While many things can impact mental health, including lots of things we can’t control – such as genetics – sleep is one thing we can control.

Why is sleep so important for mental health? 

Your body can heal through rest – but your brain can only heal through sleep.

Sleep is essential for cleaning out toxins that build up in your brain. Sleep deprivation allows these toxins to build up, which can contribute to mental ill-health.

As you get older, sleep becomes the only time your brain can make new brain cells – which are essential for good health and wellbeing. Cell death/reduced cell numbers in certain parts of your brain have been associated with depression and other mental health issues. 

Did you know that deep sleep (when you have ‘delta’ brainwaves – the slowest brainwaves) is also the main time your body heals itself? 

Why should you make sleep a priority?

There are some really good reasons why it's important!

  • The neocortex (your ‘thinking brain’) doesn't work so well when you're tired, which means you're more likely to make risky or emotional decisions. This is one reason why there are increased incidents of cyberbullying, car accidents, drug use, self-harm and suicide at night.
  • People feel more anxious at night. This is because the limbic system (your 'emotional brain') fires up late at night, causing more intense negative emotions. (This is meant to happen when you're asleep, when it will have less of an effect on your mental health).
  • Sleep is essential for cleaning out toxins that build up in your brain. Accumulation of these toxins can impact on brain and mental health.
  • Being sleep-deprived can raise your overall anxiety levels in your everyday life.

Read our article 'Why sleep is so important' for more info and tips on how to sleep better!

Why is sleep so important for your brain?

Scientist Lee Constable explains how sleep benefits your brain.

If you’re having trouble taking care of yourself, talking with someone can really help

Kids Helpline is available 24/7.

If you want to learn more coping strategies or figure out what coping strategies might work best for you, give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email today.

This content was last reviewed 17/08/2023

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