Setting Mental Health Goals

Setting Mental Health Goals

Written by Sonya Stattmann

Sonya Stattmann has spent the last 24 years providing wellness education, training & coaching to individuals, teams, and organizations around the world. She currently offers corporate wellness, founder support & coaching for stress & burnout.

Improving your mental health starts with setting mental health goals. No matter where you are in your mental health journey, you can set & achieve effective goals for stress reduction, handling anxiety, and building resilience. 

Did you know that the ways we have been taught to set & pursue goals make it harder to achieve them? There are effective ways to set goals and effective ways to achieve them. Knowing how to set your mental health goals effectively is key to success. 

As a stress management coach & corporate wellness trainer, I have supported thousands of people to set & achieve their mental health goals, creating healthy habits that reduce stress, improve mental health, better relationships, and a life full of joy and freedom. 

What you will learn about setting & achieving your mental health goals:

The importance of mental health goals

Setting any goal can improve our mental health. It encourages self-reflection and helps us focus on what we want. Achieving our goals, even small ones, boosts our mood, confidence, and sense of well-being. 

It stimulates our nervous system to act, motivating us to wake up and get things done. When we have focus, we get less distracted and less caught up in the little things that don’t matter. 

Setting our mental health goals helps us prioritize our well-being. Like a roadmap, it gives us a destination and a way to assess how well we are doing on the road trip

Your mental health & well-being affect every area of your life. It is connected to your physical & emotional well-being, how you feel about yourself, and how you relate to the world. It impacts your day-to-day functioning, your relationships, your ability to create & experience the life you want, and so much more. 

Setting mental health goals puts you in control of your well-being, and empowers you to change behaviors, experiences & habits. 

Setting mental health goals starts with redefining mental health

Before you can set the right mental health goals, it is important to understand what mental health means. 

The dictionary defines mental health as “the condition of being sound mentally and emotionally that is characterized by the absence of mental illness and by adequate adjustment especially as reflected in feeling comfortable about oneself, positive feelings about others, and the ability to meet the demands of daily life.” 

The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.

Many of the definitions out there are vague, long, and hard to grasp. There are many variations and most use ambiguous language. For instance, what constitutes “adequate adjustment” or “coping with the stresses of life”? 

In our society, we still have a stigma attached to mental health, seeing it as something that only impacts the few. We still confuse mental illness and mental health. 

This all makes it more difficult to understand what mental health means.  

We all are affected by our mental health every day. 

Here are just a few things that are under the mental health umbrella:

  • How you feel about yourself: are you supportive or critical of yourself? What do you see when you look in the mirror? How do you feel about yourself when you make a mistake, when you are tired, or when others reject you? 
  • How you feel about others: do you feel safe with others? Is it easy to rely on others and to ask for help? Do you feel that people are out to get you or are going to disappoint you? Are you able to be yourself around others, or are you constantly protecting yourself from other people’s judgments or micro-aggressions?
  • How you feel about the world: do you feel hopeful or hopeless about where our world is moving? Do you feel in control or powerless when it comes to what is happening in the world? Do you see the world as a source of joy or a source of pain? 
  • How you handle pressure & stress: how much capacity do you have for more pressure & stress? Can you acknowledge your limits and set boundaries to stay under your threshold? Do you have helpful or harmful habits when you have to offload stress? 

We tend to think of our mental health when we are in a crisis – when we are experiencing extreme anxiety or depression, when we hit burnout, or when a relationship is at its breaking point. This is definitely when a lot of my clients seek me out, but learning to prioritize our mental health BEFORE we get to crisis is the key to a happy life, fulfilling work, and empowering relationships. 

Here is how I define mental health.

  • Mental health is a practice, not a destination
  • There is no standard of mental health, each person has to define their objectives
  • It is based on micro-moments of healthy habits, not a consistent state of being
  • It is a healthy body, mind & nervous system 
  • It is our capacity to handle stress, adversity & change, and our ability to bounce back after life’s challenges

In general, when we are practicing mental health, we feel hopeful, safe, and connected. It doesn’t mean we can’t also hold other emotions, but we feel like we have the capacity to deal with life’s challenges. 

The push & pull of goal achievement & why we struggle to reach our goals

What is your experience with goal achievement? Do you set big goals and then struggle to achieve them? Do you lose motivation along the way? Do you give up or try harder only to end up discouraged and disappointed in yourself? 

In my experience, most people get excited about their goals only to lose motivation along the way to achieving them. It is like a part of us wants to achieve our goal and another part wants to give up or sabotage us reaching our goal. 

I call this the push and pull of goal achievement. And what is interesting, is that this push and pull is biological not just psychological. 

Let’s dive into your biology & the science of goal achievement!

As a human, you are wired to set and achieve goals. Your brain & body have a tremendous capacity for change & growth. 

You can envision & imagine things you can’t immediately see with your eyes. You can create short-term & long-term goals, unlike any other species on the planet. 

The part of your brain that you use for planning & pursuing long-term goals is the logical brain or pre-frontal cortex. This is a part of your brain you are probably most familiar with. 

But you are also wired for safety & survival. In the event of any perceived threat, your biology takes over and responds to the threat by shutting down systems that are not a priority for survival. One of the systems it shuts down is your reasoning or logical brain. 

Your survival system is run by your nervous system, which consists of your brain, spinal cord, and a complex network of nerves. This system acts automatically & unconsciously to help you survive and is not controlled by the pre-frontal cortex or conscious mind. 

Your unconscious survival system is more powerful than your conscious, rational mind, and in a battle between the two, your survival system will always win! 

Your nervous system is a wonderful part of your biology. It controls your breathing, heart rate, and all the automatic functions in your body that would be impossible for you to regulate consciously. It also is in control of your stress responses: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or dissociate. 

This part of your biology is designed to scan for threats 24/7 inside of you, outside of you, and between you and others. When it detects threats, it sends messages to your brain and the brain prioritizes systems in the body to ensure survival. 

As a human, some threats are biologically wired into your nervous system. In other words, we all have the same programming. Layered over this common wiring, you also have customized wiring based on your life experiences. So what you and I perceive as a threat can be vastly different. Remember, this is all unconscious as well. 

Your brain & nervous system have one primary job: to help you survive. One of the things your system is wired to perceive as a threat is change. Predictability, certainty, and well-worn habits are considered safe to our brains, while unpredictability, uncertainty, and new habits are considered threats to survival. 

New goals, especially big goals, require change. If change is perceived as a threat by your survival systems it unconsciously pulls you back from achieving your goals. 

So you have the conscious part of your brain logically setting goals and the unconscious part of your brain actively working against achieving those goals. 

—–> This is the push and pull of goal achievement. 

We can learn to work with our survival systems instead of against them! This is the science of goal achievement. 

The connection between our mental health & our nervous system 

The nervous system (your survival system) is involved in the pursuit of any goal, but because your nervous system is directly tied to your mental health, it is important to understand how your nervous system relates to setting mental health goals.  

Your mental health relies on a regulated nervous system. When we talk about having anxiety, depression, or chronic stress, we are talking about having a dysregulated nervous system. 

There are two important parts to the nervous system: your sympathetic nervous system and your parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is your internal gas pedal, it stimulates your body to take action and move. It is in charge of keeping you safe and helping you survive. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of your motivation and helps you get things done.

The parasympathetic nervous system is like your internal brake pedal. It slows you down, it stops your stress responses when you are safe again. It is the system involved in helping you relax, feel hopeful, or at peace.

Ideally, we want our gas and brake pedal to work together. Think of cruising on a country road, wind in your hair, music on, and the sun streaming into your window. You feel good and you use the gas and brake pedal as needed easily. 

You want to use both parts of your nervous system in harmony – this is nervous system regulation. 

But it is inevitable that you will encounter adversity, stress & change. Your body is beautifully designed to handle these challenges. When you experience a threat, your sympathetic system prioritizes safety & survival. It activates your body so it can run or fight. 

If you have a regulated nervous system, these activations are temporary and once the threat passes you cycle back into your parasympathetic nervous system, and back into rest. 

Unfortunately, most of us don’t experience this easy regulation. Instead, we get hit with threat after threat. We live with constant & chronic stress. Our sympathetic system is activated all the time and we don’t cycle back into the parasympathetic system often enough. 

When you get stuck in either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system – this is nervous system dysregulation. 

When you get stuck in the sympathetic system, you experience chronic symptoms of stress & your mental health suffers. This is where feelings of anxiety & insomnia come from. Panic attacks & hypervigilance are part of sympathetic nervous system dysregulation.

Eventually, as you experience chronic activation of the sympathetic system, your body gets exhausted and crashes into the parasympathetic dysregulated state. Being stuck in the parasympathetic system causes depression, chronic fatigue, lack of motivation, or dissociation. 

When I am helping my clients with their mental health goals, we look at improving their mental health by regulating their nervous system. I equate practicing good mental health with practicing nervous system regulation. 

How to effectively SET your mental health goals (the science of goal setting)

Now that we have talked about how your nervous system & brain are connected to setting & achieving your mental health goals, let’s look at HOW to set your goals to work with your biology instead of against it. 

Remember that your brain perceives change and big goals as a threat.  

Here are two tips for goal setting that are rooted in neuroscience and have significant evidence behind them. These practices make your goal-setting more effective and help your survival systems and logical mind work together. 

Tip #1: Reframe your mental health goals for learning NOT for the outcome.

Usually, when we set goals, we dream big. We imagine something we haven’t experienced yet or something that will require a lot of change. Big goals focus on the outcome – we want the thing at the end of the rainbow. We want to reach the destination. 

Often our goals require changes to our behavior, habits, and status quo, but our brain doesn’t like change. It doesn’t like change, but it loves learning. Our brains are wired for learning. 

When you reframe your goals for learning, you set yourself up for success. Let me show you how this might work. 

It is great to start with your desires, this is the outcome you want to achieve. Then take it a step further: what do you want to feel or experience? What will this desire give you – security, safety, joy, love, fulfillment, freedom? The more emotional resonance you have with the goal, the more likely you will be to achieve it. 

Then reframe it for learning: what do you need to learn to experience that desire? What skills do you need to build? What resources do you need? What practices & habits will help you achieve that desire? 

For example, let’s take a typical goal like the desire to lose weight. Most people start with the outcome: I want to lose 20 pounds or I want to be at xyz weight. What will that desire give you? Let’s say the real desire is to feel good in your body – to feel healthy & strong. 

What do you need to learn to feel good in your body? What skills do you need to build? What resources? What practices & habits will support you? 

Maybe the practice is self-acceptance. Maybe it is a habit of walking 3 times a week, or maybe it is minimizing stress which has taken a toll on your body. 

The goal would be a specific practice. In this example, we can use walking 3 times a week. The goal is NOT to lose 20 pounds but to walk three times a week. That is something you can measure and something you can practice right now.  

Your mind isn’t focused on the long-term results, but on the practice right now. This sounds simple, but the reframe makes a huge difference to our success in achieving our goals. 

Let’s take a look at a mental health goal. Let’s say the outcome you want is to reduce stress. Ultimately, you want to be able to relax and turn off your mind. If you were a client of mind, we would spend more time unpacking this, but let’s say for now you just want to be able to stop worrying. 

The desire is to stop worrying all the time. Maybe you want to feel or experience more peace, rest, and relaxation. So what do you need to learn to experience that? What skills do you need to build? What resources? What practices and habits? 

Maybe it is a better sleep routine or a practice that will turn off the mind like meditation or a nervous system regulation tool. For this example, let’s use a sleep routine. Sleep is actually a foundational pillar for mental health. 

Let’s say you want to practice going to bed by 10 pm every night, turning off your electronics by 9 pm, and spending 9-10 pm winding down with stretching, relaxing music, or reading. The goal isn’t to “reduce stress”, but to practice this new sleep routine 5 out of 7 days a week. 

Reframing your goal as a habit and practice exponentially increases your chance of achieving your goal. 

Tip #2: Use the 85/15 rule when setting your mental health goals.

This is one of my favorite pieces of recent research to come out around learning. The optimal learning environment for the brain is when we succeed 85% of the time and fail 15% of the time. Failure is required to successfully learn, but only when it is a small percentage of our results. 

What does this have to do with your goal-setting? Everything!

We have been taught to set big goals, goals that will entail failing a large amount of the time. When you set a goal that you have never experienced, something that requires completely new habits, thinking & behaviors, you are setting yourself up to struggle.  

If you want it badly enough, if you can spend a large amount of time focusing, if you don’t have a lot of stress in your life, or if you have amazing willpower, then you are probably great at setting big goals and achieving them, but for many people setting a goal that requires significant change means failing most of the time. 

If we follow the 85/15 rule, we can set goals that set us up for success. Let’s look at how to apply this to the mental health goal we used in the last example. 

We want a goal that is easy enough to succeed at 85% of the time, but hard enough to fail at 15% of the time. If you are a math and data person, you can measure it, but if not, just get a sense of this. 

Let’s use our sleep routine example: going to bed by 10 pm every night, turning off your electronics by 9 pm, and spending 9-10 pm winding down with stretching, relaxing music, or reading. 

But let’s say you have a really bad sleep routine at the moment. You never go to bed before midnight. You are always on electronic devices right up until the moment you go to bed and you have never practiced anything relaxing. Trying to set the goal above would most likely mean more than 15% failure because you have a lot of habits that are NOT the goal right now. It requires big changes. 

So let’s follow the 85/15 rule. Start with something smaller. Maybe just one thing like turning your electronic devices off at 11 pm. You can still go to bed at midnight, your normal time, but you are going to stop looking at your screens at 11. Is this something you feel you could succeed with 85% of the time? 

You can look at your current practices & habits and figure out what change you could make that would be 85% successful and 15% failure. 

This really changes the way we view goals! Small changes are more effective than big goals. 

These two tips will help you set mental health goals that you can achieve successfully. 

How to effectively ACHIEVE your mental health goals (the science of goal pursuit)

Now that we talked about setting goals, let’s talk about two tips for more successfully achieving your mental health goals. 

Tip #1: Visualize the process, not the outcome.

In a lot of goal achievement steps, they talk about visualizing the outcome. This actually works against your biology. For some people, it can de-motivate you by stimulating chemicals that feel good to your body but don’t inspire you to take action. For other people, focusing on a long-term outcome creates stress & anxiety. 

So rather than focusing on reaching the goal, focus on taking action. Visualize the process of taking action, of working towards your goal. 

If we are using the goal above for a new sleep routine, imagine yourself turning off your electronic devices and practicing stretching. Imagine going to bed at an earlier time. Feel yourself relaxing and resting. 

Neuroscience data shows that visualizing the action is almost the exact same as doing the action. So by visualizing you are solidifying a habit. Even 10 minutes of visualization in your day can help you reach your goals. 

Tip #2: Pair your mental health goals with current habits or daily rituals

Successfully reaching your goals requires consistent action, and one way to have more success with consistent action is to pair your goals with your established daily rituals or habits. This helps with the 85/15 rule too! 

What are you currently practicing? What daily habits do you already have established? 

My clients often pair their mental health goals with their morning or evening rituals. During the day can be challenging to practice new habits consistently. A lot of things can pull your attention and efforts in the middle of the day, but adding a small action and habit to your current morning routine can make it easier to accomplish. 

Let’s say your goal is to practice a 15-minute nervous system regulation tool or mindfulness practice each day. Maybe you already have a morning routine of getting up, taking a shower, getting dressed, making breakfast, and fixing your first cup of coffee. Set your alarm for 15 minutes early and place your practice somewhere in that morning routine. Maybe you get up and do your practice for 15 minutes before you get in the shower, or maybe you use the shower to wake you up and do the 15 minutes before you make your coffee and eat breakfast. 

You get the picture! Adding your mental health goal to your daily rituals will make it easier to establish it as a habit. 

Where to start: 10 mental health goals to improve your well-being today

There are endless mental health goals you can create, but finding the right one for you is the key to success. The education above and the journal prompts below will help you dive into your desires and goals, but if you want a place to start, here are 10 mental health goals that can improve your well-being today. These are all practices that work with the nervous system to improve mental health & reduce stress. 

—> Practice the foundations for good mental health:

Goal #1: Establish a good sleep routine: sleep is one of the most important foundations for good mental health. Good sleep reduces anxiety & stress and makes us healthier and happier. The science says that a good sleep routine means going to bed around the same time every night (ideally before 11) and waking up at the same time every morning, even on weekends. Ideally, you want to have 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Removing electronic devices early and giving yourself time to wind down also improves sleep. This is a great goal to start! 

Goal #2: Go outside and look at the sun for 10 minutes a day: looking at the sun and getting daily sun is key for mental & physical health. The science is really clear about the power of just getting 15 minutes of direct sunlight a day and more if you can. This is direct sunlight, so not through a window or sunglasses. Pair this with your morning routine. It also improves sleep and helps you relax more throughout the day. 

Goal #3: Go on a mindful walk 3-5 days a week: Mindful movement is another pillar of self-care and a foundation for mental health. A mindful walk is different from just walking. You want to use your attention to focus on what is inside of you and around you while walking. You are not listening to a podcast or thinking about your to-do list. It is about paying attention to the present moment. Notice how your body feels moving. How your feet feel on the ground as you step, how your arms swing. Notice the trees around you, or the sky. Pay attention and notice what is in and around you. Even 15 minutes of this kind of exercise shifts your nervous system, helps you relax, and boosts your mental health. 

Goal #4: Remove alcohol & other substances from your daily life: Alcohol and other addictive substances are often coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and adversity. They might help you cope, but they are detrimental to your mental & physical health. Removing them from your week or life for an extended period is a good mental health goal. Replacing your standard nightly drink with a mindful walk, stretching or meditation can up-level your goal. 

—-> Establish & practice self-awareness exercises for good mental health: 

Goal #5: Journal for 10-15 minutes every day: I know, not everyone likes to journal, but there is a lot of science around physically writing out your thoughts each day. I teach my clients to practice “morning pages”. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes, put pen to paper, and write every thought that comes to your mind. Even if you have nothing to write, write out “I have nothing to write”. Eventually, thoughts come pouring out and it clears your mind for the day. 

Goal #6: Practice “name it to tame it” every time you feel an intense emotion in your day: Being able to name an intense emotion as it is happening has a physiological effect on your brain and body. As you experience an intense emotion, notice it and label it. Identifying the emotion (naming it) has the effect of reducing stress, intense emotion & anxiety (taming it). There is no “right” answer to this process, you decide the label. The benefit is in the practice, not identifying the emotion “correctly”.  

—-> Regulate your nervous system with these tools to reduce stress & improve mental health:  

Goal #7: Practice interoception, a fancy word for noticing internal sensations:

This is one of my favorite mental health practices and it will regulate your nervous system, improve your mental health & reduce stress. Interoception is just a fancy word for turning your attention inward and noticing sensations inside of your body. Spending 10 minutes with this practice one or two times a day is transformative. I encourage my clients to do it upon waking up or while stretching before bed. The goal is to notice sensations inside of your body. Do you notice warmth, tingling, tightness, or even a sensation you can’t name? Just notice it. There is nothing you need to do with it. You just want to be curious about it. Explore your internal sensations for 10 minutes and notice how you feel when that is complete. 

Goal #8: Try water therapy: Like the practice of interoception, when you can notice the sensations on your hands or body when you come into contact with water, it can help you regulate your nervous system. This can be as simple as going to the bathroom to run your hands under cold or hot water. You can do this in your daily shower or go to a spa, experience a float tank, or swim in the sea. The key to success is your attention and the mindfulness of the exercise. Noticing the feel of the water on your skin, noticing how your body feels immersed in the water. Enjoy the sensations and feel of the water as it comes into contact with your body. 

Goal #9: Bathe in nature or practice forest bathing 2 hours a week: Sometimes it can be difficult to regulate yourself, especially when you are overwhelmed or anxious, but your nervous system is designed to co-regulate with others, animals, and nature. Finding even two hours a week to bathe in nature has been shown to improve mental health & well-being. Think of this like a mindful walk surrounded by nature. The more you can be away from “modern” life, the better. Turn off your phone, walk slowly & mindfully, listen to the sounds around you, and look at the sights. 

Goal #10: Create space for your mental health goals: Sometimes the first mental health goal needs to be creating space for more mental health practices. It is easy to fill your time up with your to-do list. It can be much harder to carve out time for yourself. If this is a difficult practice for you, start here. Use the 85/15 rule. If you struggle to give yourself any time for self-care, then start with 10 minutes a day. The key is to take 10 minutes for yourself to do something that nurtures you, gives you pleasure, or just allows you to sit without any responsibility or pressure. When you can consistently give yourself time for self-care, then add another mental health goal to practice in the time you have created. 

Journal prompts to help you contemplate your mental health goals

Ready to determine your mental health goals? Below are contemplation questions to help you get started. 

Determine your desires

  • With regard to your mental health, what would you like to experience or feel?
  • What about your mental health would you like to change?  
  • What do you want in your life, work, or relationships – what change in your mental health would support you to reach these goals?
  • What healthy habits would you like to be practicing?
  • Are there any unhealthy habits you would like to change?
  • How are you handling stress & your life’s challenges – what would help you experience less stress & give you more capacity for life’s challenges? 
  • How do you feel about yourself – how could you improve your relationship with yourself?
  • How do you feel about the people in your life – how could you spend more time cultivating fulfilling relationships & minimize time with stressful or challenging relationships?
  • How could you create more time for yourself & increase your self-care?
  • What is your quality of sleep like & would it be valuable to you to improve it? 
  • What would create more joy & fulfillment for you?
  • What would help you feel more safe and secure? 
  • List any other objectives, goals, or desires you have for your mental health.

Evaluate your desires

  • It is important to focus on 1-2 mental health goals at a time, so prioritizing your desires is key. From the list you created above:
  • Which of these desires do you want most right now?
  • Which of these desires do you feel the most emotional resonance with?
  • What do you really want to feel in the next 6 months?
  • What do you want to feel right now?
  • Are these desires “shoulds”, “have-tos” or someone else’s desires that you have adopted?
  • Which of these desires would bring you the most pleasure or joy?
  • Which desires feel most motivating?
  • Pick your top desire and continue with the remaining contemplation questions. 

Reframe your goal for learning:  

Think of your desire as the end goal (B), and look at the gap between where you are now (A) and where you want to be (B): 

  • What do you need to learn, practice, or skill-build to get from A > B?
  • What skills do you already have in your toolbox that will help you get from A > B? Can you build
  • on a skill you already have?
  • What resources do you have access to that will help you get from A > B? Can you tap into more
  • of these resources?
  • What steps will help you get from A > B? (This can be just a few steps, not the whole plan)
  • What strengths do have that will help you get from A > B?
  • What can you learn and research that will help you get from A > B?
  • What new habits will help you get from A > B
  • What good habits do you have already that could help you get from A > B?
  • What else do you need to get you from A > B?
  • Pick one new habit, skill, or learning that will help you reach your desire. This is your mental health goal. 

Make it specific & use the science of goal setting

  • Is your goal an action, not an outcome? (Example: Walking NOT weight loss)
  • Is your goal specific & measurable? Did you write how often you will be doing this practice and can you easily determine each week whether you have completed your goal or not (Example: walking 3 x a week for 30 minutes)
  • Is your goal realistic with your current energy & time capacity?
  • Does your goal follow the 85/15 rule? Is it hard enough to fail 15% of the time, but easy enough to succeed 85% of the time? Can you tweak it if need be?
  • Do you feel energized & excited to pursue this goal, and if not, can you tweak the goal to feel more exciting?

You can use these prompts anytime to tweak and re-evaluate your mental health goals! 

—> If you need extra support with your mental health goals or nervous system regulation, here are a few resources:

For nervous system self-regulation tools: Sign up for the Mental Health Toolkit. Launching soon, this private podcast course is packed with 30 tools for nervous system regulation, education, and stress management tips. 

For customized 1:1 support: Learn more about my stress management coaching program, designed to help you reduce stress, improve your mental health & set up the right wellness practices for you.