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The Butterfly Effect: Can Small Habits Impact Overall Mental Health?

The Butterfly Effect: Can Small Habits Impact Overall Mental Health?

This material has been reviewed for accuracy by: Renee Albers, PhD

Photo of decorative butterflies pattern isolated on white background with copy space representing the Butterfly Effect, where one small action can have enormous impactMental health challenges can be overwhelming. When you’re in the thick of it, the idea of feeling lighter and happier can seem very far away. But what if you didn’t have to make huge changes, just small improvements, to get started on a new path forward?

 Think for a moment about the butterfly effect. According to an essay on Medium:

 “As the old adage goes, ‘small things can make a big difference.’ This is especially true when it comes to mental health and habit formation. The butterfly effect, a concept from chaos theory, refers to the idea that small changes in one system can lead to large effects in another. In the context of mental health, this means that small, consistent habits can produce significant changes in one’s well-being.

 Consider the metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings. Though seemingly insignificant, this small action can set off a chain reaction of events that ultimately lead to a major hurricane. Similarly, small habits in our daily lives can accumulate over time and have a profound impact on our mental health.”

As we kick off The Brighter Days Challenge, we take a look at the impact that small, consistent steps forward can make in your overall mental health.

The Link Between Your Habits and Mental Health

Young man of color in a yoga pose as part of the Brighter Days challenge for mental healthKeeping up with healthy habits on a daily basis has been scientifically linked with improved mental health. For example, a recent study looked into the impact that people’s lifestyles had on their likelihood of depression. According to an NPR article on the topic:

“If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, here’s a strategy that may help boost your mental health: Spend the next week observing your daily habits. You can jot them down in a journal to keep track.

How well are you sleeping? Are you eating foods that nourish you? Did you make time for a favorite hobby and exercise? Did you gather with friends or loved ones?

Your answers to these questions may help explain your mood – and your risk of depression too. In fact, a new study finds that people who maintain a broad range of healthy habits, from good sleep to physical activity to strong social connections, are significantly less likely to experience episodes of depression.”

 These habits, according to the study, cut depression risk by more than half.

 “Researchers used Mendelian randomization – using genetics to study behavior – to confirm a causal link between lifestyle and depression. They found a reduction in the risk of depression held up even among people who have genetic variants that make them more susceptible.

The study included data from nearly 300,000 people in the UK Biobank database initiative, and included people who had episodes of depression as well as those diagnosed with recurring depression.

Researchers identified seven healthy habits and found that people who maintained most of them – five or more – had a 57% lower risk of depression, ‘which is really quite a massive amount,’ says study author Barbara Sahakian, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge,” according to the article.

 The seven habits identified in the study include moderate alcohol consumption, healthy diet, regular physical activity, never smoking, healthy sleep, low-to-moderate sedentary behavior and frequent social connection.

 Taking Small, Consistent Steps Forward

Big Journeys Begin With Small Steps. Green notepad on wooden texture table and white background representing creating small habits to benefit your mental healthIf you’re trying to develop new healthy habits and it feels like too much to tackle, the secret may lie in just getting started where you can with smaller actions.

“If you are navigating challenges and feel like you don’t have the time or energy to care for yourself, it is possible to prioritize your own well-being using the science of small habits,” according to certified health and wellness coach Melanie Cuchna, MPH, CHES, in an article for The University of Iowa.

You don’t even necessarily need to feel motivated to begin, according to the article.

“According to expert BJ Fogg, author and behavior scientist at Stanford University, motivation is like a wave. It peaks and then it crashes. Motivation helps us figure out what we want to change, but it is unreliable. Using the steps of behavior design from Fogg’s book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, you can create a plan for automatically inserting well-being into your daily routine.”

You might try thinking about what you want to achieve and breaking it down into small actions you can do consistently, according to the article.

“Explore habits that lead to your aspirations. Several small behaviors and habits contribute to your aspirations. Think of all the possibilities even if they don’t seem realistic. For example, if I want to have more energy, some behaviors I consider are staying hydrated, limiting social media at night, taking a mental break, or moving my body,” according to the article.

 Getting Started with Healthy Habits

If you’re not sure where to begin, or you or someone you love could use a little boost, consider signing up for The Brighter Days Challenge. The challenge includes 30 days of uplifting, easy-to-complete daily actions for body and mind, sent right to your email inbox, that help set the tone for brighter days ahead.

A wide variety of habits might be able to kick-start your path forward. For example, HuffPost published the following sample of “tiny mental health habits” that you can implement to improve your days:

  • “Start a gratitude journal”
  • “Take five deep breaths”
  • “Keep a light therapy lamp on your desk”
  • “Drink water”
  • “Label what you’re experiencing”
  • “Turn your skin care routine into a few moments of self-care”
  • “Spend time outdoors”
  • “Spend a few minutes stretching”
  • “Call or visit a friend”
  • “Give acupuncture a go”
  • “Ask for help when you’re overwhelmed”
  • “Remind yourself that someone else’s mood is not your responsibility”
  • “Volunteer (bonus if it’s with animals)”
  • “Plant a garden”
  • “Watch a funny movie”
  • “Perform an act of kindness”
  • “Be mindful of your social media use”
  • “Create a relaxing bedtime routine”
  • “Meditate”
  • “Or try a moving meditation”
  • “Drink more green tea”
  • “Talk to a therapist”

If you already see a provider for help with a mental health condition, they may recommend trying lifestyle changes like these alongside other prescribed treatments.

“For people living with depression and using medication or other treatments, it’s worth trying to integrate lifestyle changes as well,” according to Douglas Noordsy, a psychiatrist with the Stanford Lifestyle Medicine Program, in the NPR article. “‘There are many people who really want agency in this process,’ he says, and physicians can support that by helping them identify what helps.”

Celebrating Your Successes

You can practice and experiment with new habits until you find what works for you, according to the University of Iowa article. And along the way, try to recognize when you are making progress.

A multi-ethnic group of people are meeting in nature for a group therapy session, showing the celebration of successful habits

“Celebrate your success. You may have heard that repetition is the most important thing for making habits. While practice helps you fine tune what works, emotions create habits. ‘People change by feeling good, not by feeling bad,’ Fogg writes in his book. Have compassion and kindness for yourself for what you are able to do. Celebrate your progress.”

For Melanie Cuchna, starting new small habits helped her learn to care for herself and become more engaged in the many roles she plays in her life.

“Something is always better than nothing. Personally, this has been the most important step in designing my habits. Being able to give myself grace and feel good about what I can do with the time and circumstances I have makes it easier to create positive emotions and keep moving forward,” according to the article.

No matter how you start, small steps – like that far-away butterfly flapping its wings – over time might set new habits in motion and lead you in a new direction.


Our articles are for informational purposes only and are reviewed by our Medical Information team, which includes PharmDs, MDs, and PhDs. Do not make any changes to your current medications or dosing without consulting your healthcare provider.

The GeneSight test must be ordered by and used only in consultation with a healthcare provider who can prescribe medications. As with all genetic tests, the GeneSight test results have limitations and do not constitute medical advice. The test results are designed to be just one part of a larger, complete patient assessment, which would include proper diagnosis and consideration of your medical history, other medications you may be taking, your family history, and other factors.

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