There are many ways to practice self care, from spa trips to exercising. However, sometimes the best way to make yourself feel better is by taking care of others.

When was the last time you volunteered in your community? Research indicates that doing so could have considerable perks. Here’s how giving back can benefit your mental health.

1. It Increases Your Sense of Community

Loneliness can kill. Research shows it contributes to all-cause mortality and worsens depression. Although you may seek to isolate yourself, mixing and mingling with a supportive community is better medicine than therapy for some.

Giving back encourages healthy communities. For example, 80% of people surveyed indicated support for a lottery fund when all proceeds benefited education. Strong schools increase earning potential and provide the necessary structure for children while nurturing their minds.

Find a cause that you love and dedicate yourself to it. If you're a fan of the four-legged set, why not walk dogs or socialize kitties for a local shelter? Those who prefer human contact might find solace in serving up meals at a soup kitchen or volunteering to distribute food to needy older adults as part of a food bank program.

2. It Produces Oodles of Juicy Neurotransmitters

Did you know giving back works like a natural antidepressant? Research indicates that giving back increases your levels of feel-good hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. All of these contribute to a positive mood state.

Low levels of these neurotransmitters increase the symptoms of anxiety and depression and may spur sleep difficulties. Increasing your levels can improve your sense of happiness. Modern SSRI antidepressant medications keep your brain from reabsorbing this chemical, keeping it active.

Dopamine plays a crucial role in governing addictive behavior, as it’s associated with your brain’s reward system. Alcohol spurs your brain to release more of it but damages your receptors, making it more challenging for you to feel pleasure from activities other than drinking. Conversely, getting a natural high through volunteering has no such adverse effects.

3. It Increases Your Sense of Agency

What is a sense of agency? This term refers to your deeply held belief that your actions can make positive changes in your life. Without it, your risk of depression increases significantly as you feel punished by the whims of capricious fate. You might feel as though nothing you do makes any difference.

However, volunteering directly challenges this assumption. Your actions make a concrete difference that you can see. Your reward might be a smile from someone you helped or the supportive sense of community you cultivate while working toward a mutual goal.

This feeling of power can spill over into other areas of your life. For example, you might discover that you can leave that unsatisfying job or relationship. Once you realize what you can do with your abilities, there’s no stopping you.

4. It Inspires Gratitude for What You Have

Gratitude may be the perfect attitude for toxic positivity – the idea that you should simply smile and everything will be okay. Such blanket statements deny your reality, making you feel invalidated. However, thankfulness for what you do have is genuine.

Volunteering inspires gratitude by showing you how fortunate you are. For example, you might feel depressed because your job doesn’t pay you enough to afford that vacation to Europe you’ve always dreamed of taking. However, spending time with individuals at a homeless shelter makes you realize how lucky you are to have a roof over your head, perhaps even a few paid days off to go on a road trip.

Try keeping a gratitude journal and writing in it on those days when you volunteer. You might surprise yourself with the insight you gain – reread these thoughts the next time you feel depression threaten.

How Giving Back Can Benefit Your Mental Health

If you have depression, you might seek solace in therapy or medication. While these treatment modalities work, they aren’t accessible to everyone. What can you do to improve your mental state for free?

Consider the above ways that giving back can benefit your mental health. Then, look for a cause that you feel passionate about and get involved.