Incredibly, we’re approaching the Two Year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic (it did start about this time two years ago), which forced many of us to retreat to our homes for long-term social isolation. Not surprisingly, our collective mental health is the worse for the wear because of it. Therapists have been reporting significant increases in anxiety, depression and excessive worry in patients for months now, in direct correlation with the pandemic, economic woes and social unrest. According to a January 19 Wall Street Journal article, therapists are advising patients to take proactive steps for mental health, like they would if they wanted to optimize physical fitness. Ergonomists might call this mental health hygiene. The article points out human examples from real life – a retired marketing consultant who limits her news exposure to five minutes a day, a CEO who sits alone in quiet contemplation every afternoon for fifteen minutes, an aesthetician who tries to help others as much as possible, an investment portfolio manager who rock climbs regularly for exercise and a healthy dose of nature.
So what might we do to proactively kick-off a mental-fitness regimen? Experts have advice:
Getting enough sleep – most of us need around 7 to 8 hours of good-quality sleep – can work wonders for our wellbeing. Being well-rested boosts the likelihood that we will feel resilient, calmer and less anxious. Numerous tips exist for improving sleep quality and quantity for those of us who have difficulty obtaining our 7 to 8 hours, including turning off devices and reading at bedtime, turning down the thermostat, taking a bath and leveraging white noise.
Establish and follow a routine.
Experts recommend getting up and going to bed at consistent times in the morning and at night, establishing and sticking to a morning routine, and planning meals, workflow and recreational activities for a semi-set schedule each day, with flexibility built in for unforeseen events. This helps those caring for children as well, since children tend to do better when they know what to expect and have a consistent daily regimen. Routines also give us a sense of normalcy and, importantly, help us feel in control, which we all especially need right now, when the world around us can seem decidedly out of control.
Helping others helps us, too. We feel better about ourselves when we commit an act of kindness, and compassionate people are shown to be happier, more optimistic, more proactive and more resilient. To help others, you can look for formal volunteer opportunities, or just practice everyday kindnesses – shoveling a neighbor’s snowy sidewalk, helping a shopper reach an item on a too-high shelf, baking cookies for a friend. Therapists also say we should make a concerted effort to be kind to ourselves as well. None of what we are presently enduring is easy, and none of us is completely unscathed by what has been happening to us and to our world for the past year. It’s perfectly fine to treat our own self as someone who has experienced upheaval and loss for the past ten months (because we have).
The rock-climbing investment portfolio manager? He feels gratitude when he gazes over the jaw-dropping nature vistas he enjoys when he climbs an ascent. Everyone is struggling to a certain extent at the moment, and irritability is all but inevitable, but try to think of aspects of your loved ones that you appreciate. The author of the WSJ article suggests thinking of at least five things you like about a loved one, and soon enough, you’ll be smiling at your thoughts of that person.
If your brain is on high alert all the time, you cannot cope well with stress or pressure. Many people find meditation helpful; for those of us who cannot seem to mediate, even a few daily yoga poses – a couple of sun salutations, perhaps – can make us feel calmer and more centered.
Watch your words.
It’s easy to be reactionary in our internal dialogue – “I can’t take it!” when faced with an obstacle, “it’s unbearable!” Instead, experts recommend tempering our language with modifiers to ‘cool down’ our thoughts and words. “This is a challenge, but I’m up for it.” “This is a problem, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Watch less news.
Our country’s leadership may now be less incendiary, but there is still plenty of divisive and troubling news every day. While you want to remain informed, there’s no need to consume hours of news every day, unless you are professionally obliged to do so. Decide how much news you will watch or read or listen to, and then stick with your resolution. It also helps to look for positive news streams or entertaining reading to counterbalance the negativity.
Research has shown time and again that aerobic exercise improves alertness, focus, mood, self-esteem, even sleep, and it reduces anxiety and fatigue. Even better is exercising in nature. 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise a day is all it takes to achieve measurable results, and you’ll extend those benefits to anyone you can convince to join you, whether a partner, friend or even a canine companion.
Recreate – carefully.
Research shows that pleasant activities, ones that make you feel accomplished (i.e., learning a language or a skill like knitting or playing an instrument), and ones that make you feel purposeful and helpful (i.e., volunteering) all contribute to mental health. Not only do you feel proud of yourself when you learn a new skill or help others, but you regain some of that all-important control that we are all presently missing in the pandemic.
Clean up your social media.
Just as you shouldn’t keep toxic people in your life, you should feel free to cut out toxic social media feeds and contacts as well. You’ll be astonished at how much better you’ll feel once you’re no longer seeing posts from people that bring you down or make you feel inferior. It’s important to remember that building a rosy image on social media is easy, so be careful not to compare yourself too harshly to that friend from college who has built the “perfect” family, or the contact from childhood who seems to have acquired all the fancy cars and grown-up toys that you wish you had. You never know what’s really going on behind the façade.
Please visit us at https://namiccns.org to learn more about our education, advocacy and support programming, and join us online for any of our scheduled groups and activities. Our services are always free, and we offer numerous groups on virtual formats – or just dial in via telephone. As always, at NAMI CCNS, we are here to help.