Keeping Up With Your Mental Health

By David Watts

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and during these unprecedented and quarantined times, everyone’s mental state is under duress in one way or another. The outbreak of COVID-19 is stressful for many people, causing fear and anxiety which can be overwhelming and drive strong emotions. Finding ways to take care of your mental health is essential, now more than ever. Here are some easy steps to cope with stress that will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.  

  • Be Kind To Yourself
    • Acknowledge this is hard and it’s okay to have these feelings.  Yes, things are difficult and strange right now and it’s scary to suddenly lose structure and be separated from your support network. A vast body of research conducted by psychologist Kristin Neff and colleagues has shown the value of self-compassion for coping with emotional challenges and adversity. To ease feelings of isolation, acknowledge your struggle with kindness, rather than self-judgment. Try not to panic and remember that you are not alone in this and people all over the globe are experiencing similar feelings. 
  • Combat Frustration and Boredom
    • Some of the distress of being quarantined stems from boredom and frustration. Finding ways to stay occupied is important, so try to maintain as many of your routines as you can. Keep working on projects or find new activities to fill your time, whether it’s organizing your closet or trying out a new creative hobby. Getting things checked off your “to-do” list can provide a sense of purpose, competency, and completion. It gives you something to work towards and something to look forward to each day. So make a plan, list some things you’d like to accomplish, and then start checking a few things off that list each day.
  • Eat Well
    • A well-nourished body is better equipped to handle stress. Sticking to consistent meal times, rather than stress-snacking throughout the day, can also help you maintain your mental and physical equilibrium. Nourish yourself with healthy options like traditional Mediterranean food, sometimes referred to as the “anti-depression diet” for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s a great option which includes whole grains, vegetables (particularly green leaves), fruit, berries, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.  Now is not the time to start a restrictive diet and add more stress to this situation! It’s perfectly fine to enjoy some comfort foods, like freshly baked brownies or cookies as they really can produce happiness…even if it is temporary!  
  • Sleep Well
    • Ninety percent of depressed people struggle with sleep, which is likely to increase with fears over the coronavirus. The changes in your usual schedule, coupled with anxiety, can wreak havoc on your ZZZs. Good quality sleep is a form of overnight therapy and increases the chance of handling strong emotions effectively. Maintain your normal schedule – wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, get eight hours of sleep, and limit screen time two hours before bedtime. If you find yourself lying in bed wide awake for more than 15 to 30 minutes, get up and change your mental channel by watching TV, reading a book or listening to music. You could also listen to a guided meditation available on YouTube or one of the many meditation apps, such as 10% Happier, Headspace or the UCLA Center for Mindfulness.  
  • Exercise and Keep Moving
    • Yes, we are stuck at home and our favorite gyms are closed, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop moving. Aerobic exercise is one of the best mental health boosters out there, obliterating stress and relieving symptoms of depression. Clinical studies show that regular exercise produces dopamine and serotonin, which are as effective as antidepressant medication or psychotherapy for treating mild depression. Staying in shape can also keep our bodies primed to fight illness. This doesn’t mean you should break the bank on expensive gym equipment that will most likely end up cluttering the garage, or in your bedroom corner as a clothes hanger after the quarantine is over. You can easily take a walk, do some at-home exercises, follow countless exercise videos online or utilize many of the different workout apps available on our smartphones and tablets. Experts recommend between 30-40 minutes of exercise, three to four times a week, to work up a sweat. Your quarantine may be brief, but staying active may help you feel better and maintain your fitness levels and combat the sense of helplessness and boredom that can come from being stuck inside day after day.
  • Get Some Sun
    • When everything else is closed, nature is the one thing that will always remain open. Getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine is amazing for both mental and physical health. Try going outside at least once a day if you can, even to just sip coffee or a drink in your backyard. If nothing else, you’ll get your daily dose of virus-fighting vitamin D.  A positive result may also be a nice tan!  And don’t we all look and feel a little better (and skinnier) with a touch of color??
  • Exercise Your Mind 
    • Whether you use meditation, yoga or prayer, focusing your attention on the present moment, rather than constantly obsessing over the pandemic or a catastrophic, uncertain future can help you manage your stress. If you tend to compound your negative emotions with a barrage of negative thoughts (“I should be handling this better;” “This is unbearable,” “Are we all going to die?”), mindfulness training can be useful in tempering your emotional reactions. One good resource is “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. The UCSD Center for Mindfulness also has free, guided meditations and useful information about the practice.  Other ways to keep your mind sharp are reading, puzzles, and games. Jeopardy, anyone?
  • Separate Yourself From Negative/Toxic People
    • We all have certain people in our lives who are overly critical, seem to focus on the negative, and have a dim outlook on the future.  I like to call these people “emotional vampires” as they seem to suck the life right out of you. These types of toxic friends are common and can lead to you also having negative thoughts and actions. In fact, reported that 84 percent of women and 75 percent of men said they have had a toxic friend at some point, with one in three survey takers fessing up to a toxic BFF.  If you say and hear things long enough, you will start embodying those emotions (either negative or positive). So surround yourself with people who see the glass as half-full instead of half-empty. Try to spend your time and energy on those who share your ideals, vision, and outlook on life if possible. Nobody likes Debbie Downer! 
  • Communicate
    • Loneliness is an unavoidable side effect of social distancing as we quarantine ourselves from human contact. Luckily, there are so many different ways to connect when we’re feeling alone, such as phone calls, texts, social media, video chats, Zoom calls, virtual dinner parties, and even snail mail. Staying in contact with friends, colleagues, and family members not only staves off boredom, but it is also critical for minimizing the sense of isolation. If possible, join a support group or discussion board specifically for people who are in quarantine or maybe in the same line of work as you. Talking to others who are going through the same thing can provide a sense of community and empowerment. You can also find purpose in helping the people around you. For example, check on your friends, family members, and neighbors — especially those who are elderly. If you know someone who can’t get out, ask if there’s something needed, such as groceries or a prescription picked up that you could help with. But be sure to follow CDC, WHO, and your government recommendations on social distancing and group meetings.
  • Stay Informed, but Not Overwhelmed
    • People tend to experience greater anxiety when they feel like they don’t have access to correct and true information. On the other hand, however, there is a sense of panic that can stem from being immersed 24/7 in reports that focus on inaccurate or overly negative information. Rather than spend your time watching cable news or getting caught in the nonsense of fake news on social media, get helpful information from trusted sources. Sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), state and local health departments, and your doctor can all be helpful.  Constant news about the pandemic can feel relentless and may exacerbate existing mental health problems. Be careful about the balance of watching important news and the news that could cause you to feel depressed and disrupt your mental health. It’s okay to block out the noise for a while!
  • Spread Positivity and Happiness
    • Smile! It increases your face value! Maintaining a positive attitude is probably one of the best things we can do to help one another right now. Focus on positive thoughts. Choose to reflect on the positive things in your life, instead of dwelling on how bad you feel about the situation. Consider starting each day by listing things you are thankful for. Maintain a sense of hope, work to accept changes as they occur, and try to keep problems in perspective. Sharing funny jokes, videos, and memes will make people smile and laugh. Positivity has a ripple effect of joy that can make a huge difference to others. You never know what stress, sadness or fear others are experiencing, so your smile, joke or virtual hug can make a big difference.