Updated: Sep 5, 2021
By Carol Queiroz
Image via OECD DevelopmentMatters.
*Disclaimer: The writer of this article is not a professional on mental health. Some of the pieces of advice listed are what works for her (as a person with Generalized Anxiety Disorder), what she has seen work for people around her, and advice from people who specialized in mental health.*
Mental health is a vital part of everyone’s well being. It impacts the decisions you make, the ways you act, the way you feel, productivity, social life, and a lot more. Maintaining consistent habits to take care of yourself mentally plays a key role in remaining healthy and balanced. As important as it is, mental health is heavily stigmatized, often seen as a secondary worry behind physical health or work. Sometimes, mental health issues are perceived as weak or irrational; and during a time when everyone's world has shifted during a pandemic, new challenges have arisen in mental health. Symptoms of anxiety and depression have been on the rise amongst adults and youth before the pandemic hit, and now with the pandemic, these symptoms have increased considerably. The CDC has found that younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and caregivers have reported disproportionate mental health outcomes dating back from the first few months of the pandemic. Another CDC study showed that in a U.S KFF Tracking Point, 53% of adults reported their mental health worsening in mid-July, as opposed to 32% when the same survey was conducted in March. Now more than ever, it is essential to actively make an effort to take care of your mental health, and here are some simple ways to do so.
Setting small goals for the day
Setting smaller goals for yourself can be a good way to put your workload into perspective. When you set a goal to complete by the end of each day, it provides an ability to focus your attention and motivation on accomplishing the goal. It also helps with feeling like what you have to do is manageable and that you are capable of making progress, especially on the days when you don’t feel like doing much. Attempting to take on several big projects or daily tasks at once can result in mountains of avoidable stress, but completing them little by little is a great way to regain a sense of accomplishment and happiness. The goals you set can be as small as getting out of bed, taking a shower, sitting down to eat a meal, or starting a project you’ve been putting off: whatever you can reasonably achieve that day.
Start a journal
Sometimes, you don’t realize how stressed or anxious you are until you slow down and reflect. A journal gives you a creative and private place to express and process your emotions in a healthy way. Releasing negative thoughts on paper can help put your mind at ease and can be a good coping mechanism when you need to get something off your chest. Journals can also help keep track of your growth as a person: reading old journal entries and seeing how far you’ve come from the person you once were increases self-confidence and can reassure you that you’re working on being the best version of yourself. I use a journal to keep track of the daily goals I set for myself, and I write whenever I’m feeling upset. Many times after I’ve finished writing, I take a few minutes to process everything I wrote and think of solutions to help me feel better. When you understand what you are feeling, you achieve a deeper understanding of yourself, and you can build towards finding what would work best for you to effectively deal with problems and negative emotions.
Back to self care basics
Sometimes, it's the simplest things that can help us start to feel better. The first step to take when returning back to self care basics is planning time in your schedule to do nothing. When you don’t specifically plan free time into your day, it becomes easier to fill the day up with constant work, which can lead to avoidable stress. It’s important to prioritize your mental health and create a healthy balance between your work and your life, which is why planning breaks can be good for you. Once you’ve set aside this time for yourself, it's time for some self care. Self care can be done in many different ways depending on what relaxes each person the most! A few self care recommendations are:
Play with your pets/ get a pet
Spending time with pets has shown to have numerous mental health benefits. In some cases, pets help lower cortisol (a primary stress hormone) and blood pressure, and reduce feelings of loneliness, sadness, and anxiety overall. Pets can also be a great motivator to go outside your house and exercise, which is beneficial to those with depression. Finally, pets also create a daily routine to follow, which helps those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or anyone who is looking for more structure in their life.
Take care of your body
Taking care of your physical health will have a positive impact on your mental health as well. Setting regular sleeping, eating, drinking and exercising habits are small ways that can take care of yourself and improve your overall well-being. You can also take care of your body by taking any necessary medication or by taking the time to have a long shower.
Spend time with friends and family
Especially during the pandemic, making time for friends and family can end up feeling less important than other things going on in your life. But surrounding yourself with people who care about you is incredibly important, even if it’s only for a small amount of time each day
Recognize your triggers
This can be a long process as many triggers aren’t always clear, but recognizing your triggers is an essential step to preventing relapses and bettering your well being. Everyone has emotional triggers that vary based on their own personal experiences, and the way to find what yours are is to see how your body responds to certain situations. If your body generates a strong emotional response to a situation you are in, whether that emotion is extreme stress or sadness, this is an opportunity for you to take a step back from the situation and try to trace back to find the reason a trigger was activated. Everyone should do this at their own pace, but once the root of the trigger is discovered, it will be easier to become aware of which situations you can handle, and take you a step closer to learning about managing these strong emotions.
Everyday, I have to get up for school at 6 a.m. and run out of my house to catch the bus. After spending hours past when I should’ve gone to sleep the night before finishing projects and homework, I always wake up wanting the day to be over. I start shivering from the winter air and my head starts to pound. Nothing seems too pleasant about these mornings, but on the drive to the bus stop, I can see the sunrise. The sky turns pink and orange with the clouds streaking across. The colors unfold with each minute; it’s always gorgeous. And if I was still sleeping, I would’ve missed it. This is the first thing I do in my day to remind myself that I am grateful to be here. Sunrises are small things, but they help ground me and remind me that there is always something to be grateful for. The feeling of gratitude builds up in me on my way to school, and I write about it in my phone's notes app. Sometimes, I’ll even text my family or friends about it, adding a little note that I am glad they are in my life and thankful for them being there for me. Identifying things that make you happy and that you're thankful for throughout the day is incredibly important for your mental health. It helps you focus on what you love about your life instead of focusing on what's going wrong in it. Continually reflecting on, recognizing, and expressing your feelings of happiness and gratitude helps you acknowledge all of the goodness that you can find in your life.
Name your emotions, and give them a personality
This one may seem odd at first, but naming your emotions is a researched technique that has been beneficial for many people with anxiety disorders and other mental health illnesses. While it can feel like it won’t help at first, this technique helps you gain more control over negative emotions while giving them an identity. It makes emotions feel less intimidating because it gives you an opportunity to separate yourself from the emotions that continually weigh you down. It's a reminder that YOU are not these negative emotions, you’re just feeling them. And giving them a personality can help you manage how much attention you give to the negative emotion you're naming; so instead of giving these emotions your full attention, you can step back from them when you need to.
Here's a quick example of this technique (based off of an article by a professional counselor):
The emotion we’ll focus on for this example is anxiety. You wake up to go to school and you can feel her there. Her name is Hazel, and she usually is overthinking every decision you make. Sometimes, she doesn’t want to let you leave your house. You address her: “What do you want, Hazel?” She begins to go on and on about all the reasons you shouldn’t leave your house and go to school today. She says things like, “No one at school likes you, you’re going to fail your classes, you aren’t smart enough for your classes.” But you know Hazel is always being irrational, she never tells you why this is going to happen. Or sometimes, she blows little situations up and makes them bigger than they really are. You tell her she is wrong, and that you can get through the day today. You have the power to silence Hazel and not let her overcome you. This is the power of naming your emotions. And of course, negative feelings are always valid, but this technique helps you move on from them.
Remember it's okay not to be okay and ask for help
No one has perfect mental health 24/7, and we can’t handle all of our emotions by ourselves. It can be difficult admitting that you need help, especially with something as big as mental health, as it has been so heavily stigmatized and can make you feel like you're alone. But asking for help is the first step to getting better. And of course, asking for help is something that each person should do at their own pace to make themselves feel safe, but if you feel like you are in a comfortable and safe place to talk about how you're feeling, talk to a person you trust and reach out to them for help. If you feel as though you are getting suffocated by school work, reach out to your teachers for extensions or even mental health days to work on yourself.
There is no magical cure to have perfect mental health. Everyone will always have really low days, as they are unavoidable. Maybe there are days where you feel like you can’t get out of bed, or feel a heavy lack of motivation, and that's okay. But working towards a better state of mental health is incredibly brave, and there will always be people to support you. Remember you're not alone and this journey will take some time, but you can do it!
Written by writer Carol Queiroz
Mental Health Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)