One of the goals of Mental Health Awareness Month is to provide tips and tools for Resilience, and there’s no way around it: the past 14 months have been intense, and the mental health impacts of the pandemic will last for years – if not decades – to come. Whether it’s the effects of social isolation, loss & grief, financial turbulence, nationwide divisiveness & upheaval, and/or the awkward reemergence of crafting our “new normal,” our neurology has been significantly impacted, both individually and collectively.
How do we move forward? How do we cultivate resilience for ourselves and our clients in this strange new world in the face of so much worldwide trauma? In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, here are tips & tools for wellbeing:
The research supporting the efficacy of meditation for mental well-being is astounding. Meditation has been proven to: relieve pain, increase focus & concentration, decrease blood pressure, improve sleep, control anxiety, and much more. It can also be employed to cultivate other beneficial habits & feelings, such as a positive mood, optimistic outlook, and self-discipline.
However, please note that some data show that mindfulness is preferable to meditation for clinical depression, while the reverse is true for anxiety. Mindfulness can make some anxious folks even more hypervigilant; meditation can pull a depressed person even further down. If you – or a client – is depressed and/or anxious, proceed with caution, testing short trials of both meditation and mindfulness practices in session a few times before employing the techniques solo.
Like meditation, gratitude has been shown to improve relationships, increase self-esteem, and enhance physical health.
“Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal, and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects who did not. Those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events”. (Emmons & McCullough, 2003)
Try this simple daily habit: during the day, jot down three things you’re grateful for; you can also try sharing via text or email to a friend or group of friends for accountability. At bedtime, call those three things to mind, and try to really feel the positive sensations they create in your body as you fall asleep. After a week, notice if your capacity for happiness has increased and/or if you find yourself feeling more buoyant.
We all know that physical exercise reduces stress, releases feel-good endorphins, improves sleep, and can make challenges seem more manageable. It can serve us mentally at least as much as physically if not more. The key is finding a routine that you can maintain.
The latest research indicates that physical activity doesn’t need to be lengthy to provide powerful benefits. Even just stretching for a few minutes every hour or two during the day can be effective in supporting physical & mental health, and simple activities throughout the day, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, can add up. Challenge yourself to weave movement into your daily routine, and experiment with working out at different times of day, testing various forms of exercise.
A brisk walk on your lunch break may be more attainable than going to a gym, especially as pandemic restrictions fluctuate. Or perhaps strength training in a home gym or taking a virtual dance or yoga class works best for your body & schedule. Determine what works realistically for you, and stick with it!
Space & Stuff
Being stuck at home can help us understand how much our space and belongings can impact our mental health. Does your space feel calming, comforting, and nurturing? Or do you feel claustrophobic when hunkering down at home? Are your belongings allies, tools of expression, and support? Or do you feel like you have too much extraneous stuff? Clutter and disorganization can sap our energy, diffuse our motivation, and even increase depressive tendencies.
If your space feels stagnant or restrictive, check out the methods of Marie Kondo (“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”), Monica Leed, or the ancient practice of Feng Shui. You might be amazed at how profoundly clearing stagnation in your home can impact your mental health and well-being.
The data shows that spending time in nature is linked to both cognitive benefits and improvements in mood, mental health, and emotional well-being. Connection with nature cultivates kindness, cooperation, and generosity, and people who feel more connected to nature have greater eudaimonic well-being — a type of contentment that goes beyond just feeling good and includes having a meaningful purpose in life.
“There is mounting evidence, from dozens and dozens of researchers, that nature has benefits for both physical and psychological human wellbeing,” says Lisa Nisbet, Ph.D., a psychologist at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, who studies connectedness to nature. “You can boost your mood just by walking in nature, even in urban nature. And your connection with the natural world seems to contribute to happiness even when you’re not physically immersed in nature.”
In a study of residents of Denmark, researchers used a satellite to assess people’s exposure to green space from birth through age 10, which they compared with longitudinal data on individual mental health outcomes. They examined data from more than 900,000 residents born between 1985 and 2003.
Children who grew up in neighborhoods with more green space had a reduced risk of many psychiatric disorders later in life, including depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. For those with the lowest levels of green space exposure during childhood, the risk of developing mental illness was 55% higher than those with abundant green space (Engemann, K., et al., PNAS, Vol. 116, No. 11, 2019). (source: American Psychological Association)
Sleep & Rest
Sleep is an often overlooked component of a healthy lifestyle – and yet, ironically, it’s one of the most powerfully effective ways to support good health. Good sleep supports immunity, healthy weight, increased productivity, and many other benefits for physical & mental health. Conversely, poor sleep can cause high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, or stroke. Other potential adverse effects include obesity, depression, lowered immunity (especially important during the pandemic), and decreased sex drive (Cleveland Clinic).
Chronic sleep deprivation can affect your appearance: over time, it can lead to premature wrinkling and dark circles under the eyes. There’s also a link between lack of sleep and an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which can break down collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth.
Beyond the personal benefits of “beauty sleep,” the importance of good sleep to support mental & behavioral wellness cannot be overemphasized, especially in a culture like ours that actually values being too busy to get enough rest. For concise yet compelling data about the importance of sleep, check out “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.
As providers, it’s easy to focus on the content of a session, forgetting the importance of how your client’s nutrition can affect their body and brain. Food choices can alter hormones, energy levels, stress response, inflammation, and mood, but is often ignored in general medicine, not to mention mental & behavioral health treatment.
The gut-brain axis can actually have a profound impact on our overall well-being: foods such as fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics can have a powerful influence on immunity, inflammation, and anxiety – as well as a number of brain disorders, including severe depression, dementia, and schizophrenia! A large proportion of the neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gut.
While mental health providers aren’t expected to be nutritionists, we should stay up-to-date on food and nutrition’s powerful impact on clients’ mental & behavioral health.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, our connections are important. We’re social creatures, and while virtual interactions have gotten us through this challenge – personally & professionally – they’re not a sustainable substitute for in-person connection.
As restrictions ease and you can reconnect with the community, employ compassion. Residual fear, social awkwardness, and/or some readjustment fatigue might exist. Don’t be surprised or dismayed if returning to the community brings some emotional turbulence.
It might be easy for some – especially if there were underlying issues of depression, withdrawal, or isolation – to remain disconnected. What tools can you employ (for yourself and your clients) to bridge this transitional discomfort in order to secure the rich physical & mental benefits of strong personal relationships? How can we safely reconnect with the community that is so vital to our well-being?
For those who parent and/or work with kids, these principles can also be applied to bolster their mental resilience. While the long-term effects of the pandemic on children will be revealed over time, we can employ these practices now to ease their transition into a re-opening world.
Check out “Simplicity Parenting” for a straightforward exploration of how stress relief, calm, and connection techniques can serve children of all ages well beyond current challenges.
Thanks to the pandemic, the importance of mental health is finally being recognized as an essential cornerstone of well-being. We actually have a unique opportunity to evaluate our priorities.
Mental health tools are always relevant & vital; they’re also needed now more than ever.