Unfortunately, for many of us the past few months of quarantining and social distancing have made it extremely difficult to feel like our “normal” selves.
This can be very frustrating, not seeing loved ones for prolonged periods of time, staying inside for many hours a day, and let’s face it – not feeling motivated to get things done around the house or other tasks. This can leave us simultaneously feeling drained, and at the same time strangely agitated that we haven’t been “productive enough” or maybe we get down on ourselves about “not using all this free time wisely.”
The truth is, these are unprecedented times, and in order to bolster our mental wellbeing, we must go back to the basics – taking care of mind and body. If you have been feeling overwhelmed or stressed-out lately, ask yourself, have you addressed the following areas of mental wellness?
If not, try setting small goals for yourself in each of thes 5 categories, and reassess your mood after one week. Remember, a little bit of effort is better than nothing.
For example, If you’re done with work, and you don’t feel like exercising, but you decide to go for a 10 minute walk around the block…hey, that’s better than simply zoning out on the couch.
1. Move Your Body
Studies show that pound for pound, exercise is the best stress-beating thing you can do. Being sedentary has also been shown to be the enemy of longevity and wellbeing. The good news? Even just 10-20 minutes per day of fast walking can ease your anxiety, reduce fatigue, and improve sleep. In fact, if we could bottle it up and sell it, it would blow antidepressants and antianxiety drugs on the market out of the water.
The key however, as you have probably heard by now, is consistency. A 10 minute walk done on a daily basis is better than 30 min of running done once a week. That’s why I advocate setting small goals…because a little bit is better than nothing. How many minutes of walking, running or biking can you commit to this week? What could make it more enjoyable? Perhaps you have a favorite podcast or music playlist that you could listen to…whatever it is, enjoy! Once you hit your goal of doing something regularly for a small, specified amount of time, then it’s time to increase it.
2. Externalize Your Feelings
As human beings it’s of vital importance to get our feelings out in some way or another. The risk of “bottling up” emotions is that they can erupt as anger or irritable outbursts that we often end up regretting. Most of all, we know from extensive research that harboring hostility or anger puts us at increased risk of heart disease.
So, whether it’s talking to a trusted friend or therapist, writing your feelings in a journal or painting/drawing, just find a way to get them out when you need to do so. I know, the last you probably want to do after back-to-back Zoom meetings all day is jump behind yet another screen time call with a friend or family member.
Well, the good news here is that since things are opening back up in Massachusetts, you can slowly begin to reevaluate how you interact with others in person. For example, perhaps consider sharing an outdoor meal 6 feet apart in this nice weather…while it lasts!
3. Ensure Good Sleep
You’ve heard it all before – get 8 hours of sleep, or else…suffer the consequences. Well, this is partly true. Studies show that you should aim to get 6-8 hours per night, but even more important than this exact number of hours is following a routine. This means going to bed and waking up within a specified time range. For example, in bed by 10pm, asleep by 11, and up by 7am. Our hi-tech lifestyle can hinder our sleep quality as well. It may feel relaxing to lay in bed scrolling through social media on our phones, but research demonstrates that the light emitted from our screens can significantly interfere with our brain’s ability to shut down and reset. Instead, our brains interpret the lights as a sign that “hey, we should be awake, let’s secrete less melatonin.” Therefore, as a consequence, we get less restful sleep, often resulting in more awakenings in the night or shortened sleep cycles. So try to put the phone/electronics away about one hour before bedtime and keep them out of reach while you’re in bed. Secondly, here’s a trick if you’re having trouble falling asleep after 20-30 minutes – try getting out of bed, going into another room and reading until you feel sleepy, then return to bed. The reason for this is that if night after night you are tossing and turning, stressing about “when will I fall asleep? Oh man, it’s already 3am” then guess what? Your brain will begin associating the bedroom with a LACK of sleep or with anxiety. So, try to reprogram your mind to associate your bedroom with relaxation only.
4. Consume Omega-3s
Check with your physician first, as this is not medical advice, but one method of increasing your intake of omega-3s would be to consider supplementing with fish oil (available in capsule forms). Studies show that populations who regularly consume higher levels of omega 3s (e.g. eating fish often) often live longer, happier lives than those who do not. Here’s a link to view many of the purported benefits to all-around health, including improving depression symptoms, ADHD, high blood pressure and inflammation: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-health-benefits-of-omega-3#section11.
5. Practice Relaxation Skills
Need a quick way to calm down? Practice diaphragmatic breathing to deepen and slow down your breathing pattern, which can bring about a slower heart rate, and lowered blood pressure, all inducing your nervous system’s ability to calm itself. Try sitting or lying down in a quiet environment with no distractions for 5 minutes while practicing deep breathing.
Keep it simple, this is not becoming a Zen monk 101…all you have to do is this: Close your eyes (if you feel comfortable doing so), breathe in through your nose for a count of 4 seconds, then release through your mouth for a count of 6 seconds.
To make sure you are getting deep inhalations (aka using your diaphragm), simply place one hand on your belly and make sure that when you breathe in that hand rises. If/when you get distracted, just gently bring your focus back to your breathing.
If you get stuck, just remember to slow down your breathing and make it deeper — smell the flowers on the way in, blow the candles on the way out.
There are tons of free apps out there nowadays that can assist you in performing relaxation exercises. When you relax your body, your mind will follow. It’s nearly impossible to have a relaxed body, with an anxious mind. How do I know this? Well, have you ever seen someone go to sleep while hyperventilating? I haven’t either. But don’t take my word for it, go and test it out yourself!