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There are so many memes going around right now about the unfortunate cross section of time we’re in and how it’s all affecting our mental health. The tongue-in-cheek images show several characters that represent the overlapping of regular depression, seasonal depression, COVID-related depression and election-year depression. And while all of these are valid triggers for feeling down, having these fears and anxieties living rent free in our minds can take a toll on just about anyone.
To get to the root of our collective sadness and find ways to help us climb out of the funk, we talked to licensed clinical psychotherapist Dr. Erin Wiley, who says self-care is even more important for both mental and physical health during this pandemic. “Self-care can help us remain emotionally stable and healthy during stressful times.” Here, the top five ways to increase your mental well-being when you really don’t feel like it.
Step 1: Take a Personal Inventory
One of the first things we should do says Dr. Wiley, is assess what is going well right now and what’s not. “I do think it’s easy to say there’s very little that’s going well, but when I talk to my patients, one of the things I do is say, what’s good, what’s bad? Helping people see things they can be grateful for and that this isn’t a 100-percent completely washed situation can go a long way. For instance, most of us have most of our family members who are healthy. Even if they’ve had COVID, many people are still alive. We have to remind ourselves what is going well. If you still have a job and you’re still making a salary, that’s a great thing, right? So, there are some things to be grateful for and gratitude does train your brain to look for the positive and it will reset your attitudes.”
Step 2: Reconnect With What You’re Missing
On the flip side, when we assess what isn’t going right in our lives, Dr. Wiley advises pinpointing what you feel you’re lacking. “You have to be able to say what do I miss? And sometimes we don’t even know what we miss,” she adds. “You might think in the middle of winter you don’t want to go outside in the cold, but maybe your heart, your psychology, like the deepest part of you, your psyche needs to be outside. So, you just put a bunch of layers on and get outside, right? I think we have to be able to say, how am I eating? How am I sleeping? And if you’re not sleeping well, then cut back on social media use and get your phone out of your hands and out of your bed and out of your bedroom—or at least move them across the room. We need to start winding down sooner than 11:30. If you want to go to bed at 11:30 then you should start winding down at 10:00. There are a lot of small things that would really add up that are self-care strategies in regard to connecting with others, moving our bodies, nourishing our bodies, being outdoors and being attentive to our emotional needs.”
Step 3: Tell Someone You’re Struggling
So, what if you’re feeling so overwhelmed you aren’t motivated to start working on your mental health and happiness? Dr. Wiley says start slow. “I always say it’s like an emotional hibernation, when you’re so overwhelmed, or you’ve lost so much, or there have been so many challenges, and you’ve been so sad or shut down for so long. Your brain kind of goes, ‘OK, we’re done.’ And it just powers down, right? The only way to get out of it is to do the stuff. Reaching out and letting people know that you’re struggling really helps. People have a lot of shame still about that.”
“If you feel embarrassed to tell your family or friends, there are therapists everywhere, and all of us are doing telehealth. There are people you can call to say, ‘Hey, I just need to say I’m struggling.’ The first step is acknowledging it,” she explains.
Step 4: Tackle One Issue at a Time
“If you’re tired of feeling sad and feel like something has to change, Dr. Wiley advises to pick one small thing. “It could be I’m done drinking soda, or I’m not going to drink six cups of coffee, today,” she advises. “I’m only going to have two, or I’m making myself walk outside of the parking lot at work for four minutes. And that’s it, just small things that are sustainable and easy to reproduce that you can do every day. Wake up, write your gratitudes down in a book before you start brushing your teeth, little things like that. In time, you can add another thing to it. I think so many of us get tired and say, ‘That’s it, I’m done, I have to change this.’ And then, because we’re motivated for the moment, we make a big change but then we don’t sustain it and feel shame and guilt when we don’t maintain that momentum. We say things like, “I’m going to get up every day and meditate for 20 minutes, write in my journal, then go for a run and eat a clean breakfast.’ And that’s just so much all at once, and then you fail. And then you’re like, I knew I couldn’t do it. And then you just quit.”
Step 5: Try to Be More Social
“I really believe social isolation is a big factor for how we’re feeling,” says Dr. Wiley. “Zoom is not the same as meeting in person and it’s not the same to talk to someone online as it is to go to a restaurant and have a communal feeling. Having everything taken from us at once, all of our social interaction, it feels scary and it sets off the nervous system to be nervous, wary and worried. When you live in a space like that, where you’re worried for a long, long time for months and months, it will wear you down and make you depressed because you cannot live in a constant state of panic. Your nervous system won’t let you and you’ll eventually just shut down.”
To get back to socializing, Dr. Wiley says all it takes is one ringleader. “Somebody’s got to be the leader and say, ‘I’m going to start doing Friday night trivia on Zoom, or in this church basement thing where we can all be really far spread apart.’ You find a way to make it work, even if it’s not something you would normally do. Because to be honest, what we normally do now is stay home and don’t talk to anybody because we’re all staying apart. So, I think there’s something about trying to get people together, however you can, that’s an essential part of self-care.”
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