Who wasn’t glad to say goodbye to 2020? The tumultuous year challenged every aspect of our mental (and physical) health. And 2021 hasn’t been much different. Depression, anxiety, unstable moods, social isolation and existential fear shattered our peace and wore everyone down.
- Anchor your day with a morning routine.
- Reach out to others to stave off isolation.
- Find low-stress ways to connect from a distance.
- Take an in-depth relationship inventory.
- Find fun, creative activities to boost your spirits.
- Exercise regularly – ideally outdoors.
- Use mindfulness and meditation to stay present.
- Try out a mental health app.
- Make restoring good sleep a priority.
- Eat healthfully.
- Seek immediate help if you’re endangered.
- Address substance abuse and relapse.
- Choose and express gratitude.
- Remember to be kind to yourself.
- Look for light and hope at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
- Hang in there.
The most common mental health issues arising during the pandemic are also the most common issues in general, says Dr. Don Mordecai, the national leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente.
Anxiety disorders, followed by major depression and depressive disorders “really account for the lion’s share of conditions that we see,” Mordecai says. “Next most common would be your substance use disorders. And, frankly, there are signals that all of these are going up under the pandemic.”
It’s important to understand that showing symptoms don’t equal somebody having major depression, notes Mordecai, who is also an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School. However, he adds, it’s likely that documented mental health diagnoses will rise in the near future.
These strategies can help restore your serenity and keep you emotionally grounded:
Start with a stabilizing routine. “Try to develop a morning routine of healthy activities that you do every morning to set the table for the day,” suggests Anita Gadhia-Smith, a psychotherapist who practices in the District of Columbia and Bethesda, Maryland. “That routine can include things like yoga, meditation, exercise, prayer, some sort of conversation or connection with friends or groups, listening to podcasts – anything that nourishes you.” Having an anchor for the day gives you a sense of well-being and that all is well, she says.
Reach out to others. Make a concrete effort to stay in touch with others in your life. “Reach out to three people a day,” Gadhia-Smith recommends. “And if you can, try to have a full conversation with three people a day. It really helps to reduce the isolation.”
Have phone conversations or video chats. Inability to interact with families, friends and community members as you have in the past is not good for either physical or mental health, says Kyle Bourassa, a clinical psychology researcher at the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University Medical Center.
Interacting virtually or from a distance is the next best thing to meeting in person, but how you connect makes a difference. “Past research has shown that interacting on social networks can have really negative effects on your mental health,” Bourassa says. Oftentimes, he says, phone calls and video chats are better for you than posting on Facebook or Instagram.
Practice mindfulness and meditation. To stave off fear of the future you can’t control, stay in the present. “It’s important to bring yourself back to the present moment,” says Gadhia-Smith, who recommends mindfulness and meditation for her clients to do so.
Try out a mental health app. Apps like Calm and myStrength can serve as mental health tools. “We’re using them in two ways,” says Mordecai, who conducted a study on incorporating high-quality “digital therapeutics” into the Kaiser health care delivery system. “One is as an adjunct to treatment, especially cognitive behavioral therapy.” Apps can encourage patients to do their CBT mental health “homework” between sessions, by making the work more compelling and convenient to access, he says. The other approach is giving all Kaiser members access to download the apps simply to practice mindfulness and ease stress on their own. You can ask your own provider for a referral or just try an app on your own to help you relax and sleep better.
Declutter your relationship. Too much togetherness – partners stuck at home during isolation periods – can strain any relationship. “Some couples have become closer and happier,” Gadhia-Smith says. “But others who had problems lurking under the surface have gotten into more difficulty. They’re having to face their issues head-on because of the increased time together and the lack of activity and distractions that they previously had.”
It may be time to go full Marie Kondo on your partnership or marriage. “Couples can do their own version of decluttering in their relationship,” Gadhia-Smith says. “Face issues that have been lingering. Work on your communication skills in order to talk about what’s important to each other and to try to resolve issues. Keep what works, keep what’s good and build on that. Try to work through and then let go of old issues that no longer need to be there.”
Enjoy fun, creative activities. It’s actually OK to enjoy yourself. “For your mental health, it’s really important to try to find healthy ways to have fun,” Gadhia-Smith says. Check whether favorite musicians and other entertainers have posted pandemic-era YouTube performances. Even better: Pick up an instrument, paintbrush, and embroidery loop or carpentry toolbox and get creative yourself.
Eat healthily. The “pandemic 15” is no joke as dietary and nutrition issues are becoming a problem. “I’m seeing people really struggling with food,” Gadhia-Smith says. “Because that’s one of the few things we can do, and a lot of people use to that to anesthetize themselves.” Try to find alternative ways to feel satisfied, and seek out a therapist, or a registered dietitian or nutritionist if you need help getting healthy eating back on track.
Move your body. Regular exercise is more important than ever to lift depressed, sluggish moods. “If I could get patients to do just a couple things to improve their mental health it would be to learn mindfulness techniques and to exercise,” Mordecai says.
Outdoor physical activity – if you have space that safely allows it – will boost your spirits further while helping you stay or get back in shape. “There has been a surge in home exercise equipment being purchased,” Gadhia-Smith notes. “But getting outside is best. If weather doesn’t permit, do what you can. Try to move your body for at least 30 minutes a day.”