Hard to say how or when the pandemic will eventually end but one thing is for sure, it’s impact on mental health won’t soon be forgotten. One bright spot in the pandemic wilderness has been the de-stigmatization of mental health challenges. Whether you struggle from time to time with pandemic-induced low moods or are dealing with more chronic mental health issues, more than ever, prioritizing, cultivating, and protecting mental health is no longer a taboo subject. That’s fortunate because we’ve still got continued social isolation to contend with, not to mention the classic winter blues that many folks wrestled with even before COVID turned life upside down (think, short days, and cold temps). So, how to push through the next few months in the best mental shape possible? Here are some thoughts – and of course, healthy habits – to help keep your mood, mind, and spirits on track:
Stay connected – with yourself.
Though social interaction is essential (tough as that may be to achieve these days), it’s just as important to stay connected with yourself. I’m talking about tuning into the ebb and flow of your emotional states, being conscious of what keeps you on an even keel and what disrupts your balance. Granted, awareness won’t stop the destabilizing stuff from happening, but it will make riding the waves easier, versus being flattened by them. This kind of awareness keeps you open to new solutions to old challenges and weathering adversity of all kinds. Being able to ‘bounce back’ is the key to going with the flow, especially when that flow turns choppy.
Strengthen your resilience muscles.
Whether or not you think of yourself as particularly resilient, the good news is, you can always grow your skills. And now would be the time to focus on them. Few of us saw the pandemic coming, much less the emotional upheaval it would bring. But we’ve probably all noticed that some people in our lives have adjusted better than others. You can wrap up that difference in a word: resilience – an all-important trait which supports both emotional and physical health. How to build those resilience muscles? Try these simple practices:
1. Embrace realistic positivity – As in, positivity that’s grounded in reality and doesn’t deny the reality of life stresses. It means practicing gratitude frequently and includes having some degree of trust (in the universe or a higher power, whatever you like), that, eventually, everything will work out the way it’s supposed to. If things go wrong, try not to catastrophize, and look for silver linings along the way, no matter small.
2. Let your history be your guide – Though many of the issues we’re dealing with today are unprecedented, know that for you to have gotten this far in life, you’ve had to overcome your share of challenges. Chances are, once again, you’ll be able to find a way to get to the other side. Will it be easy? Probably not. Will there be obstacles? Very likely, but keep moving forward, even if it’s at a snail’s pace, instead of stalling out completely. Think perseverance, and ‘keep the faith,’ as my Depression-era grandparents used to say.
3. Do look up – Yes, there is a lot of bad news out there these days, but you can do have a choice in how to handle it. You can either go down the mental rabbit hole gorging on the 24-hour news cycle and losing yourself in social media – or you can lift your spirits by connecting with the words, thoughts and ideas of truly wise and inspirational people who have triumphed over adversity. Let them be your teachers, your resilience role models, and your inspiration to get through these difficult days.
4. Thin your herd – Surrounded by Debbie Downers? Give yourself permission to step back from relationships that drain you. Some naturally negative folks may thrive on constant kvetching, but if their way of coping is having a negative impact on your mental state, consider curtailing your exposure. You don’t have to cut them out of your life completely, just make a deal with yourself to touch base a bit less, perhaps text or email instead of video-chatting, or cutting phone calls to 10 minutes instead of 30. Ramp up the time you dedicate to those who make you laugh, feel good, and fill you with positive energy. If you feel lighter and happier after you’ve connected, then you’ve got a keeper.
5. Put ‘I can’t’ out to pasture – Though a lot of chatter on social media and in conversation is punctuated with an exasperated “I can’t,” do yourself a favor and let this one go. Words do matter, and negative ones contribute to your psychic wear and tear. It’s one of those seemingly minor and yet insidious expressions that encourages negative thinking and feelings of hopelessness – and who needs that right now.
6. Reframe your rituals – Muddling through our current Groundhog Day-like existence, at times as bewildered as Bill Murray was for much of the movie, the sameness of our days can be not only tedious but also, at times, sad. Big milestones and the rituals that go with them are in limbo and may not be back for a while. Until we can safely gather again, try re-imagining what those moments could be like now, honoring the old rituals by introducing new, stop-gap ones. Donate time or money to a cause in the name of a newly engaged couple or plant a tree in honor of a loved one who has passed. Rituals are a wonderful part of the human experience, and big moments shouldn’t go unmarked, but for now, being flexible and trying something new is the resilient approach. Sure, you can mourn the lost moments, but try not to wallow and here too, being grateful for what you have versus what’s missing, will help get you over the hump.
Tend to your body.
Though the phrase ‘self-care’ may be right up there with the word ‘pivot’ or ‘Zoom call,’ on the list of words we may never wish to hear again, even after almost two years, the idea remains an important one. Having a toolbox self-care tricks at the ready can help put the brakes on slipping and dipping moods. When we talk ‘self-care,’ it can be anything that makes you feel genuinely good, truly supports your physical health, calms, soothes – and does not include sugar or alcohol. For some, it may be knitting a chunky blanket, or crafting up a storm, while for others a cup of tea and a session with a good therapist may also be part of the equation.
Other tools to have at the ready? In a nutshell:
1. Whole, organic, fresh foods – that support gut/brain health, immunity, hormone balance and stable mood: think good fats, plenty of plants proteins from healthy, pasture-raised, and grass-fed animals and responsibly sourced sea food lose sugar and processed junk.
2. A leak-free, healthy gut microbiome –When the bacterial community in your gut, or ‘gut microbiome,’ is out of balance, the brain doesn’t get enough of the right nutrients to function optimally, and you get saddled with low mood, mood swings and brain fog. Whereas a healthy microbiome – one that’s capable of manufacturing roughly 70- 95 % of the body’s supply of the mood-lifting chemical serotonin – helps us process thought and emotion, so much so that its often referred to as “the second brain.” To improve your gut health, try my ten essential tips.
3. Regular movement – Study after study has shown exercise to be at least as good at managing milder forms of depression as the commonly prescribed (and over-prescribed) anti-depressants, so move it to support your mental health. While regular exercise may not end the pandemic any quicker, all that movement will help keep your mood out of freefall by boosting the release of serotonin, which helps maintain feelings of well-being.
4. Relaxation – Meditate to harness the most powerful mental health booster in the self-care toolbox. The ability to calm, relax and soothe yourself delivers countless mind/body benefits, so now even if you can only spare five minutes a day to start, just, as they say, do it! To start, try my 8 How to Meditate tips.
5. Head for the light – As in, step outside and you give your sun-deprived body a few minutes of morning sunlight each morning. Doing so will help regulate your circadian rhythms, making it easier to fall asleep at night and rise at a normal hour in the morning, and will also stimulate serotonin production.
6. Dry up your act – Cut alcohol use to the bone. It messes with your mood, sleep patterns, blood sugar, immunity, and overall physical resilience, so skip it to help keep yourself out of the physical and emotional hole.
7. Supplement your mood – to help blunt some of the mood-tanking effects of the pandemic and the winter blahs, give your brain and body a little extra support with:
- Vitamin D: Research indicates a link between low mood and low vitamin D levels, so I encourage patients to take at least 2,000 to 5,000 IU/day through the winter to keep brain chemistry, especially neurotransmitter action, humming.
- Omega 3s: With their role in the synthesis of mood-elevating serotonin, the more the merrier, literally.
- SAMe, methyl B12 and folate: To help with depressed mood, S-adenosyl-methionine (SAMe) is a well-tolerated supplement that helps synthesize key neurotransmitters (because it is an important methyl donor). The synthesis of these neurotransmitters requires Vitamin B12 and Folate. A daily dose of 800 mgs -1600 mgs can produce positive effects comparable to some pharmaceutical options. (NOTE: If you are on antidepressants, check with your doc first before taking SAMe.)
- 5-HTP: It’s the precursor in the biosynthesis of mood-boosting serotonin, so I often recommend 200-400mg at bedtime.
- Magnesium: Low levels of magnesium can compound mood dips by inhibiting the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP, which can decrease the production of mood-stabilizing serotonin and melatonin. 400-600mg of magnesium glycinate taken at bedtime is well tolerated by most people.Though preserving mental health may feel like a challenging proposition these days, remember, there is a lot we can do to support it and to help ourselves maintain some sense of calm amidst the uncertainty.
Though preserving mental health may feel like a challenging proposition these days, remember, there is a lot we can do to support it and to help ourselves maintain some sense of calm amidst the uncertainty.