Taking Extra Care of You: Mental Health Strategies During Social Distancing
We’re fortunate to live in an age where we’re now aware of the importance of our mental health. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, this recognition couldn’t come along at a more important time. Social distancing is necessary to protect ourselves and those we love, but it can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. Read on for mental health strategies when social distancing, and focus on taking care of you during these uncertain times.
Notice and relieve stress
Notice what may cause you stress. During the coronavirus outbreak, the news and social media reports can sometimes increase stress and worry. It’s recommended to limit your news intake to a short length of time and stick to the most respected and reliable sources.
Taking extra care of your physical health is important during times of higher stress. Eating nourishing, healthy foods, getting quality sleep, exercising at home, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco are all ways we can feel good in our bodies.
We know that exercising at home may be difficult with limited space and resources. But with the benefits of exercise on the brain, it’s so important to do what you can. Exercise has immediate positive effects on the mood, by increasing dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins in the brain.
Finally, you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, but there’s a reason deep breathing is common advice for stress. Breath is connected to our nervous system responses to stress, especially in the ‘fight or flight’ crisis scenarios. While we’re no longer running from saber-toothed tigers, our nervous system still interprets any stress as potential life threats. Deep breathing signals our nervous system to calm the body down and mind. And good news for us: we can practice deep breathing anywhere.
Stay connected to others
Empathy and understanding between people can help protect against feelings of loneliness and isolation. Meaningful social connectivity can produce oxytocin in the brain, which then triggers serotonin—known as one of the ‘happiness hormones’ because of the positive feelings higher levels can produce. And stronger feelings of connection to others can guard against or lower anxiety and depression.
So it’s recommended to stay socially and emotionally connected to the people important to you. Schedule frequent face or voice calls with friends and family members. Hearing and seeing voices and faces can instill a stronger sense of connection (but texts or emails can also help). And it’s important to keep the conversation positive by laughing and sharing happy memories and stories.
Laugh every day
Whether it’s giggling over a game show podcast, sharing funny stories with friends, or watching your favorite TV show, laughing never fails to help us feel better about, well, almost anything. It’s based in science: laughing has been shown to boost those happy hormones dopamine and endorphins, relieving feelings of anxiety and stress. Try to laugh with friends and family members for those extra connection benefits, too.
Read a book a week
Reading is shown to reduce stress levels even in short increments, so this is a challenge worth trying. And one writer found that it brought even more health and relaxation benefits, too!
Set challenging goals and learn new skills
Goal-setting can help the brain form new connections and pathways (called neuroplasticity), actually changing the brain’s structure! And setting challenging goals can alter the brain structure more quickly and effectively than with easy goals.
In the same category, learning a new skill also helps your brain grow—literally. The learning and practice of a new skill can grow the density of the brain’s white matter, which contains cells linked to task performance. And learning a new skill can form more brain pathways for neurons. With low density of white matter (known as demyelination) linked to dementia, the frequent and consistent learning of new skills can protect against it. It can also help improve memory function. And if your new skill includes a challenging goal (or vice versa), your brain gets double the benefits.
Get quality sleep
Deep, uninterrupted sleep is critical to mental health. Among their sleep recommendations, Mayo Clinic lists sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, limiting food, drink, and screen time before bed, and creating a restful environment as methods to help improve your sleep. The calmer you feel before bedtime, the more you may be able to fall asleep peacefully. (Era Living recommends contacting your doctor about sleep issues or concerns.)
Write down three happy things every day
It turns out that when we write things down, we’re more likely to remember them than if we type or say them out loud. Whether it’s a gratitude journal or a quick list, jotting down our blessings builds a gratitude habit, keeping us focused on the good parts of life and growing a positive mindset.