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Protecting our Mental Health in Unprecedented Times

To say that the past few years have been an unusually stressful time would be a pretty significant understatement. A global pandemic that lingers and shows no signs of vanishing, the resulting widespread reliance on both teleworking and sporadic distance learning for students, contentious political, economic, and climate change news coming at us from every direction…it’s no wonder many of us are feeling frazzled at best and completely, utterly overwhelmed at worst. Self-care has never been more important than it is right now, and yet so few of us take the time to consciously look after ourselves. Further, self-care measures for most of us tend to address our physical needs first – exercise, healthy eating, better sleep habits. These areas of wellness are important, no doubt, but mental and emotional health are equally critical in ensuring lifelong health and happiness. And these areas of wellness are in particularly dire threat of being overlooked right now. A study conducted by a CDC-affiliate in June of 2020 found that 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse. Another tracking poll conducted in July of 2020 showed 53% of US adults reporting a significant negative impact on their mental health due to worry and stress over COVID-19. And employers took notice. In a survey conducted that August by Unum Insurance of 409 employers, nine in ten employers surveyed listed employee mental health as a top concern. As such, these employers were working quickly to identify ways to educate employees about their choices for leave and health care.


Of course, there is no single magic solution to this mounting mental health crisis. Even the most positive-thinking of us is struggling to find the silver linings these days, so it’s time for all of us to stop the juggling for a few minutes and put some time and concerted effort into crafting a self-care plan that will help protect our mental health. For an informal assessment of the current state of your mental health, the National Wellness Institute offers mental health wellness here.


In addition, a few ways to protect your mental health that don’t require tremendous resources:

· Set goals for yourself. This can seem pointless when it’s so very hard to plan ahead right now, but identifying a few personal or professional goals that will help keep you motivated can help keep your head above water. These can be as simple as “I will eat vegetables for dinner every day” or “I’ll take a 10 minute walk around the neighborhood every night after dinner”, or as ambitious as “I’ll finally enroll in that online class I’ve been considering” or “I will sign up for my first marathon in 2022 and train!”.

· Create a scrapbook or journal to help track these goals. Documenting your progress gives you that visual support, and proof of your headway can keep you motivated.

· Practice good hygiene. It is incredibly difficult to feel good about yourself if you don’t take care of your basic hygiene. Feeling dirty on the outside leads to feeling dirty on the inside.

· See friends and family. Loneliness is one of the most common causes of depression and anxiety, so make seeing your friends and family a priority, even if it’s through a virtual platform.

· Connect with your community. Or join a new group. There are tons of interest groups out there – just check out meetup.com, search Facebook groups, or do a quick google search and you’ll find like-minded individuals with whom you can easily share your interests.

· Volunteer. Volunteering is, of course, an altruistic undertaking, but doing good for those less fortunate than you can also serve to bolster your self-confidence and self-worth. Plus, we all sometimes need a reminder that perhaps things aren’t so bad for us. Check out http://www.volunteermatch.org for volunteer opportunities near you.

· Share your story. There is a lot of research out there that supports the power of storytelling as a form of therapy. So start a journal, a blog, or simply email a loved one anecdotes from your life this year. These have been banner years for everyone in different ways, so let’s support each other’s stories. Plus, misery loves company, right?

· Try to do one thing you enjoy every single day, and never apologize for it. Enough said. It doesn’t have to be big. It can mean taking the time to read one chapter in a new book, or savoring a bowl of ice cream, or watching an episode of your favorite show. But never forget that nobody can look after you as well as, well, YOU. So honor yourself and allow yourself daily indulgences.

· Mindfulness. Remember, this moment may be hard, this year may be challenging, but there will come a day when we all look back at 2020 and find moments to laugh about. Perhaps even moments that led to great things. So take care to be present in what is going on NOW, and try not to focus only on the future.

· Live healthy. This list would be doing a big disservice if healthy physical lifestyle choices weren’t mentioned, as your physical health is intricately connected to your mental health. Eat nutritious, whole foods, exercise regularly, get enough quality sleep, and be aware of what your body is telling you. Healthy body, healthy mind. Both your body and your mind need your care and attention, so look out for the complete package.

· And laugh. Laughter is truly the best medicine. It has been shown to decrease pain, promote muscle relaxation, and reduce anxiety. Plus, as they say, it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile!


Ultimately, it helps to remember that you are not alone. Many people are struggling these days, and a little kindness to each other goes a long way. But, if you or a loved one is struggling with severe depression, anxiety, or displaying symptoms of substance abuse, please see a professional. Resources are available to help.

· US Department of Health & Human Services resources: https://www.samhsa.gov/

· National Alliance on Mental Illness resources: https://nami.org/Home

· For free or reduced cost mental health services in your area, see here: https://www.stepupformentalhealth.org/


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