Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Our mental health directly impacts how we think, feel, or act. And just like we need to take care of our bodies, we need to take care of our minds as well. Throughout the past year, we’ve all been tested, knocked down, confused, frustrated, and scared; schools shut down, daycare centers closed, and everything that was normal to us shifted drastically. Most of us are still feeling residual anxiety and fear from March 2020, and that’s okay. You are not alone.
Why is mental health important?
A lot of us don’t know that there’s a month of awareness for mental health. Is it that big of a deal? Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and they overlap in a variety of ways, so yes, it is a very big deal. Mental illness, especially depression, can increase the risk of a number of physical health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The way we feel affects the way we act, so what can we do to put out the fire from the inside?
One of the realities of depression and anxiety is the effect it has on our motivation. Our mental health is the foundation of our wellness; when we’re unwell mentally, the rest seems to follow. It’s a vicious cycle that can be tough to break. In conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic and the 24-hour media cycle, it can too overwhelming to even think about.
When I combat my own personal struggles with mental health, I look back on the ways I’ve coped and what I’ve learned. When I’m feeling overpowered by poor mental health, I think about the things that have helped me over the years:
- That first cup of coffee. There’s something about starting the day with coffee. I treat myself with an iced coffee from a nearby café or grab from a drive-thru (probably too often), and it’s always a tasty way to start my morning. Even more so, coffee consumption is linked to lower rates of depression!
- Sleep well, and sleep cool. First of all, getting sufficient sleep assists in our brain’s ability to process emotional information (mental health, remember?). Lack of sleep is frequently tied to mental health disorders and their severity. Second of all, sweating at night is a one-way ticket to the “wrong side of the bed.” The optimal temperature for sleeping is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn on your fan, snuggle your favorite blanket, and thank me later.
- Laugh often. There are some days where seeing happy people bother you. We’ve all been there! But laughter is medicine, and there’s something to say about binging a classic sitcom or watching your favorite stand-up comedian. Be the happy person you hate to see in the world (like Ghandi).
- PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY! Put it on do not disturb, put it in a drawer, set up notifications for usage, “forget” to charge it, do something. Time off the grid is worth its weight in gold, and with our constant screen time and endless notifications, your mental health will definitely thank you for it. Take the time instead to play with your kid, go outside, read a book, or draw a picture. Whether it’s five minutes or an hour, we all deserve time away from screens.
- Take a hot shower. I filled out a stress management booklet once, recommended by my therapist. It had a section where it asked what activities you can take part in to tolerate your distress and practice mindfulness. Almost immediately, I thought about how much better I feel after I take a hot shower. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, pick up your favorite bath products, put on a playlist, and sing it out! Everyone sounds better in the shower anyway.
- Pet a dog (only with the owner’s permission!). I don’t have a pet of my own, but I’m just as attached to my sister’s dog. Not only is time with animals proven to lower cortisol, the stress hormone, but it also boosts oxytocin, which stimulates feelings of happiness. Many pet owners will agree that having their beloved furry friend around is a definite euphoria boost.
- Take a walk. Taking a walk is underrated. Taking an unplugged walk is entirely underrated. While this is a null topic in the winter months, heading outside during a lovely spring day, letting all of your senses enjoy nature, and getting your steps in is a foolproof way to stabilize your mood. Even if you aren’t feeling great afterward, you can still applaud yourself for your achievement.
- Hug a loved one (again, with their permission). If you’re not overtly into hugging people, that’s okay, you can skip down to the next one. But you’re missing out! Hugging and other consensual interpersonal touch can boost that good old oxytocin, keeping our stress low and smiles high. If you’re not into touching, a weighted blanket is an excellent way to alleviate anxiety and improve sleep, while feeling the familiar pressure of a hug.
- Watch your favorite show. This may be an obvious one, but bringing back your favorite characters and that enticing plot is another way we can feel at ease, or totally excited! Unless it’s Grey’s Anatomy, in which case, you should probably find a new comfort show.
- Finally, talk it out. Whether it’s through a therapist, your friend, your dog, or your mailman (maybe let him go about his route, though), talking through our thoughts and problems can have incredible benefits on our mental state. As well, writing out your mental ramblings and making sense of it all on paper is shown to reduce symptoms of depression.
Break the stigma
The more we talk about mental health, the sooner we’ll break the stigma. More than half of people with mental illness don’t receive help from their disorders, and it’s mostly due to people delaying seeking treatment due to concerns about being treated differently or losing their jobs or livelihood; it’s also due to people determined to get through it on their own. But you are not alone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our entire world and flipped our lives upside down. Our routines look different and our faces are still covered. But you are still seen! If you are struggling with your mental health, don’t be afraid to reach out to a friend, a family member, or a doctor. There is hope for all of us, and the world wouldn’t be the same without you.
For more mental health resources in Pennsylvania, visit pa.gov.
—Madeline Kelly, Digital Communications Coordinator