It’s no surprise that people’s mental health has taken a nosedive since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For over two years, we’ve lived in a near-constant state of unrest and feeling unsafe, not to mention seeing our loved ones far less than usual. According to a recent survey from Parade in partnership with Cleveland Clinic, this year, 43% of respondents reported anxiety and 36% have faced sadness or depression.
But one number from the study was especially troubling: 24% of participants say that they have no idea how to support their mental health.
Dr. Vanessa Kennedy, Director of Psychology at Driftwood Recovery, blames this lack of knowledge on the fact that our culture values functioning at a high level of performance when it comes to juggling many roles, and taking time out for our mental health is, at first glance, at odds with this value.
“In addition, we may be under the incorrect assumption that ‘taking care of our mental health’ is a big, time-consuming, costly undertaking,” Dr. Kennedy says. “However, taking care of our mental well-being and reducing our stress can be a combination of short, simple strategies that improve our productivity and happiness.”
Not having the time or the know-how are not viable explanations for why one can’t care for their mental health. Mental self-care can be simplified down to five practices (all supported by research) to aim for every day, no matter what your schedule is. These straightforward building blocks, which can each be done in as little as five minutes a day, as Dr. Kennedy says, can help one achieve improved mental health.
Religious leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama have been onto something that we’re only discovering the power of in recent years—meditation is a salve to the nervous system and mental health. As one 2016 study says, 63% of respondents with anxiety, stress, and depression found “a great deal” of relief through meditation. Specifically, meditation deactivates the sympathetic nervous system (which causes the fight or flight response) and decreases emotional reactivity.
And you don’t have to sit cross-legged for hours on end to harness the benefits. In fact, Kia-Rai M. Prewitt, Ph.D., Psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Cleveland Clinic says that a simple way to practice mindfulness is taking five minutes to focus on your breathing, no om chanting required.
“Practicing mindfulness involves focusing on the present and noticing your thoughts and feelings without judging yourself for how you’re thinking or feeling,” she says.
If you do have the time to make like Buddha and devote a portion of your schedule to meditating, you can do your homework and learn about all the different forms of meditation that are out there, and then try some out.
“Guided imagery is a great place to start, whereas progressive muscle relaxation involves more physical focus on muscle groups,” Dr. Kennedy says. “You might prefer a loving-kindness meditation or a mantra or transcendental style. Trying different types and taking a brief window of time each day to meditate can do wonders for your mood and the way you handle stress.”
Related: These 100 Benefits of Meditation Will Convince You Once and for All to Try It
2. Healthy Eating
If you’ve heard the term “using food as medicine,” you can apply that to mental health as well. According to a 2014 study that looked at the relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents, they consistently observed a trend between high-quality diets and improved mental health.
It’s a fact that goes for adults, too. As Dr. Kennedy points out, “your brain talks to your gut, which talks back to your brain.” This is something called the “gut-brain axis.”
“If our gut is not adequately nourished, our mental health suffers,” she adds. “In fact, 90% of the serotonin in our bodies, which is necessary to maintain a stable mood, is made in the gut. We need healthy fuel and good bacteria for our brains to run efficiently and stay happy.”
This means avoiding refined sugar when possible, which can make people more susceptible to depression and anxiety. Other healthy choices involve increasing vegetable intake, eating unprocessed grains, swapping out meat for fish, and reducing dairy, as Dr. Kennedy shares.
Related: Feeling Down? Try Incorporating These Depression-Fighting Foods Into Your Diet
Exercise is another proven practice that aids mental health. A 2018 study found that non-exercising participants experienced 3.4 bad mental health days per month, while those who exercised reported 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health each month.
“The benefits of exercise for our mental health are not debatable,” Dr. Kennedy says. “Exercise increases our endorphin levels, reduces stress hormones, and improves sleep and cognition.”
She suggests that one of the best ways to start is to schedule a time of day each day that works for you and stick to it.
“Just try to increase your heart rate for 20 minutes,” she says. “Walking alone may do the trick and lead to mood benefits. Fitness tracker apps and fitness classes such as those on the Peloton interface use gamification strategies: turning your accomplishments into a ‘game’ with rewards to keep you motivated. Asking a buddy to help keep you accountable to your fitness routine or sparking your competitive side by comparing your performance to those on an anonymous leaderboard can help you improve your mental health.”
Related: Need More Motivation to Exercise? Here Are 6 Mental Benefits
A 2019 study states that 120 minutes per week spent in nature can lead to better health and overall wellbeing, and this includes your mental health. And it can be as easy as taking a walk in your neighborhood.
“Being in nature reduces our stress levels and can improve our cognition,” Dr. Kennedy says. “Getting outside and exercising can be an impactful way to reap mental health benefits. Doing a walking meditation outdoors and paying attention to all five senses and what they are perceiving can also produce a calming, centered effect. Gardening, playing sports outdoors, or going on a nature walk with your kids are all ways to incorporate nature into your daily mental health care.”
Connection to other people is a key part of improving mental health. As one 2014 study says, people in neighborhoods with a high level of social cohesion experienced lower rates of mental health problems than those living in neighborhoods without that sense of community.
As Prewitt says, “Maintaining social connections is important. As human beings, we are relational people. We need each other, whether we think we do or not. Maintaining social connections is an important way to feel less isolated, to engage in hobbies, relax, and have fun, but also a way to feel support when experiencing difficult times.”
She says that social connections can be naturally built into one’s day, including at work or with family and friends.
“Feeling connected to others is a well-researched factor in improving mental health and outcomes from psychiatric or addiction treatment,” Dr. Kennedy says. “Reaching out to a friend or connecting with a family member each day can increase feelings of well-being. Even chatting with a stranger and making small talk can reinforce feelings about the goodness of humanity and boost our feelings of connectedness to others.”
Next up, learn the signs that something isn’t good for your mental health.
- Dr. Vanessa Kennedy, Director of Psychology at Driftwood Recovery.
- Kia-Rai M. Prewitt, Ph.D., Psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Cleveland Clinic.
- Scientific Reports: “Prevalence, patterns, and predictors of meditation use among US adults: A nationally representative survey”
- American Journal of Public Health: “Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review”
- The Lancet: “Exercise linked to improved mental health, but more may not always be better”
- Scientific Reports: “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing”
- Psychological Medicine: “Effect of neighbourhood deprivation and social cohesion on mental health inequality: a multilevel population-based longitudinal study”