Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
On this World Mental Health Day, the second of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that people – most people – are struggling.
Across cultures, we were experiencing plenty of mental health issues well before the pandemic, including – but not limited to – undue stress and anxiety, poor self-esteem, eating issues, and family strife. All of these challenges have been exacerbated over the course of the past 18 months.
I encourage you to take honest stock of your own emotional well-being today. Are you taking care of yourself? Are you suffering unnecessarily? Are you priding yourself on being busy, when you are in fact exhausted? Are you hiding depression or anxiety to protect the people around you?
Following are six steps you can take today to enhance your mental wellness, and that of those around you.
Begin a daily wellness regimen
Taking care of yourself emotionally starts first thing in the day – preferably before your feet hit the floor. In lieu of checking social media or starting work, draw in a few deep breaths, and consider three things you find yourself grateful for. These can be grand, like your spouse, job or health, or modest, like the weather, the view from your window, or even the luxury of those first breaths.
Then, if you haven’t already, try a brief guided mediation like one of these CNN picks or the Calm or Headspace app. Read a comforting excerpt from a favorite self-help or other relaxing book. By doing so, you will create a calm, relaxed mindset for the day. Even stressful days packed with activity will feel more manageable and tranquil if you do so, and you will find yourself catastrophizing far less over the course of the day.
Remember, a lot of the things that enhance physical health also support emotional well-being. Evaluate what you put in your body and your mind: food, drink, drugs, a constant stream of video programming, and so on. Thinking about how you might manage your intake to make your body healthier will undoubtedly have mental health benefits as well.
I cannot express enough how these early-in-the-day actions can impact your mindset of peace, well-being and gratitude for the rest of your day.
Starter tip: Don’t think you’ll remember first thing in the morning? Write it on a sticky note, and place it over your phone before you go to bed.
Get outside your own mind every day
When we are anxious or depressed, our symptoms tend to occupy our minds. We scan for severity or for new mental difficulties, and the more we scan, the more we tend to find. Further, our depression, anxieties and other emotional concerns tend to amplify when they remain our sole focus. If we get out and attend to serving others, we find that our own worries diminish.
We also feel better when we serve others, coming away with a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and contribution – a win-win for mental health. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or your child’s school. Work a phone helpline for others struggling with emotional difficulties.
Remove the unnecessary
Over the past couple of years, there has been no doubt that we are too busy and protect precious little time to relax and do virtually nothing. Today presents a wonderful opportunity to consider what we can take away from our daily lives that might enhance our peace of mind and support our emotional wellness.
This is a day to remove the misguided pride in the word “busy,” and focus not on all we can do, but on what really needs to be done – and what does not. In fact, the pandemic has presented a unique opportunity to do so. Many of my clients have found, in their new work-from-home worlds, that in past years, much of their time has been spent on unnecessary activity, from busywork to social media scrolling.
Others find these activities prevent them from getting a full night’s sleep or connecting with family, which are crucial elements of emotional wellness. Removing some of this activity can help us protect time for some of these other endeavors that foster well-being and growth.
Assess your relationships
Assess how each of your relationships is working for you. Are you giving more than you’re receiving from a sibling or friend? Do you feel hopeful and refueled after a coffee date with an acquaintance? Many of us spend far too much time and energy on relationships that are either toxic or one-sided, and that can include social media connections.
You may also recognize that you do not reach out and connect enough to others. Slowing down to connect more deeply and share your life and story with your close family or friends is among the most important ways you can strengthen your mental wellness.
Check in with your people
World Mental Health Day can be a welcome excuse to reset for improved self-care. But it also presents an opportunity to check in on the mental health of the people around you: your family, friends, neighbors and anyone else in your orbit. Some people you feel you are very close to may be suffering but are adept at hiding it.
Check in with all the people you love, and just ask them how they are doing and feeling. For some, this may prompt them to assess their own mental well-being, knowing there is someone in their life who cares enough to ask.
Be willing to change and learn
Many of my clients have stubbornly asserted that they know what’s best for themselves, and too often continue bad habits even as they come to me for help.
Treat yourself to an hour a week of self-focus and self-care, whether it’s through therapy or other practices. You will learn a lot about how your mind works, and how to remove roadblocks to wellness you may have been clinging to for years.
In doing so, you are not only tending to your own emotional well-being but normalizing mental difficulties so that others may be more inclined to do the same. I cannot think of a more impactful way to contribute to our world’s collective wellness on a day dedicated to mental health.