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Tips for Your Mental Health This Fall

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When I saw my primary care physician this past summer for my annual checkup, my main concern was my overwhelming fatigue.

“It doesn’t matter how much sleep I get,” I told my doctor. “I have trouble focusing. Some days I can barely function. And on my worst days, it feels like there’s an elephant sitting on my chest.”

She sent me off with a pile of prescriptions for various ultrasounds. Specialist recommendations. “And Stephanie,” she said. “Call your therapist.”

I hadn’t spoken to my therapist in a decade. In the years since we’d last spoken, I’d found other ways to manage my chronic depression and anxiety. But the pandemic had done a number on me. It’s done a number on all of us. The coping mechanisms I’d leaned on in the past were less available and, in some cases, just not working as effectively.

All of us have struggled these past couple of years in different ways and for different reasons. We’ve felt a swirl of anger, frustration, and anxiety. Overwhelming stress. Depression. Grief. Hopelessness. Some researchers even contend that the COVID-19 pandemic is a traumatic stressor that leads to PTSD-like symptoms and exacerbates other mental health problems.

So, how do we care for ourselves in the face of something as large as an ongoing pandemic?

Take care of your body. The other month, I wrote about how to care for your body, and a lot of those same tips apply here. After all, doing things like eating foods that make your body feel good, moving your body, and getting enough sleep have all been shown to have links to improved mental and emotional health. So, be mindful when you feed yourself. Try that online dance class. Get to bed earlier so you feel refreshed in the morning. If you feel physically healthy, you’re more likely to go about your day with some pep in your step.

Manage your stress. This is another one I mentioned when I wrote about caring for your body. Persistent stress doesn’t only lead to physical problems, it can also exacerbate mental health problems. The American Psychological Association recommends various types of mindfulness meditation in order to manage stress, such as breath meditation and body scan meditation (the latter is my personal fave; search your app store for “yoga nidra”). Exercise has also been shown to reduce stress. But, really, different things work for different people and, as I’ve written previously, Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s Burnout is a fantastic resource on the topic.

Be social. Positive social relationships and social support have been shown to improve mental health outcomes. I know, I know. You’ve been social distancing and grappling with loneliness and isolation. How dare I suggest socializing!? But even introverts have been struggling with social isolation this past year (I know of what I speak). It behooves us to seek out those alternative forms of connection, even when they feel like a pale shadow of what we were doing pre-pandemic. Join a virtual book club. Schedule some Zoom happy hours. Or, if it feels safe, consider getting yourself a walking buddy or meeting someone for outdoor drinks. Being able to bitch about the state of the world together or share your lives with each other or even just swap TV show suggestions can make a huge difference.

Take breaks from upsetting content. While you obviously want to stay informed, mainlining an onslaught of upsetting news stories tends to increase stress and anxiety. On a personal note, a daily mix of news reports and social media have been fueling my white-hot rage. The CDC recommends taking a media break and filling your days with normal and enjoyable activities.

Set boundaries. As an extension of the above, allow yourself to set boundaries in other areas of your life, too. If you’re feeling all Zoomed out (valid), say no to that fourth Zoom Book Club or that 8 p.m. writing critique group. If you need some alone time, tell your partner to watch TV by themselves while you relax in bed with a book. If the thought of attending a social gathering freaks you the eff out and causes your anxiety to spike (valid), just say you can’t make it. Instead of feeling beholden to the wants and needs of others, start paying attention to which activities make you feel good and which fill you with dread. Give yourself permission to make decisions accordingly.

Practice gratitude. I know. This sounds like a bunch of hippy-dippy, woo-woo B.S. but even the National Institute of Mental Health recommends developing a daily gratitude practice. Look. A lot of things are terrible right now. I’m not suggesting we pretend otherwise. But reminding ourselves of all the things that are still good — whether it’s gratitude for our relationships or gratitude for that stash of Nutella and Go Snack Packs we have hiding in the closet — can help ground us.

Ask for help. Finally, know that you don’t have to do all of this alone. If you’re feeling upset or overwhelmed, turn to the people in your life for that sweet, sweet social support. Allow them to pick up some of the slack. Find an online support group or five. Consider talk therapy.

I mean, it’s weird doing teletherapy from my home office. Seeing my shrink’s cat tower in the background. Telling my 7-year-old to scram for just “EIGHT MORE MINUTES.”

But, hell, it’s still something and every little bit helps.

Good luck out there, folks.

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