Sunday Scaries

Feeling stressed? Here are 7 simple actions to boost your mental health

Build a coping toolbox.

Getty Images

It’s not just you: Many people report they’re overwhelmed by stress. The Covid-19 pandemic, inflation, politics, and social divisions are all adding to our collective foul mood. Mental health is taking a hit — and people want solutions.

If you feel like your mental health has changed, you should speak to your medical provider about your options. Mental health had no “one size fits all” solution, and what works for one person might be less helpful for another.

Therapy and medication can absolutely benefit some people, but other mental health interventions can also lighten your cognitive load. For nearly four years, this column has examined different strategies to support the mind and body. Here are some of the best takeaways so far.

If you’re looking to boost your mental health, try out these 7 tried-and-tested tips:

Therapy and medication can absolutely benefit some people, but other mental health interventions can also lighten your cognitive load.Getty Images

7. Build a “coping toolbox”

Experts say coping strategies need to match the person and the moment. Your “coping toolbox,” in turn, should contain skills that align with different types of coping. For example, problem-solving coping strategies involve engaging with the outside world. Emotion-coping strategies are directed inward. Both help people become more resilient. There’s also pro-active coping — this involves actions like visualizing your dreams and how you would like to achieve them. This helps reduce the likelihood of future stress.

6. Try out expressive writing

When experiencing poor mental health, one of the best things you can do is find a way to express what you’re feeling in a healthy manner. You can do this in various ways — therapy, talking to a friend, or journaling. While any journaling can help, it’s most helpful to reflect on challenges and what is going well in your life. The benefits of expressive writing aren’t limited to mental health: Studies on it suggest the practice helps manage stress and strengthens the immune system.

5. Get into a flow state

A “flow state” is a mental state in which you are totally immersed in an activity. Its viewed as an experience of becoming so absorbed in an enjoyable activity that you lose track of external surroundings. Further, experts say most activities can turn into a “flow activity” if they check off two boxes: the activity should push you and you should be able to track your progress. But critically, they should prompt you to zone in rather than zone out — this is why scrolling through your phone doesn’t count. Meanwhile, getting into a flow state pays off: Research suggests the experience reduces anxiety and makes periods of waiting easier.

4. Experience nature

The benefits of being in green and blue spaces are documented across many, many studies. Being outside helps can revitalize how we feel psychologically and physically. Even a brief period amount of time outdoors can boost well-being — and hearing the sounds of flowing water and birds can improve mood, lower stress, and enhance cognitive performance. Nature is so beneficial that some psychologists are offering a novel form of treatment: garden therapy.

3. Let yourself enjoy leisure time

While it’s tempting to make yourself feel bad for not being busy, it’s also critical to set aside chunks of time for leisure. People who say they feel guilty about leisure time are also more likely to report depression, anxiety, and stress. But almost ironically, one of the best ways of dealing with those challenges is allowing yourself restorative moments. Further, research suggests that when people give themselves breaks, they become more productive in the long term. “If we always associate productivity with tasks and don’t give ourselves the space for downtime, we can start to burn out,” Jennifer Newman, a clinical psychologist, told me. “And when we feel dissatisfied and overwhelmed, that creates more stress and slows us down.”

2. Stop scrolling

Social media can enhance or diminish positive feelings depending on how it is used. Messaging a friend or looking at old photos can foster positive emotions because they remind us of our social connections. However, the passive use of social media — like a seemingly endless scroll through Twitter — is associated with decreased well-being. Passively using social media also means you’re more likely to encounter anxiety-producing news. While staying informed is important, experts say it’s better for your brain to actively choose what stories you want to read rather than come upon them by chance.

1. Recognized that you matter

While it might sound cheesy, it’s true. Mattering is a source of resilience and joy — and when experiencing a crisis, the experience can help you adapt and survive. Gordon Flett, a professor at York University who studies mattering, told me that evidence suggests people who feel like they don’t matter are more likely to experience negative mental and physical health. In turn, people can foster their sense of mattering through several actions, including reading stories about people who have done incredible things and reminding themselves that many people have gone through similar experiences.

“People tend to get hit hardest when they convince themselves that they are the only ones in the situation they are in and no one else knows how they are feeling,” Flett says. “But they have plenty of company in terms of others who are feeling that way. It is not just a cliché to emphasize to someone ‘you are not alone.’”

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