May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is a key part of overall well-being, affecting how people think, feel and act. A person’s mental health also impacts how they handle the everyday stress in their lives. Just like a person’s physical health, a child’s or adult’s mental health can change by the day.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added an extra layer of stress into many people’s lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health actions like social distancing can make people feel lonely and increase their anxiety level.
While these feelings might seem overwhelming on some days, here are daily strategies people can use to cope with stress and improve their mental health:
- Create a reasonable action plan that’s not overwhelming. Once a person has set some realistic goals for what they want to accomplish, adding in perks can be a great motivational push. This might mean making time for an after-lunch walk outside once a morning project is finished or grabbing a late-afternoon latte to celebrate the day’s accomplishments.
- Create healthy routines. Some things people do each day can have the added benefit of improving their mental health. Here are a few activities to make into habits:
- Plan nutritious meals each day.
- Have plenty of healthy snacks on hand, including fresh fruits and pre-cut vegetables for grab-and-go ease.
- Tap into the benefits of meditation. Start with just a minute or two each day, then gradually increase the time.
- Make exercise a regular part of the day. Aim for the CDC-recommended 30 minutes of moderate activity (brisk walking) five days a week, and strength-building exercises two days a week.
- Focus on the positive. It’s easy to feel bombarded by negative news headlines, personal worries or even the problems of friends and relatives, but it’s also important to focus on the positive things in life and what is going well. Studies have shown that people who are optimistic have a better mental outlook and fewer issues with stress and anxiety.
- Make time to connect with others. Friendships and human connection can play a big part in boosting mental health. For many people, pandemic precautions decreased daily interactions with others, but these connections are important. Make plans to spend time with friends and loved ones, whether it’s heading outside for an adventure or a video chat. These moments can reduce stress and anxiety and increase a person’s sense of belonging and self-worth.
- Recognize and own feelings. Just like being aware of a sore shoulder or a cough, people should be comfortable thinking about their mental health. If a person is not used to doing this, using an online screening tool is an easy way to gauge mental health. Mental Health America offers an online mental health test that can help people determine if they are experiencing common symptoms of depression, anxiety or other conditions. It offers a quick snapshot of a person’s daily mental health, as well as information and resources to help improve it.
- Set realistic expectations for productivity. Those stressed about the amount of work and responsibilities they must cram into a day are often trying to do too much. Setting realistic expectations is a start. For most people, this should start with shortening their own daily to-do list.
Left ignored, chronic stress may cause some people to have difficulty sleeping or make it difficult to concentrate on work or family issues. It can also cause physical symptoms like headaches, an upset stomach and even decreased mental health. Making time to properly address stress is an important first step.
Dr. Kristyn Gregory, D.O., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more mental health tips, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.
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