With the recent mandates to maintain social isolation, people are more stressed than ever before. Anxiety and panic are plaguing people who have previously managed stress with ease. Licensed Clinical Psychotherapist Erin Wiley, MA, LPCC shares the importance of healthy mental health habits during this time and tips to put into place.
Being under stay-at-home orders provides an opportunity to focus on embracing simple disciplines that can change our health and happiness for the long haul, Erin believes. “Refuse to get stuck in the traps of social distancing: staying up late, consuming too much food, alcohol, television and social media, sleeping in, and letting the day go by without a structured plan or schedule,” she advises. “By throwing all discipline out the window in a stressful time, you lose a really unique opportunity to trade unhealthy habits for healthy ones that could change the trajectory of your life for the better.”
By adopting healthy coping skills, Erin knows people can find greater contentment and peace. “Creating and implementing new schedules or sticking to familiar routines can give people a sense of stability and security, thus reducing anxiety,” she advises. “Finding ways to connect with others in meaningful ways electronically can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, thus reducing depression symptoms. Practicing mindfulness can lead us to feeling grateful and encourage greater levels of happiness.
Self-Awareness with Mindfulness: Developing greater self-awareness by practicing mindfulness is a great first step for people looking to improve their mental and emotional health. As we become more mindful, learning to identify our emotions and process them is the single most important skill we can master. It dramatically affects our ability to regulate ourselves in times conflict and gives us greater ability to affect positive change. Having increased self-control means that we can choose healthier responses in stressful situations, thus resolving conflict and getting our needs met, all while maintaining relationships that are most important to us.
Stick to a Schedule: To preserve sanity and reduce stress during this time, stick to a schedule for sleep, meals, work and free time. Many of Erin’s patients have found new freedom working from home, but that has resulted in staying up later, eating more junk food, drinking more alcohol, and sleeping in later than normal. Each of these things are disruptive to our bodies, and to our minds. She has been encouraging all her patients to return to pre-social isolation schedules as much as possible, and to be mindful about over-indulgence. Getting back to the basics: strong sleep routines, healthy eating habits, and engaging in light exercise are the three most important ways we can re-center during this time of stress and uncertainty.
Take Small Bites: Often people feel discouraged from the start – as if they are too unhealthy or are too far from a goal they have – to even begin trying to change their behavior. Making small changes and, over time increasing the intensity, frequency or quantity needed to achieve a long-term goal is the way to achieve the desired result. Breaking a goal down into smaller, more manageable pieces can also be significant in helping us reframe the challenge ahead.
Begin with Intentionality: Having an intention and a plan for the day helps keep us focused. We can decide to live in a purposeful place of positivity and kindness. Taking some time each morning to be reflective and think about how we want our day to proceed can be very beneficial.
Find an Accountability Partner: To help stay on track with new healthy mental health habits, she suggests finding a mentor or an accountability partner who is invested in your success and wellness. Asking them to hold you accountable can be an effective way to stay the course when it comes to developing new healthy habits. Keeping track of daily and weekly successes in a habit-tracking app calendar is a tactic that many find useful for creating healthy habits.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Announce to friends and family that you will give a certain amount of money to a group you’d rather not support, like a university sports rival’s athletic program, if you don’t reach your goal. Knowing that your failure will lead to a painful loss can be highly motivating for staying on track.
Reach Out: For those who are struggling, it is important to reach out. You will not be the only one. Sharing our emotions right now, grieving our losses and talking thigh them with others are powerful tools to help move us through this difficult time.
Erin realizes that creating and sticking to habits can be tough. “Humans like quick fixes and instant results. Creating new habits that last a lifetime will require many attempts, and sometimes failures,” Erin explains. “People find it difficult to stick to routines because they don’t plan for when they will fall off track. Having an all-or-nothing expectation of success or failure when it comes to habits sets people up to quit when they aren’t executing the new habit perfectly.”
Instead, learning to develop encouraging self-talk as opposed to shaming self-talk can make a big difference in creating and maintaining new healthy habits, Erin adds.
“Now more than ever we should be adopting and practicing sound mental health habits,” Erin recommends. “Being able to manage emotions at times of high stress is a great predictor of resiliency. In times of stress people tend to go into survival mode, and they struggle to maintain healthy habits.”