How to Protect Your Mental Health in Tough Times

How to Protect Your Mental Health in Tough Times
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If you’re not protecting your mental health right now, you’re either struggling or a superhero. Even before the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in things, there was plenty to stress about.

Concerns about everything from dirty dishes to climate change can affect your mental health. Just remember: You control your mental state. You may not be able to solve all of life’s challenges, but you can keep them from getting to you.

Safeguarding your mental health isn’t just about keeping your stress levels in check, either. For yourself and others, it’s critical for a healthy, productive life.

Why Protect Your Mental Health?

You protect your mental health in tough times for the same reason you wear a life preserver when you get in the water: Not only does it keep you afloat, but it ensures you’re able to help others who rely on you.

What should you do when the waters get choppy? Strap in. Maintaining your mental health in tough times helps you:

Cultivate Resilience

Resilience is the ability to get back up after you get knocked down. If you let the small things get you down, you’ll struggle to rise to life’s actual challenges. Protecting your mental health ensures you’ll be able to face whatever comes your way.

Stay Productive

When you can’t get something off your mind, it’s practically impossible to do your best work. You know what it’s like: You fidget and stress, but you still can’t seem to focus on the task at hand.

A key step in protecting your mental health is being able to let go. You can’t change everything from your desk, so stop worrying about it for the time being.

Create Stability For Others

Who relies on you? Your spouse? Your parents or siblings? Your loved ones worry about you, just like you worry about them.

Even if you aren’t financially supporting someone, your stability affects their stability. If your mental health is a mess all the time, it’s going to be tough for them to live their best life.

Of course, knowing your mental health matters and actually protecting it are two different things. You need ways to stay strong, no matter what’s happening in your life.

How to Protect Your Mental Health

Protecting your mental health starts with a simple commitment: to separate your internal state from what’s going on around you. Here’s how to do it:

1. Talk it Out

The first and most important step to protecting your mental health? Speaking up.

Opening up to friends and family about your mental health challenges isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, it proves you’re strong enough to show others the not-so-perfect parts of your life.

Need an easy way to start the conversation? You could say:

  • “I want to share something with you.”
  • “I’ve been thinking about…”
  • “Can we talk about…?”
  • “I’ve been struggling with…”

Any one of these will allow an easy in to a conversation you need to have.

2. Shrink Your Screen Time

Tempting as it is right now, spending hours each day on social media isn’t good for your mental health. At best, you’ll distract yourself from what matters; at worst, you’ll internalize all the bad news and anger online.

Young people are particularly prone to this, but they’re not alone. A friend of mine got her daughter a Gabb phone, which is a safe phone for kids((Gabb Wireless: 5 Ways to Regain Control Over Screen Time)) that helps limit screen time. After I got my niece one, it made me think about how much I need to limit my own screen time.

I haven’t swapped out my smartphone, but I have put boundaries on how I use it. I limit myself to two hours of surfing per day, with a hard stop at 9 p.m. I don’t touch it again until I leave for work in the morning. Consider doing something similar to get yourself away from your screen.

3. Avoid Drugs and Alcohol

Another lesson I’ve learned about maintaining my mental health? Avoiding drugs and alcohol is key.

A few years ago, I got in the habit of pouring myself a glass of wine after a long day. It sure helped me unwind from the stresses of work, so I figured it was worth the health risks.

What nobody told me, though, is that alcohol makes anxiety worse. A few hours after having a drink, I noticed I’d get stressed out. Cutting back helped me get back to my normal self.

4. Don’t Neglect Your Diet

Have you ever heard medical experts call your gut “your second brain”? The reason is that the gastrointestinal tract has more nerve endings than anywhere in the body apart from the brain.

Every bite you take affects those gut nerves. Nutritious foods — the fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean meats your mother likes to talk about — nurture it, while unhealthy ones upset it.

Cook meals at home whenever you can, and keep an eye on your snack intake. Even if you’re eating salmon and broccoli for dinner, binging on processed snacks at night could be messing with your mental health.

5. Stay Active

Your physical and mental health are more connected than you might realize. Regular exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety as effectively, in some cases, as medication((National Institutes of Health: Exercise for Mental Health)).

What type of exercise is best for mental health? Opt for cardio, but realize that anything is better than nothing. Whether you like to swim, run, row, or lift, get some fresh blood to your brain.

Don’t let your current fitness level be a barrier. When I was looking at new ways to exercise, I was looking at what a lot of busy entrepreneurs do to work out. I randomly came upon a site where Mark Cuban got a new e-bike and figured I would try one out. Within a few weeks, I was cruising for miles while listening to my favorite podcasts. It’s become one of my favorite times to learn while staying active.

6. Give Yourself a Break

Although perseverance is admirable, you have to cut yourself some slack when times get tough. Taking breaks is critical if you want to keep going for the long term.

Because I struggle to take breaks, I use the Pomodoro Method: I buckle down for 25 minutes, after which I give myself a five-minute break. There’s no right or wrong approach, but you do need a system.

How should you spend your breaks? Do something that rejuvenates you, such as:

  • Reading a book
  • Calling up a friend
  • Taking a bath or shower
  • Taking a nap
  • Going for a walk

7. Get Outdoors

Speaking of going for a walk, there’s no better way to get some headspace than to get outside. There’s just something about the smell of fresh air and the feeling of sun on your skin that melts stress.

Pair this tactic with others in this list. For outdoor exercise, you could go for a run around the neighborhood. Leave your phone inside, or stow it in your pocket while you’re enjoying time outside.

Although the outdoors can be a great break from work, it’s also a great place to work remotely. Most managers won’t mind you knocking out proposals from a picnic table.

8. Lose Yourself in a Hobby

Sometimes, an hour in the sun isn’t enough to take your mind off what’s bothering you. In that case, try diving into your favorite hobby.

Practicing a hobby helps you get into a “flow” state, which is when you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you lose track of the world around you. That mental break can be just what you need to get some perspective.

As with exercise, what the hobby is isn’t as important as your ability to stick with it. If you don’t have much time or money to spend, good options include:

  • Drawing
  • Hiking
  • Reading
  • Dancing
  • Cooking
  • Gardening
  • Knitting
  • Writing

9. Ask for Help

In rare cases, you might not be able to protect your mental health alone. If you’re feeling outgunned, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional. Although they mean well, your family and friends simply can’t provide the level of support a mental health expert can.

Remember, there are resources out there to help you get through tough times. Talk to your doctor, or reach out to one of the following helplines:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline: 800-662-4357
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline: 800-950-6264

The Bottom Line

Whatever you’re going through, remember: Your mental health matters. Whether you’re weathering a pandemic or just trying to organize your day, protecting your mental health is imperative in order to stay productive and happy. Make time for yourself and do what you have to in order to conquer stress.

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