This week on aSweatLife.com, in honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10 we’re talking about mental health to raise awareness of the issues we all face and lessen the stigma of discussing mental health openly. We believe #everythingisbetterwithfriends, and we encourage you to be open to discussing mental health with yours — and if you need to talk to someone right now, you can dial 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
We’re pretty good at taking care of our physical health: we work out regularly, we eat healthy (most of the time!), and we schedule a yearly physical exam. Those are definitely important, but most of us could probably use a tune up when it comes to making sure we’re mentally well.
“For many people, we look at taking care of ourselves in terms of physicality, and we neglect our mental health,” says Katie K. May, licensed counselor in Pennsylvania and owner and clinical director of Creative Healing in Philadelphia. “The mind and body are so connected, so if we’re not taking care of our emotional health, this impacts the body as well.” May explains that leaving your mental wellbeing unattended can lead to fatigue and sickness.
In honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10, we’re explaining how to put together a beginner’s self-care routine that’ll allow you to easily make your mental health a priority.
What self-care is, and what it isn’t
Over the last few years, self-care has become a popular way to describe the actions you can take to check in with yourself emotionally and improve your mental health. “We know that self-care impacts our level of anxiety and depression,” says Karen Whitehead, licensed clinical social worker, clinical hypnotherapist, and mindfulness teacher in Alpharetta, Georgia. “If we’re not taking care of ourselves, we tend to feel stressed more.”
Most of us think of self-care as indulgent activities, like taking a long bath or getting massages, says May, but it’s not actually about that. Self-care activities “are things we can do every single day to take care of ourselves and increase positive emotions,” says May.
Things like soaking in the tub or drinking a glass of wine at the end of a long day fall under the category of “self-rescue” as opposed to self-care, says Whitehead. “Self-care is intentional and planned,” says Whitehead. Self-rescue, on the other hand, isn’t planned. It’s more along the lines of coming home after a long day and saying you need a glass of wine to relax. “Those rescue techniques work in the moment, but when we plan and are intentional about our self-care, we tend to not need the rescue as much,” says Whitehead. “It’s about the mindset of making plans and being intentional.”
Easy self-care strategies to try today
Here are strategies May and Whitehead say can play a valuable part of your self-care routine.
Practice deep breathing. Physically, one strategy you can employ to combat stress is deep breathing, says Whitehead. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology fond that diaphragmatic breathing helped reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in participants. It’s best to practice deep breathing somewhere comfortable where you can sit or lie down. Breathe in slowly through your nose, then breathe out slowly through your mouth.
Take time away from your phone. With everything going on in the world, it’s easy to get stressed out while scrolling through Twitter. Logging off for a while falls under what Whitehead calls “psychological self-care.” She also recommends reading something that doesn’t have to do with work, practicing mindfulness, and journaling as part of your psychological self-care routine.
Schedule time with your partner or a friend. Remember: Self-care is all about planning. Staying connected with other people is good for your mental health, says Whitehead. So ask your friend to dinner or get a date with your significant other on the calendar. Sharing hopes and fears with someone you trust is something you can do as part of this step in your self-care routine, says Whitehead.
Give yourself permission to get emotional. While spending time with others is definitely valuable, carving out alone time is also essential for your mental health. This is a good opportunity to let yourself feel emotions you may have been bottling up. “Allow yourself time to cry or grieve or feel an emotion regarding something going on in your life,” says Whitehead.
Change your office habits. We all have days where we dread heading into the office, but there are steps you can take to improve your work environment. These include identifying projects or tasks at work you find exciting, balancing your workload, taking little breaks during the day, and reading something intellectually stimulating, says Whitehead.
Change the way you approach activities you don’t want to do. Instead of saying “I have to go to work” or “I have to exercise,” say “what would it be like if I tackled this project I’ve been putting off at work” or “what would it be like if I exercised,” suggests Whitehead. You’ll be amazed at how this can totally transform your mindset and give you more control over situations, she says.
Take a walk. Spiritual self-care is also important, says Whitehead, who points out that this doesn’t have to include prayer or faith. Something as simple as walking outside falls under spiritual self-care. A study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found that participants who walked in a forest exhibited lower blood pressure and cortisol afterward compared to those who took a jaunt in a busy city.
Continue making physical health a priority. Because your body and mind are so connected, you should keep up with all of your good physical health habits, says May. Many of these habits, like exercising and getting enough sleep, feed directly into your mental health.
Visit a professional. Finally, don’t discount professional therapy. “Everyone could benefit from seeing a therapist,” says May. “If you’ve reached a point where your stress level has impacted your mood for a solid two-week period, reaching out to a mental health counselor can be really helpful.” Whitehead adds that a licensed professional can share coping strategies that are individualized to your specific issues, since not every self-care method will work for everyone.