Mental Health Awareness Month: Day-by-Day Tips for Self-Care

Published Monday, May 4, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has posed mental health challenges to the broad spectrum of society. Even those who typically do not suffer from anxiety are experiencing sleepless nights, appetite disturbances, stomach aches, and worry. People are fearful for their health and the health of those they love and with whom they work. Many are mourning the deaths of individuals who only weeks ago were healthy. Because of social isolation, people aren't able to visit loved ones in the hospital or attend the funerals of even parents and grandparents. And there's the unsettled feeling of what will be in the future: How long will social distancing last? How will my family survive economically? What will the future look like? What impact is quarantine having on my children, educationally and socially? How can I possibly fulfill all my job responsibilities working from home at the same time as being my children's at-home teacher? 

There are no easy answers but putting the following wellness practices into place at a time when all of life's routines seem to have been interrupted can help. Here are 31 ways to de-stress to stay calm, one for each of the 31 days in May, also known as Mental Health Awareness Month

1. Stick to a schedule. Follow the same sleeping and waking schedule as you do normally, adjusting somewhat if you no longer have a long commute to work. At a time when our lives have been upended with enormous change, keeping to routines helps maintain a sense of normalcy. Children thrive on structure and adults are usually anxious without it. 

2. Take some time to exercise every day. In study after study, physical movement is correlated with good mental health. There are lots of free fitness routines to try on websites like doyogawithme.com and on social media platforms, like Instagram. Many of these require no special home equipment.  

3. Get some fresh air. Spending so much time at home can make you feel confined and restless. Going for a walk or just spending time in your back yard can be invigorating and lighten your mood. 

4. Reach out to others. Speaking with friends and family via phone calls, Facetime, Skype, and/or zoom reminds us that we're not alone. Feeling connected at a time when we're required to be apart from our love ones and colleagues ensures that we don't feel socially distant even though we physically apart. 

5. Call people who are alone. This is a frightening and vulnerable time, especially for those who are elderly. Just a quick phone call to older relatives and neighbors can ease their sense of isolation and may mean more to them than you'll ever know.  

6. Eat healthfully. We all need to boost our immunity during the coronavirus pandemic. A colorful selection of fresh fruits and vegetables helps ensure that you are getting a variety of vitamins and minerals.  

7. Try a new recipe. With most of us working and studying from home, we are also eating at home a lot more than usual. It's a perfect time to try cooking or baking new recipes, thousands of which you can find on Instagram, websites like allrecipes.com, and even Facebook pages like Trader Joe's recipes. 

8. Breathe deeply. When we're stressed our breath becomes tense, constricted, and shallow. Deep abdominal breathing slows our heartbeat, stabilizes or lowers our blood pressure, and relaxes our mind and body. Close your eyes and take a long inhale to a count of 4. Hold it for a count of 4 and then slowly exhale to a count of 8. Breathing fully and slowly is a great way to de-stress. 

9. Feel your emotions. The coronavirus pandemic has sparked tremendous anxiety and, for those who have lost loved ones, enormous grief. Rather than deny these feelings, allow yourself to experience and talk about them. Let yourself cry. Bottling up feelings does not help them go away. Expressing them enables you to process them. 

10. Learn a new language. Your always-home lifestyle presents an opportunity to expand your language skills. You may not be able to travel, but why not go immersive by learning a new language. Some of the best intensive language programs are offering free services: Rosetta Stone (3 month subscription to learn any of 22 languages), Babbel (3 months of free classes), and  Duolingo app. 

11. Be mindful. We all carry stress in our bodies. Pay attention to where your emotions are stiffening up in your body. Is it in your neck? your shoulders? your gut? your jaw? Allow yourself to acknowledge that sensation without judgment. Close your eyes. Picture the tension and pain as a green balloon. Now breathe and gradually let it go. Being alert to how your body is responding to anxiety can help you relieve it. 

12. Practice self-compassion. Treat yourself kindly. Acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic has put you and each of us into a challenging situation that is unlike we've ever known. Tell yourself what you would say to a good friend. Relax. Recognize what you need. Don't be self-critical. 

13. Focus on what you can control. There is a lot of worry about the future since none of us know what life after the pandemic will look like. Be present. Make the most of the time you have today. If you are playing with your child, focus on playing. If you are working from home, do your work and don't worry what will happen to your job next month. Do the best you can with what you have right now. 

14. Smile. This is a time when just about everyone is feeling stressed. But just like stress is contagious so it a positive vibe. People are going through a hard time. If you are taking a (socially distanced) walk, wave to the person across the street. Smile to the person outside your window. We're all having hard days. Small gestures of positivity can mean a lot. 

15. Make time for yourself. Parents who are working from home and teaching their children now that schools are closed are (naturally) feeling overwhelmed. Make sure to find a few minutes each day for yourself--whether to take a bath, read a book, or call a friend. Taking time for a bit of self-care is not a luxury; it is a necessity that allows us to fulfill our responsibilities and maintain calm at this critical time. 

16. Practice gratitude. Appreciating what we have is like exercising a muscle. It takes practice. Each day think of something good in your life. There is more than enough to worry about now. But there is also plenty to be thankful for. Be sure you devote time to the positive in your life. 

17. Modulate how much news you watch and read. There's a fine line between staying informed and oversaturating ourselves with too much news about illness and death. Decide what is the right "dosage" of news for you that allows you to stay calm and stick to that news schedule. 

18. Read a good book. Go to nypl.org and you'll find a choice of more than 300,000 free e-books and audio books from the New York Public Library--from children's books to adult bestsellers. 

19. Go places...virtually. Take a free online tour of a museum here in New York, elsewhere in the U.S., or other places throughout the world. Google Arts & Culture teamed up with 2,000+ museums and galleries around the world so that you can enjoy a bounty of arts without leaving your couch. 

20. Enjoy the small things in life. What are the small things that bring you joy? Perhaps it's sipping a cup of coffee and writing in a journal by the window each morning. Or maybe it's watching your favorite old TV show when entertainment was as simple as Gilligan's Island. Take a break from what you have to do and take time to do what you like to do. 

21. Listen to music. Whether you're a rap lover, classical music aficionado, Broadway music fan, or rock 'n' roller, tune into what music lifts your mood, helps you escape from your daily worries, or brings you back to a wonderful time in your life. And, of course, feel free to dance if the spirit moves you. 

22. Laugh. There are an infinite number of silly videos circulating on YouTube and throughout the Internet. Sure, they may be a waste of time. Or...maybe not. They say that laughter is the best medicine. If nothing else, it helps the medicine go down. These are serious times. A bit of humor makes life easier. 

23. Play board or card games. If you're working from home, your children are studying remotely from an online classroom, and you're socializing via text or Facetime, chances are you need a break and can benefit by unplugging periodically from your electronic devices. Playing old-fashioned board and card games are a great way to unplug and bring us back to a time before every toy and gadget was "smart." It creates shared family experiences, ones may look back on after the pandemic with a smile. 

24. Watch a movie. Movies are a great escape. They also can take you to faraway places just a time when you are required to stay home. Whatever your mood, there is bound to be a film to match it. Openculture.com has links to 1,100+ free online classic, independent, noir, and Western movies. YouTube.com and popcornflix.com are just two of the other many sites on which you can find free films. 

25. Drink water. Water is key for good health. It helps eliminate waste and toxins from the body, maintain normal temperature, and keep your joints functioning smoothly. Drinking water can even curb your appetite, an appealing benefit to many. 

26. Look at your photos. Tough times require having perspective. Browsing through photos from good times in the past is a good reminder that there will be more good times in the future. 

27. Tend to your plants. Mother nature is calming for most of us. Doing something "earthy" when life seems chaotic is also stabilizing. Whether you have an outdoor garden or indoor plants, watering, pruning, fertilizing, and planting seeds can relieve stress and remind you of all the beauty in the world. 

28. Learn something new. Learning a new skill, taking up a new hobby, or brushing up on a craft that you enjoyed as a child is a great way to feel more alive and purposeful. Whether you want to learn to knit, play chess, or play piano, as you did as a child, you'll find lots of free classes on YouTube and other websites. 

29. De-clutter. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to most of us spending more time at home than we have before. Being surrounded by too much "stuff" is distracting and, for many, anxiety-producing. Sorting through old things and deciding what to keep and throw out can give you a sense of control and organization at a time when life feels chaotic. 

30. Schedule a virtual movie and/or game night. A virtual game/movie night can help ease the sudden and severe lack of socialization brought on by this new Coronavirus reality. If you already have a Netflix subscription, try Netflix Party. It allows you to remotely watch movies and shows simultaneously, and features a chat box function where your family and pals can engage in discussion. Thanks to free video apps like Zoom, Houseparty, Google Hangout, Skype and Facetime you can also enjoy a fun-filled evening playing virtual games, like Pictionary, with family and friends. 

31. Express your love. The coronavirus pandemic has heightened people's sense of mortality. If there is a silver lining to the fears that COVID-19 has triggered, it's that people more readily recognize who and what they cherish in their lives. Tell those you love you love them. Be more open. Be more vulnerable. Be more human. Life and love are very precious.

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