Recent years, particularly 2017, have been tough for a lot of us. As the dismal news and sociopolitical conflict surged last year, I found my personal life taking a massive hit: following a laparoscopic procedure I experienced a break-up, a death in my family, and a dog attack — all while juggling a toxic roommate.
After a nervous breakdown, I woke up from the happy-go-lucky period of my twenties and began putting the pieces of my life back together by taking more responsibility for my mental health.
While my mental fitness routine is a permanent work in progress, I am learning how to better identify my feelings and needs on a daily basis and subsequently seeing real improvements. I'm now pulling myself out of the mess in a few ways that I’m excited to share here.
Although this routine is working for me right now, it won't necessarily work for everyone, so don’t feel disheartened if you try these suggestions out and don't get anywhere with them. Self-care is a deeply personal practice and it’s important to do what feels right for you.
It's also worth noting that taking care of your mental health isn’t something reserved for those suffering with mental illness; challenging experiences and emotions are a natural part of life for everybody.
Do a Digital Detox
Our reliance on, and over-use of, technology and social media is negatively impacting our mental health and normal sleep patterns. “The blue light emitted by screens on cell phones, computers, tablets, and televisions restrain the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle or circadian rhythm," reports Sleep.org. "Reducing melatonin makes it harder to fall and stay asleep.”
Research by Scope in 2014 found that social media sites like Instagram and Facebook make users feel inadequate, jealous, ugly and lonely. The study also found that people between the ages of 18 and 34 are likely to say they are "addicted" to social media, and that two in five young people taking part said they would be happier if they used social media less. 45 percent of participants said they want to get rid of their social media accounts, but feel it is too hard to keep in touch with people without them.
When I’m in a particularly gloomy mood I find that scrolling through Instagram really gets to me. I start to have serious FOMO, and feel a growing sense of worthlessness. To counteract this, I recently began taking regular social media breaks by deleting the apps from my phone for a few days. I’m also in the process of unfollowing people whose accounts make me feel anxious in any way.
To release some of the reliance I have on my phone, I started sleeping with my phone in the living room and I'm now getting reacquainted with the experience of waking up to an old school alarm clock.
Lastly, I signed up for Moment, an app that tracks your phone usage. A paid upgrade on the app allows you to set daily limits on your phone usage and sends notifications when you’ve gone over the limit. Reducing my usage is a self-soothing tool, and helps to cultivate a healthier relationship with social media — which feels paramount to my overall mental fitness routine.
A 2015 study carried out by Stanford researchers and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science highlighted the value of nature in improving your mental well-being. In the study, people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment exhibited decreased activity in the part of the brain associated with a key factor in depression, as opposed to participants who walked in a highly-traffic urban region.
When you notice yourself feeling particularly anxious or depressed, try going for a walk around the block (or better still, in a park or forest) and meditate. Put your phone away and try a simple breathing exercise. I like to count up to ten and then back down, while mentally scanning my body and making sure to notice my feet planted firmly on the ground. This can help you tune into your surroundings, and force you to notice the pockets of nature and beauty around you. Almost immediately, I feel refreshed and more at ease within just a few minutes.
At times I can feel so stuck and weighed down by challenging thought patterns, but getting outside really helps me reconnect and re-find my center. Even five minutes of fresh air can make a huge difference in my mood.
A 2014 study revealed that expressing gratitude can reduce stress and depressive symptoms. Another trial in 2016, in which 300 adults used gratitude writing in addition to psychotherapy, saw patients’ mental health improve in just four weeks, and greatly improve in 12 weeks.
I learned a hard lesson about the value of gratitude last summer. I was in a dark place, yet I found myself in awe of the love and support I received at the time. It helped bring me back to the light. Now I train myself to identify the countless things I should be grateful for each day — some days it is close friendships, laughter, and beautiful sunsets. Other days it is a home-cooked meal, a good song recommendation that I play on repeat, or the beauty of an unexpected snow day.
Waking up from depression brought me a deeper sense of gratitude and a desire for living more intentionally every single day.
Reduce Stress by Engaging in Self-Care
“To be able to care for the people you love, you must first take care of yourself," says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). "It’s like the advice we’re given on airplanes: put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help someone else with theirs. Taking care of yourself is a valid goal on its own, and it helps you support the people you love.”
Stress can take a physical and emotional toll on the body, including headaches, low energy, stomach aches and digestion issues, body pain, and insomnia, according to NAMI. Improving your physical and mental well-being using self-care practices can help reduce stress.
In the wake of the presidential election, it felt like the concept of self-care became more acceptable to talk about publicly. There are hundreds of articles on the topic, while the #selfcare hashtag currently has over 4 million impressions on Instagram.
As more people wake up to the radical notion that personal care should come first, we’re also redefining what that really looks like. While face masks and salt baths can definitely be soothing, actual self-care techniques aren't always so glamorous. For me, that’s going to therapy each week, quitting drinking alcohol and smoking weed, giving up caffeine and cutting back on sugar, and cultivating a daily yoga practice.
A 2014 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that meditation can help reduce anxiety, depression and body pain. It revealed that meditative techniques emphasizing mindfulness, concentration and automatic self-transcendence can result in small to moderate reductions in the negative effects of psychological stress.
Thanks to new apps and IRL spaces, meditation is now being packaged for the masses. I recently attended a meditation class at MNDFUL, a New York-based meditation studio that offers a range of classes catering to all kinds of meditative practices. It has three locations, two in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, with a full roster of workshops worth exploring.
I also recently downloaded Calm, to help me cultivate awareness and empathy for ten minutes each day. Though it’s a small commitment, it helps me in big ways — on days when I spend time meditating, I notice that my mood feels lighter and more positive. The fee is a reasonable priced, and they also offer annual or lifetime fees that give you access to all types of meditative exercises. You can also check out Highsnobiety's top 8 meditation apps here.
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