The headline seemed to burst off my computer screen and grab me by the collar: it was an essay on CNN titled, “Are You OK? I’m Not.”
In the essay, Thomas Lake describes a laundry list of symptoms of emotional strain, including anxiety, listlessness, wandering thoughts, lack of focus, grief and generally feeling overwhelmed. These are symptoms he is experiencing and issues challenging people in virtually every corner of society.
Lake talks with psychiatrist Erica Martin Richards, who puts it simply: “Everyone is struggling.”
“Does that include you?” Lake asks.
“It does,” she replies.
The universality of emotional struggle during the pandemic is troubling—but it is also a neon sign letting us know we should be holding our mental health as a top priority as we continue to cope with and navigate these difficult times.
So what would it look like if we put our mental health first? There are at least four things I can imagine we would all benefit from:
1) Stay in the Present Moment
There is so much to pull us into the past—particularly as we reflect on the long pandemic year and the devastating toll it’s taken. Many of us are also fretful about the future, not knowing when we will receive our vaccines, whether we will be safe from COVID-19, when we will return to “normal,” when we will hug loved ones again.
Take time each day to pause, breathe deeply and notice that you are here, now, and safe.
2) Be Honest About Your Feelings
Authentic positivity means acknowledging and embracing the full range of your emotional life, including the so-called “negative” emotions of anger, sadness, fear and frustration.
Psychologists believe that “emodiversity,” which refers to the fullness of our emotions, is a key indicator of mental health.
You don’t have to dwell or feel stuck in your difficult emotions to benefit from being honest about the things that challenge you. Chances are, if you share your experiences with others, they will nod in empathetic agreement, leaving you both feeling seen and supported.
3) Prioritize Rest
Even those of us with good sleep habits are challenged during this time. Falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up refreshed—all of these are harder than usual in these times. Also, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has regular dreams about being in crowded places and realizing, “wait—no one here is wearing a mask!”
Try to dial back the pressure to have perfect sleep hygiene and focus instead on finding ways to access a sense of rest and relaxation when you can. Close your eyes for a few minutes between meetings. Flip through a soothing magazine. Put on cozy socks. Do some gentle stretches. Be intentional about your rest time throughout the day, so you can know that you’re giving yourself space to reset.
4) Nourish Your Body
There are many ways to feed yourself. You can learn something new to nourish your mind. You can nurture your body by choosing foods that are high in protein, healthy fats and vitamins to support your health. You can also set an intention to move your body in ways that support and strengthen your joints and muscles.
Tending to and staying grounded in your body is something you can do in small ways throughout your day, each time you feel unsettled in these still-stressful times. Even stretching your arms up toward the ceiling or drawing in a deep, full breath can subtly remind you that you are putting your mental health at the top of your priority list.