One thing that the current crisis is revealing to us all is that maintaining mental health is just as vital as maintaining physical fitness. Those of us who are social distancing at home are grateful to not be sick in the hospital, but concerns about mental health have been spiking, as the past few months have seen spikes in things like depression, anxiety, and excessive drinking. Here are some tips on staying mentally healthy while social distancing during the current crisis, including what to eat, how to exercise, when to sleep, who to contact, and more.
Get Proper Nutrition
While you are stuck at home, you might be tempted to eat a lot of junk food, especially if you are prone to emotional eating. But one of the best things you can do to preserve your mental health is to make sure that you get proper nutrition by eating plenty of healthy food.
There is a very close link between physical health and mental health. While getting fresh produce may be more difficult now than it was before the crisis began, make sure that you are doing everything you can to get at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and to limit your junk food.
Omega 3 is a fatty acid that helps improve many aspects of physical health, and studies have even shown that it is effective at helping prevent or alleviate depression and anxiety. To help safeguard your mental health during this challenging time, eat something every day that has omega 3.
Eggs are naturally high in omega 3, so if you want to start your day off with a natural depression fighter, make some eggs for breakfast. Many types of fish and nuts are also high in omega 3. Remember that eating foods that contain a nutrient is more effective than taking a supplement. However, if you are averse or allergic to all foods with omega 3, a high-quality supplement is better than nothing.
A lot of how your brain functions is linked to the health of your gut rather than your central nervous system. To help protect your mental health, take care of your stomach by getting plenty of probiotics – good bacteria – that help promote optimal functioning.
Yogurt is often touted for being high in probiotics, but only if the label says that it has live cultures. Kombucha, a particular type of fermented tea, also has high levels of probiotics, as do some protein powders. Aim to eat something with probiotics every day.
If your travel plans are limited to the path between your bedroom, living room, and kitchen, with an occasional vacation to the grocery store, you may be dealing with mental fatigue and brain fog, only from the lack of variation in your day.
B vitamins can help you break through a brain fog by boosting your cognition. Many grain-based foods, such as bread, are fortified with some B vitamins, but the best way to get them is by eating lots of fruits and vegetables every day. Aim for at least five servings.
Many studies have been carried out on the numerous health benefits of green tea. While it may not be the magical elixir that will make you live forever, in some ways, green tea is the next best thing. It boosts the connectivity between the two hemispheres of your brain.
Since you are probably doing a lot less than you used to (unless you are homeschooling kids while also working from home), you don’t need as much coffee as before. Aim to replace one cup of coffee each day with a cup of green tea.
While stress-eating may make you feel better for the few moments that the delicious goodness of carbohydrates is in your mouth; ultimately, sugar can increase depression and anxiety. The result is that you feel all-around worse. Not only do you feel guilty for stress-eating, but your brain is not functioning as well.
Treat yourself moderately, but if you do need a sugar fix to boost your thinking, make a smoothie with lots of fruit. The fruit has natural sugars that are tempered by fiber and lots of nutrients, so you will get the quick energy boost and sustained energy to last for hours.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you probably do not get enough iron in your diet because most iron that people consume is found in meat. While there are many benefits to a diet that restricts or eliminates the consumption of animal products, you have to find a way to make up the iron.
Not getting enough iron can cause you to become lethargic and develop anemia. You may not notice the lethargy as quickly as you would if you were going to work or school every day so that iron deficiency can turn into anemia before you realize anything is wrong. Cook your foods in a cast-iron skillet, eat green leafy vegetables and take iron supplements.
Vitamin D is a superhero for both physical and mental health. In addition to boosting many aspects of your body’s well-being, it can help alleviate or prevent depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.
Most of our vitamin D comes from sunlight, so to get enough of this essential nutrient, you need to be intentional about getting outside every day. Take at least a 15- or 20-minute walk once a day, especially if the sun is out. The exercise combined with sunlight will boost your mental health.
If your local grocery store is having a difficult time procuring fresh produce, never fear. Head over to the frozen section and get the frozen version of your favorites. Flash-freezing produce retains almost all of the nutrient content and frozen also lasts longer than fresh.
So while biting into a crisp apple or peeling a banana may be difficult during the current season, you can still get optimal nutrition by buying frozen fruits and vegetables. As a bonus, frozen vegetables are more comfortable to cook.
We are all trying to hold on to something that resembles “normal,” life before the current crisis turned the whole world upside-down. While trying to find normal and enjoying some of your favorite foods, take this opportunity to try something new.
Maybe try a recipe that you have not tried before, especially if it calls for ingredients that will help boost your mental health. Try cutting out sugar for a week and replacing it with healthier snack foods (especially if you have the time to prepare them). But most of all, make sure that you are being kind to your body and giving it the foods that it needs.
Few things will prepare you for a bad day and derail your mental health as quickly as a bad night of sleep — proper sleep gears you up to face the challenges ahead of you with grace and courage. Lousy sleep makes you frazzled, anxious, and unable to think correctly.
Poor sleep habits are also linked to poor mental health, so now more than ever, you need to prioritize getting a good night’s rest. If you are having difficulty getting enough sleep, don’t reach for the NyQuil yet. Here are some tips.
If you are feeling stressed or anxious, practicing just a few minutes of deep breathing every day will calm down your nervous system and relieve your anxious thoughts. Even if you cannot quiet your mind down, sit still, and find something to focus on.
Breathe in for a count of 10, hold for a count of 10, and breathe out for a count of 10. After a few rounds of this breathing method, you will find that you are becoming less tense and can focus your thoughts better. If you are having trouble sleeping, practice deep breathing for a few minutes before going to bed.
If you do not have the same predictable schedule that you have relied on for so long, you may be struggling with whether it is currently day or night. Should I stay up until 2 am to finish this season on Netflix since I don’t have to go to work tomorrow?
No, you shouldn’t. Try to fall asleep at the same time as you usually would and try to establish a routine during the day that starts at the same time you would typically go to work. Going to bed at the same time every day helps to improve the quality of your sleep and improve your mental health.
If you live in an area with long daylight hours or are an essential worker on the night shift, sleep may be especially tricky, notably with the added stress and anxiety of the current crisis. If you do not have the chance to get eight hours of sleep during dark hours, use blackout curtains.
Sunlight automatically turns our bodies on and tells them that they need to get to work. Blackout curtains prevent the sunlight from reaching you so that you are better able to fall asleep and stay asleep. They are well worth the investment.
When you eat well, you sleep well. When you eat poorly, you sleep poorly. If you want to sleep well tonight, make sure that you get proper nutrition today. That means getting plenty of fruits and vegetables and protein and limiting the amount of sugar you consume.
Also, check your caffeine intake. You probably need much, much less caffeine now than you did before (unless you are working from home and homeschooling, or if you are one of our fantastic healthcare workers doing double shifts), so don’t drink coffee in the afternoons. Substitute tea for your mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
The benefits of exercise are too numerous to count. Periods of anxiety cause stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to build up inside the body, but exercise burns them off. It also increases endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals that help boost your mood.
Plus, exercise stimulates your heart rate and increases the flow of blood throughout your body, so the nutrients that your cells need are better able to get to their destination. Getting a sufficient amount of exercise during the day can also help you sleep better at night.
If you are under a stay-at-home order and cannot leave at all, then getting exercise outside may not be a possibility unless you have a large backyard. But if you can get some exercise outdoors, there are the added benefits of fresh air and vitamin D from the sunlight.
If you live in an area where there is hiking nearby, spending an afternoon on a long hike might be just what the doctor ordered to combat mental fatigue and boost your mental health. But do stay away from swimming, as bodies of water are petri dishes for spreading illness.
Exercising inside takes more self-discipline than exercising outside, but even indoor exercise can be a great booster for both physical and mental health. If you need some motivation to start working out, turn on your favorite Netflix show and move your body throughout one complete episode.
You can do the throwbacks to gym class – jumping jacks, push-ups, et cetera – or other exercises that move tense parts of your body. If you have exercise equipment, like a treadmill, pull it out and exercise on it for the duration of one Netflix episode.
If you have a two-story house, take a break once an hour or so to run up and down the stairs a handful of times. Even this short burst of exercise will boost your heart rate, burn off stress hormones, and stimulate the production of feel-good endorphins.
If you live in an upstairs apartment, take the stairs instead of the elevator (unless you live in a sky-rise and are up top, of course!). But do not run up and down the stairs just for fun, because you want to limit exposure to public places.
To bring proper nutrition back into the mix, remember that cooking – especially cooking from scratch – is an excellent form of exercise. If you want to eat some junk food, instead of buying it from the store, cook it from scratch. The motion of stirring ingredients together and moving around the kitchen is a pretty useful exercise.
Plus, you get the benefit of seeing the culinary masterpiece that you created and then eating it for nutrition. All around, cooking from scratch ties together exercise and proper diet, both of which promote better mental health and lead to better sleep.
The phrase of the season is social distancing. Social distancing means that we limit our physical contact with people to help reduce exposure and ensure the health of ourselves, our friends and loved ones, and our broader communities.
But social distancing does not mean that we become disconnected. The keyword is “social.” People need to find new ways of being social and meeting this critical need for mental health while limiting the potential of exposure. Staying connected is essential to promoting good mental health during this season.
A good goal to reach for is to talk to one person each day, especially if you live by yourself. If you are used to working in an office and are now having hours and hours of Zoom meetings every day, keep in mind that the social interaction you get at work is meaningful and can continue on Zoom.
If you are not in Zoom meetings and live by yourself, make an effort to have at least one conversation a day, preferably on video. If you text someone, all you get is the words that appear on a screen. A phone call is better because a voice is better than typed words. But a video call is the next best thing to seeing someone in person.
A necessary part of staying connected and improving mental health during this difficult season is showing kindness as many chances as you get. If you must go to the grocery store or pick up take out from a restaurant, make sure you let the workers there know how much you appreciate them.
Tape a thank-you note on your trash can before taking it out to the street. The sanitation workers who are essential during this time (and every other time!) will appreciate the show of kindness. Remember that these essential workers who are keeping society running may be dealing with depression or other concerns caused by isolation — every bit of kindness matters.
Few things boost your mental health better than knowing that you are having a positive effect on other people. Do you have elderly neighbors? Call them to check-in and see how they are doing. Let them talk for as long as they need to feel heard and less alone.
Send out messages to people in your phone contacts to just see how they are doing. Maybe there is someone who will respond because he or she feels lonely and needs someone to talk to. Connecting with people in this meaningful way is a great way to build a community with people who may be struggling during this season.
Micro-interactions are those little encounters that you may not notice during the day but that, cumulatively, have a healing effect and improve your social well-being and mental health. Micro-interactions occur when you greet the security guard, place your order with a waiter or waitress, say hi to a colleague that you pass in the hallway, or smile at the cashier ringing up your order.
When you get the opportunity to engage in micro-interactions, especially during this season, be intentional about how you communicate with the other person. Smile and agree that this season is difficult for everyone. Walk away knowing that you are both feeling better just for having encountered each other, even if you remain perfect strangers.
Maybe you don’t like binging on Netflix. That’s okay! What are the things that you do enjoy? Make the time to do those things, because doing what you enjoy will help improve your mental health and well-being during this challenging season.
If you like gardening, get out in the yard and play in the dirt. If you enjoy cooking, spend a few hours in the kitchen every day (you can freeze the food that you don’t eat right away). If you enjoy reading, don’t worry about libraries being closed. There are a plethora of free online resources for book lovers, especially now. And if you are a writer, maybe you can finally write that novel.
Imagine being stuck at home and having to social distance yourself before the internet made staying connected – not only to friends and family but also to a world of information – as possible as it is now. And now that so many people are staying home, many services are now available for free or at severely reduced rates.
Major museums, such as the Louvre, are offering free online tours, offering an immersive experience that is similar to visiting the Paris museum in person. Online platforms such as Master Class and Udemy are offering new classes and steeply discounted rates, so you can discover new things and learn new skills while being stuck at home. Taking advantage of these opportunities can have a positive effect on your mental well-being.
Forget two-day delivery with Amazon Prime. Many shipments will take weeks, if not longer, to reach you. By the time you receive your order, the thrill that you get from engaging in retail therapy will have worn off, and you may end up feeling even worse than before.
Save the money and save the anxiety by engaging in healthier ways of alleviating stress and anxiety. Engage in deep breathing and take daily walks to keep your mental health in tip-top shape. If you have a pet, spend additional time with it. There are more effective ways of dealing with the stress of the current crisis than engaging in retail therapy.
Studies have shown that reading books – not news articles on a blue screen (like on your laptop or tablet), but actual books – has a tremendously calming effect on the brain. Even just six minutes of reading each day will bring down stress and anxiety levels and increase your focus and concentration.
You don’t have to spend money on ordering books. There are plenty of apps, such as Libby, that allow you to borrow eBooks for free or for much, much cheaper than buying them. And your local library probably has an eBook-lending service to help people get their book fixes during this current crisis.
Many, many mental health professionals have made themselves available to support people through online platforms as we all try to navigate the challenges of staying home and staying healthy. Quite a few counselors have made their services available for free, and there are also public services that can connect you to a high-quality mental health professional for free or at a reduced rate.
Even a one-hour session of therapy can help alleviate the stress and give you a better perspective on getting through this season in good mental shape. When you feel better, you will make better choices – such as getting better nutrition and going to bed on time – which will lead to a positive feedback loop and a much-improved state of mental health.