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  • January 21, 2022

    By Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD

    Most of us have entered year three of the COVID-19 pandemic asking the same question: Will this ever end? Combined with increasing civil unrest and natural disasters, the pandemic has contributed to higher rates of stress, anxiety, depression, frustration, grief, weariness, and loneliness. 


    It’s a lot to handle, no matter your social status, profession, or overall health. The good news is there are steps you can take to feel less overwhelmed and more in control of your thoughts and behavior. 


    Though none of us know what daily life will look like after the pandemic, it’s unlikely that we’ll fully return to “how things used to be.” The unknown can be scary—but it’s also an opportunity for improvement. 


    Following are eight ways to boost your well-being by strengthening your mental health and likely your physical health as well. If you’re struggling with sadness, stress, or anything between, pick a few that feel simple to do. Then build from there.


    If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.


    Related reading: How to Deal with Re-entry Anxiety and Post-pandemic Stress

    1. Perform small acts of kindness.

    I often tell patients that supporting others is an excellent way to be kind to yourself; helping people has been shown to increase happiness. It can give you a sense of belonging and connectedness, which often helps people feel more purpose.


    With ongoing suffering due to the pandemic, small acts of kindness are more important than ever. You can show support in many ways:

    • Compliment family, friends, and even strangers.
    • Hold doors open for others.
    • If you can afford it, tip generously. 
    • Donate food or money to food pantries.
    • Say “thank you” more often. 
    • Offer to deliver groceries or perform outdoor chores for your neighbor.
    • Find different ways you can contribute to your community.

    I like to bake cookies and deliver them unexpectedly to colleagues. Showing kindness to others can help you feel less lonely and more connected to others by releasing hormones in your brain that stimulate satisfaction and pleasure.


    Related reading: Gratitude Matters: Saying Thanks to Caregivers


    2. Move every day.

    Regular movement is good for both the body and mind. It’s especially important for people who have transitioned to working from home and tend to stay in one place for eight to 10 hours a day. 


    You don’t have to start a strenuous exercise routine to reset your mind and release endorphins—chemicals in your brain that produce positive feelings. For example, I take a walk around the koi ponds at MedStar Washington Hospital Center over lunch almost every day. And I keep light weights in my office to lift while I’m on phone calls.


    Start with building a few walks around the block into your daily schedule or making time for outdoor hobbies such as fishing or crabbing (when it warms up a bit). These activities can reduce stress, increase energy, and improve your overall well-being.


    Consider committing to a daily walk in the #NewYear to help boost your #MentalHealth. In this blog, #psychiatrist Elspeth Ritchie, MD, shares 7 other ways to improve mental health in 2022 and beyond: https://bit.ly/3fME4WA .
    Click to Tweet


    3. Get a good night’s sleep.

    The better you sleep, the better you’ll feel. Poor sleep can increase mental distress and contribute to physical ailments, such as high blood pressure. To improve your sleep:

    • Turn off the TV and stay off your phone an hour before going to bed. The artificial light and constant stimulation make it harder to fall and stay asleep.
    • Don’t try to force sleep. If you’re in bed and can’t fall asleep, get up and do a calming activity such as reading or working on a puzzle before trying again.
    • Talk with your doctor about sleep medication that might help—many prescription and over-the-counter drugs are effective.

    Related reading: 8 Ways to Deal with Insomnia and Form Better Sleeping Habits

    4. Spend time with animals.

    Whether you’re partial to cats, dogs, or horses, spending time with animals can raise levels of oxytocin, a hormone that gives you that “warm and fuzzy” feeling. This calming effect can be especially helpful for people who don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings; the presence of a beloved pet can help them feel more at ease.


    People who have pets also tend to feel less lonely. If you don’t have one but enjoy being around animals, consider volunteering at an animal shelter to help reduce stress—and benefit from the additional mood boost of providing a service to others.

    5. Eat a healthy diet.

    A well-balanced diet can do wonders for your mood. Foods rich in antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, and protein can help you feel energetic, while foods loaded with sugar and saturated fat can leave you feeling sluggish. 


    Our understanding of the connection between nutrition and mental health is only just beginning, but more research is pointing to diet as an important factor in managing mental health disorders. Eating more omega-3 fatty acids, produce, fish, and legumes, and fewer processed foods has been
    linked to a decrease in depression, for example. 

    I’m not suggesting anyone hop on the latest diet fad. Instead, add more plant-based foods to your plate, such as broccoli, leafy greens, fruits, beans, legumes, lentils, seeds, and nuts. These eating habits are associated with better heart health and weight management, so it’s a win-win for your overall health!

    Related reading: Eating Mindfully for Better Health

    6. Relieve stress with meditation and yoga.

    Meditation—training the mind to focus and stay present for a certain amount of time—takes practice to master. Try sitting in silence for 10 minutes a day with your eyes closed to observe how you feel mentally and physically; awareness is the goal. 

     

    Consistently meditating can help reduce long-term stress; you’ll learn to recognize and manage feelings in the moment instead of letting your emotions take control.

    Yoga adds stretching and breathing exercises to meditation to help you focus on developing a better understanding of the mind-body connection and improve mindfulness. 

    Regular practice can help you improve your ability to recognize how you experience and respond to stress. Studies have shown that even just one hour-long session a week can decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    Related reading: Stress As Dangerous As High Cholesterol and Blood Pressure

    7. Explore talk therapy options.

    The pandemic has had a few silver linings. Two include:

    • More people have become open to discussing their mental health.
    • Telehealth has become more widespread, making it easier to access mental health services without the time or expense of traveling to the clinic.

    Talk therapy is what people usually picture as “talking with a therapist.” Patients regularly meet with a trained mental health professional who can help them acknowledge and analyze thought patterns, behaviors, and environmental factors that might be symptoms of or contributors to negative moods and feelings. 


    An increase in the number of people seeking mental health treatment has created longer wait times to see mental health professionals. However, many types of talk therapy are available from several sources. If possible, meet with different providers, from psychologists or psychiatrists to licensed therapists or clinical social workers, in a variety of formats to determine what works best for you. 


    Don’t wait for an appointment if you’re having suicidal thoughts. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.


    Related reading: 6 Signs You Should Be Concerned About Your Mental Health


    8. Consider talking with your doctor about medications for anxiety and stress. 

    Medication can be incredibly effective at reducing symptoms for some patients. Primary care physicians prescribe many drugs for anxiety and depression, so talk with your provider about medication options that might work for you.


    Related reading: Recognizing and Treating Depression in Hospital Patients


    Focus on what you can control.

    If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by stress, grief, anxiety, or other negative emotions, focus on what you can control. For example, you can’t control how other people’s behavior is contributing to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, but you can control what kind of mask you wear and where you wear it.


    It can be tempting to turn to unhealthy habits when life feels out of control, such as drug or alcohol use or spending too much time in front of the TV. Instead, make a list of reasonable actions you will take to feel better every day or week, such as calling a friend or taking a walk before, during, or after work.


    Everyone experiences emotions differently, so don’t feel bad about whatever you’re feeling. Instead, talk with your doctor or other trusted colleagues about developing a strategy that includes a unique combination of actions and treatment methods that will help you live as healthy and happy as possible during the next year—and many more to come.


    Related reading: How Prioritizing Your Wellness Benefits Those Around You

     

    Do you or a loved one have mental health concerns?

    Talk with a primary care provider about treatment options.

    Call 202-877-DOCS (3627) or Request an Appointment