The last couple of years have been challenging, to say the least.
I write a lot about health and wellness, most often focusing on the importance of exercise and eating well.
I also espouse what I call “Proactive Positivity.” In posts and speeches, I explain the way negativity tends to comes naturally – for example, when we’re lying in bed unable to sleep in the middle of the night, in most cases we think about problems we want to solve, or other things bothering us. Meanwhile, positivity doesn’t tend to be automatic, thus, the need for proactive positivity—activities like: expressing gratitude, smiling, helping others, exercising, spending time with people you like, looking for silver linings, being present, seeing the glass as half full, celebrating your progress, laughing, having fun, pursuing your passions, working in a job you love, having hobbies, and investing in experiences vs. stuff.
In an article in the Wall Street Journal early this year, Elizabeth Bernstein wrote about the components of a mental-fitness regimen. It’s important for people to proactively take steps to be mentally healthy, she explains, just as they would if they wanted to be physically fit. Bernstein goes on to quote Wendy Troxel, a clinical psychologist and senior behavioral and social scientist at Rand Corp., “If you wait until a major stressor hits to try and bolster your mental health, it’s like trying to inflate your life raft while you are already drowning at sea.”
Here are some of the steps Bernstein writes should be part of your mental-fitness regimen, per advice from experts:
Make sleep nonnegotiable. Most adults need 7-8 hours of quality sleep…setting a consistent wake-up time, counting backward to determine when to go to bed, and creating a relaxing wind-down routine, starting an hour before bedtime. Take a bath, read a book, turn down the lights and the thermostat. (65-68 degrees is ideal.) Disconnect from technology to minimize your exposure to distressing news and light.
Calm your mind. You can’t cope with stress well if your brain is on high alert at all times, says Carolyn Daitch, a psychologist in Farmington Hills, Mich., and co-author of “The Road to Calm Workbook.” She recommends beginning the day with 15-20 minutes of yoga, meditation or prayer, then scheduling four “mini interventions” during the day—a two-minute breathing exercise or other quick tension-releasing technique. (One of her favorites: Make a tight fist with one hand, imagine it holding all the tension in your body for 10 seconds, release it.) She says to think of these practices as a “stress inoculation.”
Watch your language. The words we use to talk to ourselves color our outlook. So try to replace “hot” language with “cooler” language, suggests Patricia Deldin, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. (“This is a challenge but I can handle it,” not “I’m overwhelmed.”) And stop “shoulding” yourself. (“I would like to…” not “I should.”)
Practice self-compassion. Research shows self-compassionate people are happier, more optimistic, more motivated, and more resilient. Yet, too often, we are mean to ourselves. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Start by acknowledging when something is painful. (Dr. Daitch recommends putting your hand on your heart and saying: “This isn’t easy.”) Then talk to yourself as you would to your best friend. And remind yourself that everyone goes through difficult times.
Move your body. Research shows that aerobic exercise reduces fatigue and tension, and improves alertness, concentration, sleep, mood, and self-esteem…And studies show that exercise in nature has even more benefits: It reduces the body’s stress response, lowers cortisol levels and blood pressure, and it gives you a sense of awe, which boosts mood.
Create a media diet. There’s too much negative news…Decide how much you will consume—think of this as a “news calorie count”—and stick with it. Set aside blocks of time to turn off your phone. Purge negative people from your social media feed. Look for positive streams to follow or articles to read.
Choose extracurricular activities wisely. Research shows that pleasant activities, ones that give you a sense of purpose (such as volunteering), and ones that make you feel accomplished or masterful (such as learning a language) improve mental health. So pick up a new hobby, practice an instrument, work on improving at a sport.
Cultivate supportive relationships. People with strong relationships are emotionally healthier. So make a commitment to connect regularly with friends and family. Set a goal to reach out to one person a day. Ask about the other person and discuss something other than the day’s awful news. And be open about how you are, because vulnerability can be bonding.
Bernstein also recommends being grateful, as I have written about many times, including this post about gratitude for stress reduction.
I hope you will work to incorporate some of these ideas into your routine.