May is Mental Health Awareness Month and every year the goal is to fight stigma, provide support, educate the public, and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families. If ever there was a time to focus on mental health awareness, now is that time.
Everyone has likely experienced some level of worry or anxiety in their life. Unfortunately, present times can fuel very real feelings of anxiety. But there are things you can do to help yourself and those around you.
While I’m not a doctor or psychologist, I have lived with mental health challenges, including anxiety disorders, for most of my adult life. Treatment has benefited my quality of life greatly, and if you are facing similar challenges, I hope you take your care seriously.
Weeks of quarantine and a never-ending news cycle about the pandemic can seem daunting. But as the saying goes, we can’t control the wind, but we can direct the sail. Below are some activities that may help you manage your anxiety.
Before I get to the tips, we should start with a core tenant of anxiety management: Don’t try to eliminate your anxiety.
What? But who wants to feel anxious?
I know that sounds counterintuitive but the reality is that anxiety is fueled by our reactions to it. When we try to suppress or ignore anxiety, it only speaks louder and increases. So the goal is to knock it down one or two notches at a time. If your anxiety is very high—say on a scale of 1-10, 10 being a panic attack, and you’re at an 8, try to knock it down to a 7, maybe a 6. Here are some ideas for doing the OPPOSITE of Emeril, since we DO NOT want to “kick it up a notch“—we want to KNOCK IT DOWN A NOTCH!
Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise decreases overall levels of tension, elevates and stabilizes mood, and improves sleep and self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
Personally, I’ve taken-up rollerblading, which I do for at least 30 minutes every day, in addition to daily walks with my kids. If you get out for exercise or family walks, try paying attention to everything you see, hear, and smell—being mindful of your surroundings. Immerse yourself in the details of that leaf you see or the smell of fresh-cut grass. You may notice your anxiety dissipating, as you’re not giving it attention.
In times of high anxiety, our bodies are preparing for the fight or flight response. In doing so, our breathing becomes more shallow and restricted in anticipation of action. In response, we can use breathing exercises since proper breathing techniques manage anxiety by automatically slowing our heart rate.
There are many breathing exercises that can help, including those listed below in the exercises. Personally, my favorite breathing exercise is Four Square Breathing. Also known as Box Breathing, Four Square is easy to do, easy to remember, and can be done inconspicuously anywhere at any time. It’s quite simple, and I encourage you to try it even when you’re not feeling anxious so you can fall back on it when needed.
It goes like this:Inhale for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and repeat four times. That’s it! Simpler is better in times of distress.
When our minds and hearts are racing, it’s easy to feel disconnected to our surroundings. Grounding involves reconnecting ourselves to what is around us, including putting our bare feet in the grass and dirt on a nice day, or listening to birds chirp. Taking some time to be mindful of what is around can relieve the anxiety at hand. There are two exercises that have helped me practice mindfulness and may help you, too.
Body Scan focuses on being mindful of bodily sensations, typically done while sitting or lying down. It gradually draws your attention from the tips of your toes to the crown of your head. This is great for falling asleep!
Leaves on a Stream takes you into a serene place where you envision leaves floating down a stream. Our worries and fears are the leaves and we are the stream. We can’t control what falls and floats down on us, but we are the stream that keeps flowing. A bit existential, but a great exercise nonetheless J.
Hopefully these three tips help you or a loved one “knock it down a notch!” Remember to give yourself a little grace in these trying times. We will get through this, together.
- Anxiety Treatment Depression Association of America
- Mindfulness Audio Files and Exercises
- National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI)