5 Ways to Look After Your Mental Health

  • 20 April 2020

By Sarah Hart, Counsellor, Step by Step.Counsellor at homeless charity Step by Step

We are living in uncertain times. The threat of Coronavirus weighs heavily on our everyday lives and on our minds. It is impossible to avoid negative news, public panic and a pervasive feeling of uncertainty.

We will all, almost certainly, experience anxiety, worries and low mood at different levels. This is perfectly natural.

Here are 5 ways to look after your mental health and manage anxiety.

1. Understand Anxiety

The dictionary definition of anxiety is: “A feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.”

Anxiety is a mental and physical reaction to perceived threats. Our mind and body work in unison to keep us safe. Imagine being chased by a tiger. A burst of adrenaline would bring about much needed fight or flight response, essential to escape from the threat.

Anxiety is our biological reaction to fear; a basic survival mechanism to help keep us safe.

We need fear, however awful it feels to be afraid. From my experience, many clients want to get rid of anxiety. I always tell them that this is not possible. Anxiety is a natural reaction to danger. Although most of us will not be chased by tigers, we will face other fears that cause a fight or flight response – going into a new situation, meeting new people, etc. However, it is important to keep challenging ourselves. The more we do so, the more we build up resilience and the easier such situations will become.

Anxiety becomes a problem when it is impacting your daily life. When you are constantly in a heightened state or constantly worried. When you continually experience negative or intrusive thoughts and if enjoyment has disappeared from your life.

Learning to take one day at a time and focusing on the present will help. Most fears are future-based, i.e. the fear of what might happen.

2. Acceptance

Allow yourself to feel what you are feeling. Trying to push feelings down, ignoring how you feel on an emotional level or on a physical level will cause more harm in the long run. It is perfectly natural to be experiencing higher than usual levels of anxiety. It is also natural if you are experiencing less anxiety, if going to school, college or work usually increases your anxiety levels.

Acceptance of self is not an easy task – we are often our own worst critic. If you treated your friends the way you treat yourself, you might find yourself quickly out of friends.

What will help you at this challenging time is to become aware of how you treat yourself and how you judge yourself. Start to challenge any negative automatic thoughts. We all have such thoughts, but if they become overwhelmingly negative, they will increase our anxiety and low mood, and decrease our self-worth and self-esteem.

If you really struggle to accept how you are feeling, what I would suggest is to pretend you are telling your very anxious friend that whatever they are thinking or feeling is okay, you are there for them, they are not alone and they should be accepting and kind to themselves.

In the current circumstances, I stress the importance of using this time to develop your own understanding of self and work on self-acceptance.

3. Identify Worries and NATs (Negative Automatic Thoughts)

We all worry. Worrying is a natural human experience. But if our worries become too much, with negative thoughts consuming us, our anxiety becomes heightened. We might then experience extreme fear and panic, and our emotional and physical wellbeing suffers.

So what can you do to help yourself?

You might find the Worry Tree a useful exercise in solving problems and letting go of hypothetical worries: www.getselfhelp.co.uk//worrytree.htm

In terms of NATs, you can start by making yourself aware of what negative thoughts you have. Writing down your thoughts will help. Remember that there is no right or wrong with what you are thinking – our thoughts are shaped by life experiences, views, values and beliefs.

Use the CBT Hot Cross Bun:

First identify your Thoughts, then put how you are feeling into the Emotions area. Write down what Bodily Sensations you are experience, then finally what your Behaviour is.

High levels of anxiety, worry and intrusive or negative thoughts often happen together. Negative thoughts start the cycle. Using the hot cross bun diagram, you will see that our mind and body works together. Challenge your thoughts – are they realistic?

The hot cross bun also helps you identify behaviour that is not helping. We are all able to change our behaviours to more helpful ways of coping.

Talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling - a family member, friend or whoever you feel comfortable with. If you find this too difficult, write your thoughts down in a diary. You could do this daily, weekly, or whenever you feel overwhelmed. Putting pen to paper helps organise your thoughts, take charge of them and hopefully feel empowered.

4. Improving Low Mood

If you are feeling depressed or low in mood, the first thing to do is to look at your sleep patterns. Sleep has a huge impact on our moods. If you are not sleeping well, you will experience low mood, fatigue and low motivation. The best way to improve your sleep is by doing physical exercise.

Try and use this time to find some form of exercise you enjoy, maybe going out for a walk in nature. Just being outside is good for our soul. We also need vitamin D which we get from the sun.

When feeling low in mood, you will find it more difficult to do any form of physical exercise. Most people stay with the feeling, they wait until they feel better before doing an activity. This is a mistake. You need to use Behavioural Activation: just move, start to get active. Once you do this, your mood will lift, you will then be focused on your activity and your body will release feel-good endorphins which will further lift your mood.

Food is also important. We need to put the right fuel in our engine to get us moving. If you currently have some time on your hands, you can look at using this time to learn more about nutrition. What we eat impacts our mental and physical wellbeing. Experiment with different foods. Eating with people we live with builds better communication and strengthens bonds.

When feeling in a low mood or depressed, it is best to not stay with your thoughts too much, as ruminating takes over and you keep the low mood going.

5. Practice Self-Care

I think our most neglected relationship is the one we have with ourselves, not just in present times but throughout our life. With that in mind, use this time to learn about yourself. Start to understand your thoughts, and recognise any blocks, fears or limits you may have.

When we are fearful, we adopt certain behaviours that we think will keep us safe. These could be avoidance, withdrawal or escape. Although these might help us feel better immediately, in the long term these behaviours increase mental health difficulties, resulting in loss of confidence in our own ability to try new things and experience life fully.

Make self-care an immediate priority. Ask yourself - what do you need to do today to think and feel good about being you?

Take time to do what you enjoy doing, even if it is doing nothing. We live in such an externally focused world that we tend to look outside ourselves to find what we need. Instead, focus on your internal voice and listen to what you need.

When feeling anxious, worried, overwhelmed or are overthinking, stop, slow down and just be in the moment. This will help your body to self-regulate and your mind to calm.

When feeling low in mood, get active, get moving, find something you enjoy doing.

At this difficult time, limit the time you spend watching or reading the news and focus on the positives. Although we need to keep abreast of what’s going on, try to find a healthy balance.

So, regular meals, getting a good night’s sleep and exercise are essential in maintaining healthy mental wellbeing. Each one has an impact on the other.

Final Thoughts

I do believe that self-understanding will help you gain clarity and work out what is best for you. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just remember that we are all a work in progress.