By: Kerrie Byrnes Siegl, LMFT, Delta Epsilon (Purdue University)
The past year has been a series of events that have caused disruption in mood for most people across the globe, and arguably, especially for Americans. As a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice, I typically see mood dips around the holidays, during the winter months, with major life changes or during times of stress. 2020 and the start of 2021 has been an endless barrage of stressful events. Many people’s lifestyles are very different and between public health issues related to Covid-19, issues stemming from a turbulent political climate and the relational fallout stemming from ongoing disagreements on almost every political topic, Americans are probably more stressed than ever before.
Working with my clients who are impacted by this stress is not a one-size-fits-all approach. I try to cater to the needs of each person’s stressors, losses and on-going needs, but there are some basic concepts I have found to be true across the board for all people who are impacted by the changes and stressors of our world. Most of us require some level of consistency to feel grounded. As one example, the most common advice given to new parents is to have a consistent routine. This is because our brains make us cause-and-effect thinkers who find a sense of comfort in knowing what comes next. Developing healthy daily practices regardless of how chaotic your life is can allow for rest, restoration and stress reduction in the brain. When the brain has a chance to reset, our hormones and insulin levels balance themselves thus leading to bodies that can fight disease and overall, just feel better. Stress has major impacts on our energy levels, mood, sleep and immune function. Long-term stress changes how our endocrine system functions, how hormones in our body are produced and can impact weight, sleep and even how our body interprets information.
My Top Ten Ways to Maintain Your Mental Health:
- Stay Consistent: Having a daily routine, especially at the beginning and the end of the day, is one of the most grounding things you can do. Many of us perform different activities throughout the week but the first hour and the last hour of the day can be a good time to build routine.
- Stay connected: Reaching out to friends, family, co-workers and other people in your community reduces isolation. During this time, using technology to build connections can really help boost your mood. Meeting with neighbors outside in your yard can also be a great way to connect. Be mindful if you have spent a lot of time alone to then balance that out with communication with others.
- Stay Active: Exercising can be one of the best stress killers in your day. Most exercise increases the stress-fighting hormones and chemicals in your brain. Exercise improves mood, increases energy levels and allows for our bodies to stretch muscles and ligaments that get tight sitting and working from home. Even breaking up exercise into 10–20-minute walking breaks throughout the day can be a great way to stay active. Exercise does not have to be high-intensity; stretching and yoga can be just as beneficial for mental health as a high intensity workout.
- Stay focused: Pick 3 things you want to accomplish every day. This could be simple like “get groceries, pay bills, and clean kitchen,” but setting small, tangible daily goals can increase one’s sense of purpose, build structure into your day and also promote improved self-esteem.
- Stay Rested: Often people will tell me they do not have enough time to sleep because they are so busy. Most people require anywhere from 7-10 hours of sleep per day and most neurologists would recommend a sleep routine and schedule. This means a consistent bedtime, even on the weekends, a routine leading up to sleep and also a consistent time to wake up. Turning off technology, or at least blue lights on your devices, should improve the quality of sleep. Avoiding irregular naps throughout the day typically helps people stay on their sleep routine.
- Stay Grounded: Grounding is a mental health practice that encourages slowing the mind and body down to focus and decrease emotional distress. There are a number of grounding exercises that can help people feel calm again. Finding 1-2 go-to exercises to manage your mood can be a great way to always feel equipped to deal with stress.
- Stay Inspired: Subscribe to a daily inspiration, devotional or quotes email or blog which will help your mind think about the big picture and stop focusing on negative thinking. There are many negative social media influences and many positive. If it is too hard to avoid the negative, it might be good to even fast from social media and consider reading a book or a blog that inspires you instead of headlines on social media accounts.
- Stay Purposeful: Giving back to the community is something that keeps us feeling like we have power and influence in our world. Service increases our sense of purpose and passion. Managing stress can come from reaching out or serving one person through either a kind word or deed. While it does help the other person, often, serving others improves our own mood by helping us to gain perspective, feel connected or even tap into our gifts and talents.
- Stay Hopeful: Negative cognitions are part of our world, especially in times of stress. Staying hopeful with positive thinking, praying, meditating on good things or even journaling about what you are learning during stressful times can really improve your mood. Many companies now make “gratitude journals” which can help aid in this practice. Take a few moments for this type of daily practice and see if it can pivot negative thoughts.
- Stay Mindful: Take a few minutes every day to think about where you are, where you are going and where you have been. This could be a daily goal setting strategy, journal session or simply a quiet moment of reflection. Being present in the moment is done by allowing yourself to “think about your thinking” and just paying attention to your body and mind and what it needs before the “hurry worry” of the day begins.
While these top ten practices can really help keep someone feeling regulated, sometimes the stress of the world’s changes begin to feel like too much. If using stress reduction techniques do not seem to support your mood, reach out for help. Sometimes talking with a good friend can help, but oftentimes even a few sessions with a professional counselor or therapist can really make a major difference in how you feel. Planning the next steps for how to maintain your mental health should be a major priority in 2021 as we all learn to navigate all of the changes we are facing in our world. While the past year has been challenging, using strategies to find your calm can be a great way to tackle stress, manage the storms of life and to find a refuge from the storm.
Kerrie Siegl is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in Fishers, Indiana. She joined the Delta Epsilon Chapter at Purdue University. Kerrie earned her master’s degree in family therapy from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. While in graduate school, she served as a Graduate Counselor for the Rho Alpha Chapter at IUPUI. Before opening her private practice in 2012, Kerrie worked as a school-based therapist and also as a foster care and adoption therapist.