During the last two years, change and uncertainty have become regular parts of our everyday lives. Between changing work and school routines, a fraught election cycle, social unrest, and losses of all kinds, it’s understandable that more Americans have been feeling stressed, anxious, and depressed. As we get into the darker winter months and face uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 trajectory, it’s important to learn about what anxiety and depression look like and how we can manage symptoms and promote mental wellness.
Anxiety and depression have a lot of symptoms in common, with a few key differences. Both anxiety and depression may involve irritability, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, or having difficulty concentrating. A key difference is that anxiety tends to heighten and worry us, while depression tends to dampen and empty us.
Here are five ways to help promote general mental wellness, as well as cope with big feelings in the moment:
1. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is exactly what it sounds like – being mindful or aware of your surroundings, how you feel, how something tastes/looks/sounds, etc. Mindfulness brings our attention to the present moment, and asks us to examine what’s happening without judgement. Here are a few ways to be more mindful:
• Go for a walk and notice how the pavement feels under your feet and how the wind feels on your face. Can you smell the fallen leaves?
• Stretch your arms above your head. Notice how your chest expands and your fingers lengthen.
• Take stock of how you’re feeling after a long day – try to name how your mind and body feel without asking these feelings to change.
2. Care for your body, mind and heart. Mental wellness and physical wellness go hand-in-hand.
• Body: Try to eat something that feels nourishing or stretch for five minutes at the beginning of the day
• Mind: Have a book you’ve been meaning to read? Try reading five pages a day this week.
• Heart: Connect with people who make you feel loved and cared for.
3. Practice self-compassion. It can be hard to feel good about ourselves when anxiety and depression creep in. Try these when you’re being especially hard on yourself:
• Make a list of three strengths you have.
• Look in the mirror and say an affirmation, no matter how silly it feels. (For example: “I am strong” or “I can do hard things.”)
• Leave Post-It notes with affirmations on your bathroom mirror for you to see each morning.
4. Try out some grounding techniques. When feelings get overwhelming, use one of these techniques to stay grounded and in the present moment.
• Chew a minty piece of gum and notice how it feels on your tongue and in your sinuses.
• Do a “downward dog” yoga pose and imagine roots growing from your hands and toes into the floor.
• Describe five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one sensation in your body.
5. Reset your vagus nerve. Our vagus nerve counteracts our fight or flight response. We can use it to our advantage when we start to feel panicked or overwhelmed by doing the following:
• Splash cold water on your face.
• Gargle water or hum your favorite song.
• Move your eyes to the right without moving your head, then tilt your head to the right towards your shoulder and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the left side.
Text MN to 741-741 to connect with a crisis counselor through Crisis Text Line.
Call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Go to your local emergency room, or call an ambulance if you cannot get there safely.
Camryn Hodny is a practicum therapist at Relate, where she provides psychoeducation to middle and high school students in the Wayzata School District.