Struggling with your mental health post-2020? Here's what to do
Want to get back to feeling good? We asked mental health experts to share their steps for lowering your anxious feelings and upping the optimism.
AS MUCH AS we all hoped that our current reality would become magically better when the clock struck midnight on January 1...it didn't happen.
After the 2020 dumpster fire of fear, uncertainty and isolation, it's no surprise that most of us need a little help getting into a new, healthy frame of mind for the year ahead.
"Teens have faced so much sadness and grief with the pandemic, plus all of the political unrest last year. On top of that, they haven't been able to hang out with friends or enjoy milestone events that they were looking forward to," says Dr. Khadijah Booth Watkins, associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds in Boston. "It's no wonder teens are probably the most depressed and stressed-out group right now."
All that said, it *is* possible to see 2021 as the first step on the journey to feeling renewed and centered. By taking small, simple steps, you can get back into your groove...and a healthier frame of mind.
Create a routine and stick to it. "Our brains are drawn to what's new and exciting, but the more predictable your life is, the more stable and reassured you'll feel," says Dr. Carmen J. Lewis, a psychologist in Philadelphia. Even if your virtual classes always start at different times, try to wake up at the same time every day, then go through your skincare routine, get dressed, then get to work. "If you can maintain a routine, even if everything else is out of control, you'll feel like you have a better handle on things," Dr. Lewis explains.
Focus on the short game, not the long game. You never know what's around the corner, so try to focus on what you can do in the short term instead of stressing about the way-out-there future. "Instead of looking at your three- to five-year plan, look at the next week or the next month," says Dr. Lewis. "Narrowing your focus will make the big picture feel less overwhelming."
Eat food that makes you feel good. OK, chocolate is probably on that list. And you should have it! But first, meet your body's basic nutritional needs with plenty of hydration, veggies and all the food groups. "It sounds simple, but eating healthy foods is key to laying the necessary foundation to feeling better," Dr. Lewis shares.
Keep a gratitude journal. Writing down all the things you're thankful for can be a helpful reminder of the positives in your life. "The more time you're paying attention to the things you're grateful for, the less time you'll spend thinking about the things that get you down," says Dr. Booth Watkins.
Get outside. "Being in nature has been shown to lower depression and stress," says Dr. Booth Watkins. So whether you love outdoor sports or you'd rather just take a walk in a park, being in green spaces can help you take a breath and check your focus into something beautiful, calm and natural.
Practice mindfulness. These days, your head is probably going a million miles a minute, even if you're just zoning out on TikTok, making it difficult to power down your brain. "Shift your focus from shutting off to tuning into just one thing," says Dr. Lewis. Pick something that requires most of your senses, like knitting a hat, reading a book or baking granola. Immersing yourself in one thing that fully engages your brain will help you turn down the noise.
Set the bar a bit lower. If you're not handling everything as well as you used to—whether that's in school, sports or even socially—that's OK. These aren't normal times. "Give yourself the compassion and grace to lower your personal standards a bit. Now's the time to be realistic rather than idealistic," says Dr. Lewis.
Know when it's time to seek help. If you notice that you stop taking care of your basic needs like eating, sleeping and hygiene (or if your challenges feel extra heavy), see a mental health professional. "If you don't enjoy things anymore, your grades are tanking or you don't want to be around other people, you might need an ally," explains Dr. Booth Watkins. It's totally normal to get some help to feel more yourself, so reach out to a teacher, counselor, your parents or another trusted adult to get the support you need.
Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that a version of this story originally ran in our February/March 2021 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.