Since 1949, May has been observed as Mental Health Month to encourage us to think about our mental health and raise awareness around support, prevention, and acceptance. Having a healthy sense of wellbeing promotes an increase in resilience and manages how you respond to stress. It can also improve your general outlook on life. Using these practical tools to alleviate stress when faced with challenges, you can prioritize your mental health and regulate uncomfortable feelings to overcome challenges.
Tools to Help You Succeed
Tool 1: Practice breathing
Deep breathing is an effective way to lower stress in the body. When we feel stressed, our breathing patterns change as part of the fight-or-flight response. Typically, breathing becomes short and shallow when under stress, which can lead to hyperventilation and prolong the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. When this happens, try to make a conscious effort to change your breathing pattern. Breathing in deeply delivers a message to the brain to calm down and relax.
Try practicing square breathing (see image at right), a controlled breathing exercise known to relieve anxiety and calm a worried mind. Inhale for four seconds, rest for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and rest for four seconds. Repeat as necessary.
Tool 2: Sleep
Stress often has a direct influence on sleep. Not getting enough sleep can make coping with daily stressors difficult. Our bodies need to enter a period of deep sleep to repair and restore. When feeling stressed or anxious, you may not be able to enter this phase of deep sleep or find that you are restless throughout the night. By getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, you can improve concentration, regulate your mood, and increase mental clarity. Avoid looking at bright screens two to three hours before bedtime, and take time to wind down and quiet your mind at least one hour before bed. Establish a bedtime ritual of taking a warm shower or bath, doing light stretches, using essentials oils, or drinking non-caffeinated tea to help release physical tension and encourage healthy sleep.
Tool 3: Exercise
Physical exercise, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, are proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Not only is physical activity a great distraction from negative thoughts, but exercise also releases endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. You can also reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness by participating in physical activity that puts you in touch with other people. It is recommended that adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate to intensive exercise per day. If you cannot find the motivation to exercise, ask friends or family to help keep you on track or break up your 30 minutes by combining shorter 10–15-minute sessions.
Tool 4: Take breaks
Taking breaks from work is not only beneficial for you, but it also has a positive impact on your productivity and wellbeing. Taking breaks allows you to recover from stress and restore mental energy and decrease exhaustion. Research suggests that mini-breaks, which are taking a few minutes away from work, are just as crucial as lunchtime breaks for boosting your mood and preventing stress. Allow your brain and body time to recharge by stepping away from screens to nourish your health and reboot your brain. Try to detach from work by spending your lunch breaks outside to increase your bodies serotonin production, which will make you feel calm and focused.
Tool 5: Journaling
Reflecting is a great way to focus your thoughts and feelings. By writing in a journal, you can understand what is going on in your mind and healthily deal with emotions. As you address your issues internally, you may start to recognize habits and patterns and find ways to change them. You can also use your journal to set specific goals and measure your progress over time. There is no right way to journal – you may like to use your laptop, a coloring book, or to jot down your thoughts on paper. However you decide to journal, try to do it regularly, setting aside five minutes to reflect on your thoughts and feelings.
Paul Hammer, MD is a psychiatrist in the Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Department at Island Hospital. He earned his Medical Doctorate from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD. He went on to complete his psychiatry internship at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and his residency at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, CA. For information or appointments, call Psychiatry & Behavioral Health at Island Hospital at 360-299-4297.