Take Care of Yourself

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Taking care of your mental health is important, especially in the time of COVID19, when we’re experiencing heightened stress, anxiety, and emotions.

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mental health challenge

Here are 30 ideas that will make this strange time in our shared history just a little bit easier.  But, please be kind to yourself!  You don't have to do them in order; you don't even have to do them all, even though we hope they make you feel good. Follow along with us in our stories on Facebook or Instagram.

 

Daily Challenges

Day 1: Smile in the Face of Stress

There is something almost effortless that you can do to feel happier during this terribly high-stress time in the world. All you have to do smile. It’s that simple. Smiling unleashes torrents of three neurotransmitters that create contented feelings, dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. Let’s look at those three individually.

Dopamine has been called our feel-good neurotransmitter. Our brains release dopamine during pleasurable experiences like eating delicious food or enjoying physical touch. Dopamine boosts not only our mood but also our motivation and attention.

Serotonin too has long been associated with contentment. Higher levels of serotonin appear to foster more constructive social interactions and to reduce aggression. They have also been linked to improved decision making, and the ability to postpone short-term satisfaction to meet long-term goals.

Endorphins, meanwhile, are the brain’s own pain suppressants. Smiling’s first cousin, laughter, also boosts endorphins. So do spicy foods and dark chocolate.

Like smiling, exercise also boosts these three essential neurochemicals. But unlike exercise, smiling will never make you sweat.


Day 2: Create a schedule

The world seems confusing now, and you may feel powerless to improve things, but you’re not. You can improve your own health, and be a role model for others. One way is to follow a schedule that builds in healthy routines.

Without a schedule, your day at home may feel formless and involve too many choices. Social science research shows too many choices erode well being. Your schedule will give you a sense of clarity by structuring your day with hours for work and hours for leisure.  It can also help you stick with good health habits.

Your schedule may include a regular morning walk, and help you to get adequate sleep enough. (“Nope, I’m not watching another episode because 10 p.m. is bedtime.”)

Children home from school will also fare better with regular schedules, with time for study and for play.


Day 3: Connect with family and friends from a distance

Staying home is a way of life for now, but it doesn’t mean you have to be isolated. Here are a few ideas on how to stay together even when you're far apart.

  • Send your friends and family greeting cards, handwritten letters, or postcards — and become pen pals.
  • Play multiplayer online games together.
  • Go on a walk together while staying 6 feet apart. Call each other and use headphones to make conversation easy.
  • Create shared fitness challenges, and hold each other accountable.
  • Play a board game together via video chatting.
  • Make up a new tradition, and everyone commits to doing it at the same time in their own home every week.
  • Use video chat to share favorite recipes and cook them at the same time.

Day 4: Get a good night’s sleep

If you sleep too little, that common bad habit is weakening your immune system. When you get inadequate sleep, you rob your immune system of specific components that play key roles in its response to all sorts of illness including, of course, COVD-19. It’s like asking an army to fight a war without weapons.

For instance, your body both produces and releases vital immune proteins called cytokines while you sleep. If you sleep fewer than the recommended seven to eight hours each night, your body will produce too few cytokines.

Adequate, quality sleep also improves the ability of other immune system components, called T cells, to latch onto and destroy cells that have been infected by viruses, bacteria, and other disease-causing microorganisms. T-cells also fight cancers.

Being systematic about getting enough quality sleep will support both your immunity and many other aspects of well being, including your emotional state, and your ability to maintain a healthy weight.


Day 5: Start your day differently

With so much stress in the air now, this is the perfect time to take advantage of one of the best, most proven stress reducers around, an early morning exercise. By exercising first thing you can start your day with a lifted mood and boosted energy that may last for hours. Exercising at any hour has repeatedly been shown to counteract anxiety and stress.

But exercising early makes it likelier that you actually will work out since you’re likely to face fewer competing demands from family and colleagues.

Try it, even if it means going to bed and rising a bit earlier than usual. Lay out your clothes at night. You may enjoy finding a buddy to join you for a morning walk at a safe six-foot distance. That social aspect can be motivating.

No buddy? Then delight in the sights and sounds of any birds, squirrels or other wildlife also waking up.


Day 6: Send some love

Helping others during this time can restore your sense of purpose and remind you how much you can positively impact others, even while social distancing.

Have prepared food, groceries, or toiletries hand-delivered to a neighbor’s doorstep using services like Instacart, Uber Eats, Postmates, and Door Dash. Give digital gifts like a recorded song or personalized voice message, your favorite audiobook or podcast, an online fitness class or app membership, or a mediation app. Mail loved ones a handmade face mask or homemade art project. If you can, help your neighbors in need with outdoor tasks like mowing the lawn.


Day 7: Enjoy your life beyond a screen

Stuck at home, you may have increased your time online, but be careful. Spending too much time online can become habit-forming, research shows, with potential harmful health effects, especially on the sleep that’s so vital to good moods and energy.

The blue light from digital devices can throw off our circadian rhythms and cause nighttime restlessness, so keep devices out of your bedroom and log off at least one hour before bedtime.

Research into the effect of heavy social media use on mental health has not provided clear answers. Some people actually find support and positivity online. Yet experts agree that experiences, like cyberbullying and obsessively monitoring your profile, can foster low moods.

If social media use is impeding your real-world relationships or leading you often to compare yourself to others unfavorably, reduce screen time. You will free up time for real-world pleasures like being outside, reading, and socially distanced chat with real humans.


Day 8: Donate what you can

Giving back not only helps others, but can help you feel purposeful and productive. Pick an organization that supports those likely to be most affected by the pandemic — food banks, domestic violence shelters, and the United Way. If you would like to contribute to the University of Miami’s response to COVID-19, you can donate the items needed by our healthcare providers and patients or make a monetary donation to support our healthcare services and research efforts. Learn more.

If you’re unable to donate, find ways to volunteer from home using your skills and resources.


Day 9: Take a breather

Practice some slow, deep breaths. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Repeat.

It sounds too simple to be effective, but taking a few moments to focus on the sensation, sound, and rhythm of your own breathing is proven to calm the mind and lower the heart rate. It’s the easiest trick to center yourself any time, any place.


Day 10: Focus on one task, person, or thing at a time

One thing that COVID-19 has done for many people is force us to slow down. We have all become used to working too many hours to get too many things done. But, when there is collective stress hanging in the air, it's really hard to focus. Unfortunately, we are so used to pushing ourselves that slowing down might lead to feelings of guilt or shame.

Give yourself a break.  These are extraordinary times that we are living in and more people than you may realize are feeling the exact same way that you are.

Try this: when you wake up in the morning, write down one important task that you commit to accomplishing for that day. Then, write down one thing that you’re ok with letting go.  Follow that up with one thing that you are grateful for. This exercise will remind you of what is important and what is not.  It also sets you up to succeed.


Day 11: Be creative in the kitchen

This can be productive, enjoyable, and rewarding. Feeding yourself and your family whole foods can support brain health, the immune system, energy levels, and a stable mood.

Maybe there’s an old family recipe your mom can teach you over the phone. Or, you can learn how to recreate your favorite restaurant dish. Try a cuisine you’ve never had before. Or, start with your favorite flavors or ingredients, and find a new recipe that features them. Make your own pizza instead of ordering delivery. And make it a family affair - Let’s say you pick the ingredients for dinner, but the kids get to decide what you’re making, and everybody’s helping.


Day 12: Read a book or listen to an audiobook

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could wake up one day to discover that the pandemic had been a bad dream, and had never really happened? While that’s not going to happen, you actually can transport yourself to a world that never heard of the coronavirus. How? By reading a book!

Diving into a novel, a biography, or whatever kind of book you enjoy, you immerse yourself in another world, and can forget the stresses of this one for a while.

Regular reading at bedtime fosters relaxation and enhances sleep. Just as exercise strengthens your body, reading strengthens your brain. Reading increases intelligence, and slows the cognitive declines of aging. For instance, regular readers reduce their risks for Alzheimer’s disease.

If you’re home with your kids, be a role model by letting them see you read. Read to them too. They will reap intellectual and emotional benefits that can last a lifetime.


Day 13: Kick a bad habit

This might not seem like the right time to quit smoking, reduce your alcohol consumption, avoid stressed-out eating and online shopping, or commit to staying organized. But, this period of isolation could be the perfect time for self-reflection and making positive changes.

Take control over a part of your life that holds you back from reaching your goals. Speak to a behavioral therapist (there are many that are offering teletherapy) or create a plan for personal accountability. Set a goal to course-correct poor choices and bad habits in ways you can continue after the stay-home order is lifted.


Day 14: Take a walk* around the block

The extreme stress of a pandemic may lead you to overeat, and the resulting weight gain can have consequences for your emotional and physical health. One proven, pleasant way to counter COVID weight gain is to get plenty of sleep. Research supports this approach.

If you sleep under six hours nightly, you’re likely to have an above-average BMI. With eight hours, you’re likely to have below-average BMI scores.

Why? Inadequate sleep disrupts hormones that regulate feelings of fullness. Poor sleep also increases insulin levels after meals, which promotes fat storage. People who sleep too little also tend to have higher levels of ghrelin, which boosts appetite.

Set an alarm for an hour before bedtime. When you hear it, log off your gadgets and head for the sack. You may need to adjust certain other habits too. Good sleep is worth the effort. It will also boost your mood and energy level as you handle the pressures of the pandemic.

*Remember #SocialDistancing guidelines and give a 6-ft clearance between you and other pedestrians.*


Day 15: Practice self-kindness

The public health pandemic can trigger anxiety and depression. This stress can snowball into feelings of personal failure, helplessness, and fatigue. It’s important that you don’t allow this setback to strip away your self-value and hope for the future. Be kinder, more forgiving, and patient with yourself. Keep in mind that this situation and these negative emotions won’t be here forever. Focus on what’s happening right now, right in front of you. This can help you accept situations you can’t change.

Make a point each day — when you wake up or before bed — to acknowledge what you’re thankful for and what you have to give to this world.


Day 16: Learn a new hobby

Looks like you have some free time on your hands these days. Don’t spend it all binge-watching TV or sleeping in late. You’ll feel more productive if you put your energy into learning something new. It can be very rewarding.

Try the basics of a new instrument or practice a new song. Study a language. Pick up an art or craft project. Become a better cook. Practice a dance routine. Try freestyle journaling or write poems. Give yoga a shot. Ask your parents or kids to teach you how to do something they’re good at.


Day 17: Practice good hygiene

If you’re home all the time, day after day, you might think there’s no reason to change out of your comfiest underwear, wash your hair, or keep up with your typical grooming habits. But putting in a little effort can help restore feelings of normalcy.

  • Put fresh sheets on the bed to encourage a restful night’s sleep.
  • Take good care of your skin, hair, and nails to feel refreshed and pampered.
  • Bathing/showering regularly is recommended for avoiding skin irritations and infections.

Day 18: Spend some time outdoors

Being quarantined or self-isolated does not necessarily mean that you can’t go outside especially if you have a yard. Spending time outdoors is scientifically proven to benefit your health, both physical and mental.  For instance, a healthy dose of Vitamin D can boost your immune system, and walking in an area with lots of trees can improve your cardiovascular health.  However, if you do take a walk away from your home, make sure you keep up with social distancing.

If even that is not possible, studies show you can still achieve health benefits from having a sun lamp or indoor plant.


Day 19: Stay hydrated

Dehydration causes fatigue, weakens mental focus, and is a common reason for ER and hospital visits. These days, kids might be spending more time playing in the backyard than usual. Maybe you’re able to go for a run or bike ride more often. Whatever you’re doing to stay active, it’s essential to also remain hydrated throughout the day.

To stay hydrated, avoid sugary and caffeinated beverages and drink more water. You can even make homemade sports drinks and naturally flavored sodas (without artificial colors and less added sugar).


Day 20: Ask for help when you need it

If you are feeling significantly or suddenly depressed or anxious, staying quiet and isolated is only going to make you feel worse. Reach out to a friend or family member you feel comfortable opening up to. You may not want to burden a loved one, but they care about you and your well-being. You would do the same for them.

If you regularly see a mental health professional, ask about telehealth phone calls, one-on-one video chatting, and other options for continuing your treatment during the pandemic. Call the national suicide prevention hotline to speak with someone immediately. A few mobile apps can also put you in touch with a therapist or counselor to speak with and message directly.


Day 21: Focus on the positive

Have you heard of AWE? You probably know the word, but did you know feeling it can affect your mental well-being and even your health? It is a little difficult to inspire the awe you feel when you are looking down into the Grand Canyon at home but there is an exercise that may help.

Choose something meaningful to you, a picture or keepsake, or even a song. Focus all of your attention on it and stay focused on it for at least one deep inhalation. Then, exhale longer than you inhaled (for instance if you inhaled to a count of 2, you would exhale for a count of 4). Doing just this short exercise will quiet your mind enough to really focus on something positive.


Day 22: De-clutter your world

When you’re self-quarantining, your home can feel like it’s your whole world. That’s why this is the ideal time to dust off, de-clutter, and make your living space feel more organized and functional for you and your family. Kids can help sort items into piles to donate, toss, and neatly put away.

Once you’ve cleared away the mess, you’ll feel like you’ve de-cluttered your mind, as well. Working in a less cluttered environment can reduce stress.


Day 23: Reclaim your time

Many of us are trying to work from home, homeschool, and not fight with our spouses all at the same time. This inevitably leads to you having no time … for you. But, in order to stay sane, you need some time to do something that you enjoy that is yours alone. It can be reading, working on crossword parties, having a one-person dance party, or taking a bath.  It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it is just yours.

And, if you can’t just do it for yourself do it for your loved ones.  Studies show that when you are happy, those around you are healthier and live longer.


Day 24: Know your news limits

If consuming too many news updates related to the COVID-19 pandemic is negatively affecting you, establish a limit for yourself. You don’t need to check the death toll every day or keep TV network news on all morning. Stick to sources of reliable medical information, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stay informed, and focus on the productive behaviors you can reasonably practice. On social media, mute or unfollow accounts that tend to trigger your anxiety, fear, or anger.


Day 25: Be grateful

When you experience feelings of helplessness, failure, and hopelessness, it’s essential to fight those reactions with positivity and gratitude. Focus on what you’ve accomplished in life, what decisions you’re proud of, and the people and things you’re thankful for.

Keep in mind that the COVID-19 pandemic and the emotions it has triggered won’t last forever.


Day 26: Do you have a pet?

Your furry, feathered, or scaly friend is probably happy to see you at home more often these days. And you should be, too, because enjoying the company of a pet can help lower your stress level and promote feelings of calmness. Taking care of an animal can also help maintain your sense of purpose.


Day 27: Listen to music

With so much changing so rapidly, and such great uncertainty about the future, we all need balms to our battered spirits, and one of the best is music. Research has demonstrated that music can serve to lift your mood, ward off depression, and improve your overall sense of wellbeing.

Studies have shown that music can increase the circulation of blood, which gives you more energy. Music can also decrease levels of stress-related hormones, including cortisol, and can serve as an effective antidote to pain.

The sounds and rhythms of music you enjoy can activate neurochemical pathways linked with positive emotions, attention, and memory in ways that foster beneficial brain changes.

If you’re tired of your house, missing your friends and family, and wishing you could visit your favorite haunts, lighten your mood with some of your favorite music. Play whatever brings you joy, and, if the spirit moves you, dance.


Day 28: Acknowledge your anxiety

Being stressed out might not be the norm for you. But this public health and economic crisis brings new challenges for everyone. Signs of anxiety include experiencing fatigue, sleeplessness, an inability to mentally focus, a loss of appetite or binge eating, and feeling overwhelmed, angry, and sad.

Admit to yourself that you’re feeling this way and acknowledge that it’s okay and very common! Once you face these feelings, you can work on managing your stress and finding productive ways to distract yourself.


Day 29: Don’t pressure yourself

Just because everyone on social media appears to be training for a marathon, baking artisan breads, and running the most organized household during quarantine doesn’t mean you have something to prove. Keep in mind there’s no mandate to be productive during the pandemic. It’s okay to use this time to relax and reflect instead of checking tasks off a to-do list.


Day 30: Create boundaries for yourself

If you are quarantining with someone, whether a roommate, partner, or family member, establish some house rules. Set aside alone time every day to ensure you and your quarantine partner have private space and time to do your own thing and maintain a sense of independence and autonomy. If there are specific behaviors or ways of speaking with each other that often trigger tension in your household, set some ground rules to avoid these disagreements and ensure that everyone feels heard and respected at home.

If you want more uninterrupted quiet time to work, or practice your craft, or speak with a loved one you can’t visit right now, let your quarantine partner know this so they can understand your needs.

 

 


Written by: Milly Dawson, Dana Kantrowitz, and Natasha Bright. Medically reviewed by Dr. Nicole Mavrides.