How to apply this list without overwhelm: Start by choosing just one or two suggestions to follow today and going forward. After you have made it a routine part of your life, choose the next suggestion to apply.
Focus on your strengths
No one is good at everything. There are brilliant minds who struggle with relationships. There are talented artists who cannot balance their checkbooks. We forgive our heroes for their shortcomings and so should forgive ourselves all the more.
Make it easy: Jot down a list of your strengths, from the abstract (“I’m a good listener”) to the tangible (“I make the best meatloaf”). Then, put energy into those things every day. You’ll get a confidence boost and those around you will benefit from you encouraging your best self.
Set realistic goals
Goal setting is very personal. Some have goals to get into law school while others have goals of putting on real pants. Big or small, setting a goal and successfully hitting it can boost mental health. But goal setting can also lead to feelings of failure when they are too broad, lofty, or unorganized to hit. The trick is to set goals that are challenging enough to give you a sense of accomplishment but ones you can accomplish in a relatively short amount of time.
Make it easy: Set actionable goals. First, list the short- and long-term goals that you feel you can realistically tackle right now (don’t list “plant a garden” if it is the middle of winter). Next to those goals, write down the first action step that needs to be taken to attain each goal. These are your actionable goals. When you accomplish one, give it a big checkmark, then determine the next action step toward the larger goal. Example: If your larger goal is to get a job, the first actionable goal may be updating your resume. Once you have done that, your next actionable goal would be “contact recruiters”.
Keep a journal
Like a computer with too many programs running, your mind can get overloaded and feel bogged down. You can “download” these thoughts into a journal which gives your mind permission to release these thoughts from cycling around again. This act can also help you process complex emotions. While most journals focus on positivity and thankfulness, which is a great thing, it is okay to vent frustrations as well.
Make it easy: A nice leather bound notebook, a journaling app, or a personal vlog are great options. Commit to jotting down just four sentences before bed each night. Sometimes you’ll feel compelled to write more but do not feel like you must fill a whole page.
Real meditation is about letting go of control. Anything else is a form of concentration. There's nothing wrong with learning concentration techniques, they can also benefit anxiety, but don't mistake that for meditation. Concentration is about directing and controlling our attention. Meditation is about accepting whatever is there, negative or positive, and releasing the tendency to resist what life has in store for that moment. Just spend 5 minutes per day allowing your mind to relax, without feeling responsible for anything that it is bringing to your attention. Put up your mental "Gone to Lunch" sign. It is healthy to drop all the mental baggage, at least for a few minutes every day. Just paying attention to what is around you in present moment is beneficial to your mental health (aim for 20 minutes or more if you can!). Meditation can be approached many ways, so it’s important to experiment to find what resonates with you.
Make it easy: If you are averse to the traditional methods of meditation, activities like puzzling, coloring, or gardening also have relaxing effects because they focus your mind on a singular task (concentration method).
If you are just trying meditation, remember that it has nothing to do with having a loud or quiet mind. You aren't trying to concentrate your mind to silence (good luck if you are!). Instead just be there with whatever comes up. No judgement, just observation.
“Laughter is medicine” might be a cliché but it is a scientifically backed cliché. Smiling and laughing simply improve mood.
Make it easy: Here is another very applicable cliché, “fake it till ya make it”. Listen to a comedy and pretend to laugh, it’ll catch on. This video gets me EVERY TIME! This woman is so filled with happiness and joy that I can't help but smile until my face hurts!
Being in nature steadies blood pressure and heart rate, relaxes muscle tension, and balances stress hormones, which all contribute to a calmer state of mind. Enjoying the beach, going for a hike, or walking the park are great options but may not be feasible in all locations at all times of year.
Make it easy: Good news, your backyard will do! Get your toes in the grass, listen to the birds chirp from your balcony, or dig your hands in the dirt of your container garden.
Shallow, irregular breath patterns are a byproduct of anxiety. But did you know it is an anxiety trigger as well? Placing a focus on deep, belly breathing can reverse acute anxiety and is a major player in the management of chronic anxiety. The key is to first recognize that your breathing is tight and shallow, then relax the belly and chest and allow the breath to deepen.
Make it easy: Set several alarms on your phone to remind you each day to take 4-10 proper breaths. A good breath looks like this: First, fully exhale. Then, breathe into your belly to the count of 4, then exhale to the count of 6. Your belly should be moving in and out and should move more than your chest or shoulders.
Adaptogenic compounds tweak your physiological responses so you can more effectively deal with stress. They are found in herbs and some mushrooms and usually come in pill, tea, or capsule form. These compounds have an intelligent response with our bodies, affecting each person differently depending on what their individual system needs at the time. My experience with adaptogens is that it helps to calm me in times of heightened stress without making me feel sluggish.
Make it easy: I find that I am more consistent with adaptogen supplements rather than powders or teas that require effort to prepare. My favorite adaptogen is Ashwagandha and is included in this supplement which I take on days that my stress systems are running on high.
We all get a little grouchy when were tired, but a chronic lack of quality sleep gets serious as it affects your nervous system and hormone production, creating or exasperating anxiety and depression. Sleep may not be the sexy health topic that diet and exercise are, but it should be prioritized just as much. Everyone’s sleep needs vary slightly. Aim for 8 (or more) hours of sleep but ensure at least 7.
Make it easy: Avoid “social jet lag” by waking up at the same time each morning. Yes, even on weekends and holidays. This trains your brain to be alert when the alarm goes off and encourages a consistent bedtime. To get to bed on time, set an alarm to sound when it is time to begin your bedtime routine. Treat bedtime like an important appointment with yourself that you cannot be late for.
Balanced nervous system, endorphin rush, sense of accomplishment, cleaner energy…this is what you can expect with regular exercise. Exercise releases endorphins which give your brain that “ahhhhh feeling”. It impacts long term mental health by balancing the nervous system – calming the sympathetic (fight or flight) response and stimulating the parasympathetic (rest and digest) state that our bodies should ideally reside in. 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise has shown to have the most impact on mood and mental stability
Make it easy: Any amount of movement will contribute to your sense of calm - taking the stairs, going for a lunchtime walk and a simple 10-minute bedtime yoga sequence really add up. Try this: commit to a 5-minute high intensity workout each day (try this one for beginners or kick it up with this video). Since exercise has an immediate calming effect, some choose to do this at the time of day when anxiety symptoms tend to be stronger.
Awwww, but alcohol makes us feel so relaxed! Don’t fall for alcohol’s sneaky tricks. While it seems to help tension or social anxiety in the moment, alcohol consumption negatively impacts overall mental health by wreaking havoc on blood sugar, depleting nutrients, and impeding hormone balance, especially the day after consumption.
Make it easy: While some may choose to abstain altogether, drinking more mindfully will make an impact. Try to allot one drink with or shortly after dinner. Having alcohol with food tempers its effect on blood sugar while consuming it earlier in the evening lowers the negative effect on sleep.
Switch to green tea
For some, even small amounts of caffeine can be an anxiety trigger. Unfortunately, chronic anxiety negatively affects adrenal function and sleep, and common anxiety drugs and supplements can make you groggy, making caffeine seem even more necessary. Green tea can be a good alternative to coffee. It contains L-theanine which tempers the negative effects of caffeine and has been shown to have a positive effect on anxiety symptoms.
Make it easy: If you don’t love the taste of green tea, you can still reap the benefits by brewing a large pitcher then adding a cup to your morning smoothie.
Expose yourself to 30 minutes of sunlight
Sunshine is how our bodies synthesize vitamin D, a vitamin so important, it is often considered a hormone. Vitamin D deficiency is intricately linked with imbalanced mental health and not surprisingly, over 40% of the population does not get enough.
Make it easy: Take any of the other suggestions on this list – exercise, meditation, connection with friends, and do it outside! Supplementing vitamin D is easy and effective when getting outside is not possible. Between 2,000 – 4,000* IU’s is a good rule of thumb on days with little sun exposure. Here’s what I take almost daily. *actual amount varies by age, gender, and current blood levels.
Eat real food
Your gut and brain are intimately connected through the gut-brain axis. This means that what you eat and the health of your gut directly affects your mental health. Eating foods you are sensitive to, inflammatory foods, and roller coaster blood sugar can all be triggers. No matter which dietary strategy you subscribe to, there is one clear piece of advice: eat real food. Processed foods typically come in a package with a lengthy ingredient list that boasts added sugar, inflammatory oils, and toxic additives. Even “healthy” packaged items are more sneaky marketing than quality food.
Make it easy: Aim to fill half of your plate with vegetables at every meal, even breakfast. This way, even if the rest of your meal is not 100% on point, you are supplying your body with the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients it is craving. Also, who said you need to deprive yourself? Simply switching from store bought treats to homemade ones will remove a good amount of problem causing ingredients from your diet.
Check your vitamin levels
People who struggle with mood imbalance often have something interesting in common – deficiencies in specific vitamins and minerals. The most common deficiencies that impact mood are vitamins B, vitamin D, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids. Though it is rare, supplementing to the point of too high blood levels can have negative consequences. I suggest working with a functional medicine practitioner who can advise based on your actual blood levels.
Make it easy: If getting a blood test is not feasible, taking a high quality daily multi vitamin can boost levels with little risk of getting too much. This is the best multi vitamin I have found and the one I take every day.
Consume media and entertainment wisely
There is a strong link between heavy social media use and increased screen time and poor mental health. The reasons are varied: lack of mental/physical stimulation, interference to sleep pattern, self judgement, FOMO, persistent negativity, and the potential for cyber bullying. Even if you are engaging in positive online interactions and consuming uplifting entertainment, too much screen time just doesn’t allow space for the elements of life that will truly benefit your mental health (like everything on this list). While an occasional digital detox can be helpful, you don’t need to give up tv or social media all together. Experts recommend less than 30 minutes of social media per day and 2 hours or less of television per day.
Make it easy: Delete social media apps from your phone. Since you will need to take a few extra steps to login to your accounts via web browser, you will automatically cut down on the mindless "check 'n scroll".
Practice the art of less
Less activities, less clutter, less to-dos, less overtime, less distraction, less shopping....the less “stuff” in your life, the more intention you can put into your actual responsibilities and the elements of your life that truly make you happy. I am not advocating you sell all your possessions and move into a tiny home (unless that's your thing, in which case you should go for it), but releasing the things and commitments that do not serve you allows space for life to happen.
Make it easy: Think of a commitment/activity/to-do that makes you go “uuuugh”. If that thing is not necessary to your or someone else’s survival, drop it or delegate it today.
Make less decisions
Decision fatigue is when the quality of your decisions deteriorates due to having to make too many decisions. An abundance of decisions plus the consequences of poor decisions can impact mental health and increase anxiety.
Make it easy: Choose one area of your life that requires a daily decision, like what to eat. Make a meal plan by choosing 2-3 breakfasts, 2-3 lunches, and 4-5 dinners that you can rotate through for a few weeks, then choose different meals to rotate through for the next few weeks (chances are, you rotate the same few dishes anyhow!). This is also an effective strategy for choosing what to wear each day.
Emotional trauma manifests physically and mentally. Even traumas experienced before conscious memory can have a lasting impact. Traumas take on all forms. Small but persistent stressors like poor living conditions or chronic illness can induce trauma. Common experiences like a surgery, breakup, or national emergency can contribute as well. Often, these are best dealt with through talk therapy with a trained professional.
Make it easy: If you have experienced a trauma at the hand of another person, the first step is to forgive them. While this may not actually be easy, it is something you have the potential to do yourself right now. Remember, the anger or disconnection that you are harboring towards them is living inside your body and affecting your health, not theirs.
Help someone else
Helping others not only increases confidence but it shifts focus outward, leaving less mental bandwidth for thoughts that perpetuate depression or anxiety.
Make it easy: Start small with a single good deed each week such as grabbing an elderly neighbor’s groceries or helping a friend polish their resume.
Human connection is one of the most powerful forces on earth. The pandemic has reduced our ability to spend physical time with our loved ones which has had great negative impact on mental health. On the plus side, I have noticed the beginnings of a necessary shift from quantity-based interactions to a focus on quality connection, which is where we derive our mental health benefits.
Make it easy: Aim to have a 30-60-minute conversation each week with someone who makes you feel safe, understood, and valued. Extra points if you can see their face! If you do not feel that way about anyone in your life, consider talk therapy. Sessions may be covered by your insurance or provided for free by a local church or outreach program. There are also free or low cost online options available.
I hope that these suggestions bring a bit of stability, safety, and calm into your life.
For more support, watch my FREE online workshop, “How To Calm Anxiety Fast” to learn 5 valuable techniques to diffuse acute anxiety, panic attacks, or bouts of overwhelming stress.