Written by Moe Gelbart, Ph.D., Director, Behavioral Health
If the last two years have shown us anything, keeping mentally fit is as
important as anything else we can do for our well-being. As 2021 comes
to a close, we are experiencing a COVID surge due to the Omicron variant,
and our resilience and ability to handle stress is being tested once again.
As many of us struggle to get back to normal, I am struck by the advice
of Amanda Gorman, our National Youth Poet Laureate, who writes “let
us not try and get back to what is normal, but to reach for what is next”.
We know we are up to the task. Let’s make 2022 the year we prioritize
our mental health and take positive and clear steps to strengthen our
mental fitness avoid unnecessary pain. Here are some suggestions:
Be Intentional. The key to mental well-being is to recognize that there are clear steps
to take which research proves makes us more mentally fit. When I work
with people in distress, I point out to them that “you always wind
up in the direction you are heading”. Although that sounds obvious
and simplistic, our behavior often does not correlate with our goals.
We need to be objective and clear about what we want to accomplish, how
we want to feel, how we want to live our lives, and then continuously
monitor that our actions are in the service of our goals. I often encounter
people who, figuratively, are heading south on the 405 and want to wind
up in San Francisco….it won’t happen. Becoming intentional
about our actions will allow us to feel empowered, confident, and happy.
Take responsibility. If we become intentional about our actions, then we must also take responsibility
for our choices and decisions, and not blame other people or events for
the choices we make. I like to use this metaphor to make this point. Every
day at lunch, a construction worker sits with his co-workers and complains
about his lunch. “I can’t believe it…peanut butter
and jelly, again. Every day, peanut butter and jelly!” His co-worker
turns to him and says, “why don’t you tell your wife to make
you something else?”. He replies “wife? What wife? I live
alone and make my own lunch”.
Reality vs. Expectations. Psychological pain, ie, depression, anxiety, stress, lives in the gap
between reality and our expectations. The wider the gap, the greater our
psychological distress. We have to be very careful about monitoring our
expectations, and not let them get too far away from how things really
are. The more we accept reality, the more able we are to find ways to
cope and to adapt. With vaccines, society opening up, stadiums full, traveling
to visit family, our expectations were that the pandemic was behind us,
and we could live life as we used to. The reality of the highly transmissible
Omicron variant did not fit with what our expectations were, and magnified
our despair, stress, and anxiety. If we can minimize our expectations
of how we think things are or how we think things should be, and accept
the reality of our situation, we can cope much better, feel more empowered,
and increase self- confidence.
Set Limits and Boundaries. Many people feel uncomfortable setting limits and boundaries with those
in their lives. They mistakenly see that as selfish behavior. I help people
see this as “for self” rather than selfish, and being clear
and objective with what you expect from others and what you are or are
not willing to accept, and being able to verbalize this to others, is
actually an act of caring and helps bring people closer. It also improves
communication, avoids conflict, and greatly reduces resentment.
S.T.E.M. Sleep, eat, think, and move are essential foundations of mental well-being.
In order to function well, we need 7-8 hours of restful and restorative
sleep. For those that this does not come naturally to, there are intentional
actions which can improve sleep hygiene. We can make sure our environment
is conducive to sleep, including blacking out light (a mask can also work);
keeping the temperature cool; have a regular routine; begin to turn down
electronics an hour before bedtime; practice 4-7-8 breathing prior to
sleep (breathe in for 4 second, hold for 7 seconds, breathe out slowly
for 8, and repeat 5 times). The THINK portion involves paying attention
to our inner narratives, and knowing we can choose to see things differently
which help make us feel differently. Our attitudes and perceptions about
stressors often affect us more than the stressors themselves. Being able
to see the glass as half full rather than half empty has significant impact
on our mental well-being. We all know the value of EAT, and proper nutrition,
and research is clear that diet and types of food are connected to mood.
Finally, MOVE, and the value of any physical exercise is certain, and
people who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional
well-being. Regular exercise reduces depression, anxiety, stress, and
greatly improves overall mood.
Connect. The last two years have clearly shown us the value of relationships, and
how important it is to communicate with those we care about. We have experienced
the pain of isolation, and learned the skills to guarantee that social
distance does not have to mean social isolation. The importance of connecting,
and of verbalizing real and honest feelings to friends and family is clear,
and we can make it a priority in our day to day lives to reach out to
the meaningful people in our lives. We can focus on listening, trusting,
respecting, and making time for others. Science shows the benefits include
less stress, less depression, less illness, and living longer.
Coping with difficulty and stress requires resilience and good mental health,
and the key to mental well-being is that it is achievable and something
we can prioritize and work on. Awareness of our thinking patterns, of
our choices, and being intentional in our actions will lead to positive
well-being. As mentioned at the outset, let’s not worry about getting
back to normal, but instead reach for what is next and adapt and adjust to it.