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5 Ways to Manage Your Mental Health in 2021

The year 2020 was a doozy, to say the least! The collective experience across the nation was that mental health took a way back in the back seat, and then threw the tantrum of all tantrums. Before we dive into five ways to manage your mental health, let's take a look at some of the reasons that we feel how we feel about last year.


Social Injustice Protesters Kneeling with fists raised and masks on

Social injustice and the awareness of racism cut deep. The best way to explain this succinctly is to remind you that while the summer of 2020 caused some people to finally (and for the first time) realize that racism was actually still occuring in the 21st century and didn't just end once schools were integrated or once the US had its first Black President, millions of other people were already living as racialized people and actively fighting against injustice. The events of 2020 shone a light brighter than a searchlight and hotter than the sun on the existence of racism. It was mixed with all of the helplessness, fogginess, isolation, and frustrations that the pandemic dumped in our laps, and emotionally people needed to express themselves. Emotional expressions such as protesting and participating in caravans were acts of mental health wellness and human preservation. For many of us, it was painfully exhausting and infuriating to have spent our lives being gaslit while telling people about social injustices and trying to change systems, only to have thousands of people wake up one day, pretend to be woke and to profit off of their newly found wokeness. It was dripping with privilege.


The global pandemic had us shook. After experiencing just a few weeks of stay-at-home orders and watching constant news and social media updates, underlying anxieties rose to the surface. This was problematic because when we are worried, we struggle with intrusive and sometimes compulsive anxious thoughts. In the split second that it takes our minds to formulate a worry, just as quickly our bodies respond to the thought as if it were a fact that is already happening. That means that we partly believe that the worst will happen once we have thought about what could happen. That internal belief makes it extremely difficult to shift our thinking to the present moment. The more news reports, social media posts, and clever Trevor Noah commentaries that people viewed, the more anxious they became.


Humans are social by nature, but not that social. There were a few different camps that struggled here.

  • Some people started to feel trapped in their homes with their loved ones because, although family togetherness can be wonderful, we just were not used to seeing our loved ones 24/7 for months at a time. Getting true uninterrupted 'me time,' for some, was simply not possible.

  • For others, they were isolated and experienced touch deprivation. From infancy, we are predispositioned to need human touch, skin-to-skin contact. However, many people became separated from those who care about them making access to even a hug nonexistent. Let this sink in, there are some people who have not had physical contact with another person or animal since the pandemic started.

In both of those instances, the human brain either became over stimulated or under stimulated leaving us with limited emotional reserve. We started having varying degrees of trauma responses. People experienced increased depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, feeling forgetful, easily irritable, fatigued, sleeping too much or too little, weight gain, and feelings of loneliness even in homes that were overcrowded.


Grief and loss aren't just about death, although there were way too many of those. Many people start the year and make plans for what the year will look like. In thinking about that life, we start to imagine doing things, seeing people, and we generally create a future world with our future selves living in that world. When something happens that not only shifts what our lives will look like, but completely makes it impossible for the imagined life to occur at all, it is like experiencing a death. The life and version of ourselves that we imagined, dies. Unfortunately, in 2020 we were not reminded that it was okay to grieve the losses that we were experiencing unless they were the physical lives of others. That's neither true nor healthy.


Happiness in hiding. There were also people who felt like 2020 was a really good year, and because of the devastations that others were feeling, those people felt like they had to hide their joy. Some of them felt guilty for being happy. This created a unique sense of loneliness for them and pushed them further into isolation. Similar to survivor’s guilt, many people questioned if they had the right to their happiness in the midst of world wide grief.

Black women with purple athletic tank top and grey pants siting cross-legged on a yoga mat with eyes close. Image to illustrate playful psychology

Here are 5 Ways to take care of your Mental Health in 2021


  1. Playful counseling. Therapy and counseling are amazing ways to care for your mental health. Whether you need traditional once a week sessions with a skilled and licensed professional, bi-weekly sessions, or more frequent sessions, talking to a therapist can help you understand your reactions to past and present situations and help you feel equipped to manage your emotions in the future.

  2. Therapy isn't just for adults. We don't always talk about it publicly but children experienced all of the same feelings that adults did in 2020, it just looked a little differently for them. Parents and children, even babies, can benefit from having mental health therapy sessions together. Parent-child and infant-parent sessions have been shown to help with parental satisfaction, enhance child development in the areas of language, cognition, and social-emotional skills.

  3. Regular movement. It's helpful to think of ways to move your body for a few minutes each day. I discourage people from focusing only on traditional exercise because then you start getting hung up on things like weight changes and other competitive factors that are associated with exercise. Movement is that simple. Move your body in ways that makes you feel some joy.

  4. Dance. Walk. Stretch. Build something. Play "Can you do this?" with someone you know or the "Mirror Game" with a friend on video chat.

  5. Take a few seconds to be in the present moment. The right now. Sometimes this can be watching a squirrel do whatever it is that squirrels do or taking some sips of water and letting yourself notice how the water feels as it enters your mouth, touches your tongue, travels down your throat, etc. The more time that we allow ourselves to spend in the present, the less time our minds have to pull us into those worst case scenario thoughts of the future.

  6. Self-care may not be what you think. For many people self-care sounds expensive and elaborate. I know that I thought that to be true when hearing physicians and mental health doctors (all making close to and many of them over six figures) tell me to engage in self-care while I was working several jobs, going to school, and living in a tiny apartment without power because couldn't afford electricity. If anyone tells you things about getting a massage or "taking a day off," they are out of touch with the realities of what some people are experiencing. Self-care is carving out even just a few seconds a day to remind yourself that you are a person who matters. We need that. The best way to ensure that you do something everyday that is aimed at self-care is to incorporate it into an everyday routine. Just about everyone goes to the bathroom in the morning. That would be a good time to do something small for yourself:

Engaging in the little things that we enjoy are ways that we can take care of ourselves a little each day.

  • Lotion your body.

  • Listen to a favorite song.

  • Paint your nails.

  • Trim or pick your beard.

  • Set and enforce boundaries with those around you. Yes, even those littles ones who depend on you.

  • Journal.

5. Play. It doesn't matter your age. Play can look different from person to person.

You can also use play to teach children to engage in healthy practices.


Takeways

We are entering the second month of 2021 and already it has had it's ups and downs. The reality is that life will continue to throw us curveballs. There will be times of joy and times of sadness and every other emotion too. Still, there are things that we can do to help ourselves in the midst of what is happening in our lives.

  • Destigmatize counseling and seek it when needed.

  • If you are physically capable of moving your body, do it.

  • Practice your ability to be in the true moment.

  • Do something for yourself daily.

  • Play.

In short, take a moment to play a little each and every day. Your body will thank you for it and your emotions will too.


PlayfulLeigh,

Dr. Dowtin


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