Preserving Your Mental Health: Utilizing All the Tools in the Toolbox

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and as physical distancing continues, it is more important than ever to keep tabs on your own mental health and to check in with loved ones.

From fear over health or employment concerns to searching for relief from life’s daily social pressures – and everything in between – how people are coping may vary widely. Regardless of your circumstances, now is a great time to check in on your mental health toolbox and consider which coping resources are most effective for you.

What is a Mental Health Toolbox?

Simply put, your toolbox is a set of activities and resources that support your mental health. Because everyone’s mind and body respond differently to stress, what is effective for you may not be the same as what works for a family member or friend. 

Here are some common tools you can utilize, and how they may look for different people.

Talk

One of the most common staples in the mental health arsenal, talking is an important way we connect with others, express our need for help, and relieve the pressure of what is on our minds. This can take place through a number of channels:

Friend or Peer: A casual conversation with a friend or colleague can reduce feelings of isolation or help identify resources.

Mental Health Professional: A mental health service provider can be an objective listener while helping you to build your coping mechanisms.

Support groups: For those who prefer a group setting to talk through issues and concerns, NAMI Illinois continues to offer support groups virtually during COVID-19.

Writing: For some, simply getting thoughts out by writing an email or letter is enough to provide relief.

Exercise for Mind and Body

Meditation and exercise can both alleviate negative moods and reduce anxiety and depression.

Meditation or Prayer: Meant to focus your mind and instill calm, meditation and prayer are effective tools for many. There are a variety of free apps and websites that offer guided resources.

Music: Listening to music or playing an instrument can also provide mental focus, help you process emotions and provide a sense of calm.

Exercise: Research has shown that exercise can reduce the impact of a variety of mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety and ADHD. It relaxes muscles, provides the opportunity to focus on breathing, releases endorphins and improves sleep.

Simple Movement: If a rigorous workout isn’t your thing, the benefits of a walk outside, stretching and yoga can be just as powerful. Anytime you have the opportunity to reduce muscle tension, get blood flowing and focus on a singular activity can elevate your mood.

Relax and Recharge

What can be considered relaxing varies widely from person to person. While this is just a small sampling, using a combination of strategies like these can keep you energized and promote positive thinking.

Find a Quiet Space: This might be your bedroom, basement, under a tree outside or even just a corner with noise cancelling headphones or white noise playing. Regardless of what your space looks like, giving yourself a break from external demands is particularly important.

Extra Rest: Snooze your alarm, take a power nap or just close your eyes in a dark room. During stressful times, we crave extra rest so make sure to listen to your body. Skipping a few chores around home is okay, too!

Escape into a Good Story: Reading, watching a favorite movie or series or even viewing a favorite YouTube channel can all offer the opportunity to escape into someone else’s story. This can be a chance to recharge and also to process emotions through a different medium.

Pursue a Hobby: Hobbies can offer stress relief in several different ways. Some use parts of our brain that we don’t often utilize, such as someone with an analytical job enjoying a creative hobby like painting or writing. Other activities provide the ability to focus on something repetitive to calm and soothe, like woodworking or knitting.

Support Others

One of the best ways to improve mood and outlook is to connect with your community and help others. While some activities are limited during COVID-19, there are still plenty of ways you can support those around you.

Send a Card or Treat: Whether writing to a friend or sending meals to local  first responders, sending a treat is a great way to brighten someone’s day.

Mentor Someone: There are a variety of youth, community and corporate mentoring programs, many of which continue to run remotely. Consider what you’re passionate about and what skills you have to offer, and look up organizations in your area. For example, a local college or vocational school might be looking for adults to assist with readying students for job searches and interviews. Local shelters and at-risk organizations need volunteers to help with budgeting and life skills. 

Collect Supplies: Many organizations are in need of supplies for both people and pets. Look up their wish lists and put together some care packages.

Get Crafty: What do you like to make? Charities and hospitals seek a number of items, including blankets, caps and gowns for NICU babies, face masks and toys. If you love to use your hands, there are plenty of options to choose from!

More than anything, do your best to carve out time for yourself. You may find that your typical go-to activities don’t have the same impact right now, so don’t be afraid to add some new tools to your own kit.