by Alan Feder
on Monday, January 4th, 2021 at 3:18pm.
The world is a crazy place under the best of circumstances. And this past year has taken crazy and put it on steroids. Life can be fast-paced, stressful, unpredictable, and leave you feeling out of control. So how do we deal with this? How can we control stress in our lives? How do we cope with a pandemic? Our children have lots of questions. We have lots of questions. Sometimes there are no good answers. And eventually this can leave us quite stressed, which in turn can lead to sleepless nights, poor dietary habits, and even depression.
So what is a person to do? How can we tackle these problems? Or at least how do we learn to cope with them? Here are a few things I’ve learned during my time as a certified health coach that can help improve your mental health as we enter 2021.
5 ways to improve your mental health
Stay active and exercise regularly. Even a 20 minute walk three times a week can help.
Eat nutritional foods and reduce consumption of processed foods. I like the quote from author Michael Pollan, “Don’t eat anything that your grandparents wouldn’t recognize as food.”
Turn off your electronic devices or notifications for an hour or two every day. Our smartphones and other electronic devices keep creating zombies out of us. Work to limit your distractions by either turning them off or consider turning off your notifications and placing the devices in another room.
Additionally, there are two buzzwords that you may have heard from time to time when it comes to relieving stress and tension in your life: meditation and mindfulness. These terms frequently accompany one another as they are certainly related.
Practice meditation by letting go of judgment. When you ask people what they think of when it comes to meditation, some may describe a Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged on the side of a Himalayan peak. Certainly that’s a nice image and may even provide a calming effect. But meditation is actually a skill that can be learned. It’s a muscle to be exercised. One of the best pieces of advice given to me in regards to meditation was to keep in mind that it is a practice and a journey. It’s not a destination, a test, or something you can measure. According to headspace.com, you are learning to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
Be mindful by taking time to be present. Mindfulness, according to mindful.org, is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Sounds pretty simple when it's broken down like that doesn’t it? I would add that mindfulness might be considered a form of meditation. Something as simple as taking a minute (literally 60 seconds) in the middle of your day to close your eyes and focus on your breath is a form of meditation. You don’t have to sit on the floor gazing out in front of you in a quiet room to meditate. It can be a quiet activity like coloring or counting cars on a train going by your home or office. Being mindful is really just taking the time to be present. Similar to meditation, it’s looking introspectively at your thoughts, your actions, and your routines without judgment.
Meditation and mindfulness have been scientifically proven to help reduce symptoms of depression, enhance self-awareness, improve focus, improve sleep, control pain, reduce blood pressure, and even generate more kindness throughout the world. Sounds pretty cool, huh? Really. What have you got to lose? Why not start a practice today? It can be as short as taking one minute out of your day.
How to get started
Many people get overwhelmed by the abundance of information on the topic and then abandon the idea of starting a meditation practice. If you’re like me, you’re a perfectionist or procrastinator and you feel like the conditions have to be just right. I’m here to tell you to do your best to put aside your preconceived notions. The benefits are innumerable and the downside is zero.
You may be surprised to learn that right here at UW-Madison we have one of the preeminent research facilities on mindfulness called the Center for Healthy Minds. They have a free downloadable smartphone app that can assist you in developing a practice. There are many apps and other resources on the internet on how to start your own practice.
If you want to be less formal and use your devices even less (which, as I mentioned before, can be a good thing), one small practice could be setting a timer for 1-3 minutes and sitting and counting your exhalation breaths. When you get to 3 or 5 minutes, start over again. You may find that after just a week or two you can increase the time to 5 or 10 minutes.
We are all searching for healthy ways to make our lives less stressful right now. Adding a meditation and mindfulness practice to your day is one of the most effective things you can do for your health and wellness.
And, if you, or someone you know, needs immediate help, please don’t hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.