When new patients contact me, I help those in crisis find emergency care and connect others with counselors or group support. But when capital “S” stressors like persistent anxiety, exhausted depression, and loud insomnia rattle, some patients want more immediate help. This may explain why many potential patients ask me, “What can I do now to improve my mental health?”
Clinical psychologist Emily Anhalt says one possible solution is to add “emotional exercise” to your self-care regimen. “Just like exercise prevents high blood pressure and heart disease, emotional fitness can be a proactive attitude toward stress management,” says Anhalt, co-founder of Coa, a mental health gym.
In virtual Coa lessons, Anhalt and her team teach exercises called “emotional stress exercises,” which are little ways to work on yourself every day. “The goal is to strengthen the muscles of your mental health so that you are in a better position to face life’s challenges,” she says.
Self-care tools can be useful, especially when barriers such as insurance plans with high deductibles, high co-pays, and living in remote areas make it difficult to afford or access mental health care. Phil Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, says that while the epidemic doesn’t just fall to a lack of therapists, it has certainly made matters worse.
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With mental health resources so few, we need innovative ways to make mental health care more accessible, she says. If you’ve been waiting to see a therapist, can’t afford mental health care or have recently finished treatment, emotional exercises are one way to strengthen your psychological muscles. While these exercises are not intended to replace individual or group therapy, Anhalt says they can enhance flexibility and help you feel empowered.
Here are some expert-backed exercises to get you started.
confuse? Make an appointment to “worry.”
The sharp rise in global unrest is undermining our mental health for understandable reasons. Wright says the almost constant cycle of “bad news” and discussions on social media can add to feelings of anxiety and confusion.
Researchers say that anxiety has a cognitive component, which is why rumination often triggers worrying thoughts that are repeated. One way to deal with this adversity is to set a “worry appointment.” “Set a time in your daily calendar for worry, obsession, and thinking,” Anhalt suggests. During this date, take 10 to 15 minutes to jot down your problems.
In her book, “Cards Against Anxiety,” mental health educator and author Pooky Knightsmith says a date with anxiety can prevent that nagging feeling from becoming a boss and taking charge.
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Annoyed by a loved one? Practice “pushing self-reflection.”
When you’re frustrated because your partner went to prom without a mask or your co-worker stole the spotlight, it’s only natural to see the annoying party as the problem. Another way, Anhalt says, is to take the opportunity to get to know yourself.
Feeling hurt, upset, or angry about someone else’s behavior may reflect something we don’t like about ourselves. To study this possibility, Anhalt suggests doing an exercise she calls “pushing self-reflection.” This pressure uses “3 Js, which stands for Join, Jealousy, and Judgment” to guide you.
Ask yourself if the other person’s behavior is something you also do (join in), envy (jealous) or criticize (control). For example, if you are upset with your friend because he is selfish, you may realize that you behaved the same way. Anhalt says highlighting our actions allows us to take responsibility.
When it comes to building close relationships, research shows that self-awareness can increase cognitive empathy, which is our ability to understand other people’s feelings from their perspective.
Frustrated or feeling down? Friendship difficult feelings.
As human beings, we are forced to avoid pain. When uncomfortable feelings such as anger or sadness arise, we may try to distract ourselves from feeling bad. We might scroll through social media, drink an extra glass of wine or hit Netflix. These tactics are called “defenses,” which are thoughts and behaviors that prevent us from feeling unbearable. But when we rely solely on defenses, we avoid feeling our emotions, which hinders our ability to process them.
When disturbing feelings arise, try to befriend your feelings. Start by naming your feelings, a technique psychologists call “classification influence.” You can also become a detective by exploring where your feelings appear in your body. For example, I ask my patients, “Where do you feel these feelings?” and “What would she try to tell you?” The goal is not to change feelings, but to raise awareness of what you are feeling at the moment.
It is normal to feel happy and sad at the same time. Here is when it can become a problem.
A 2018 research review notes that “focusing on our feelings, without trying to change them” can help relieve stress. This “momentary” mindset is what dialectical behaviorist Marsha Linehan calls “radical acceptance,” and it’s one way to stop the continuation of pain. Many people believe that radical acceptance holds back change, but this libertarian attitude can keep up with transformation, says clinical psychologist Jenny Taitz.
Suffering from anxiety? exercise curiosity.
The Family Pulse Survey, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that about 32 percent of adults in the United States developed symptoms of an anxiety disorder or depression in the week before August 8. For a smaller percentage of people, symptoms of anxiety are mental illness such as generalized anxiety disorder, which affects nearly 3 percent of Americans, or social anxiety disorder, which affects nearly 7 percent of the general population.
If you want to get rid of your anxiety, adopting a curious mindset may help. When fear and uncertainty strike, we often ask, “Why is this happening?” Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer, author of Relaxing Anxiety and medical director of the Sharecare Foundation explains. “The mind gets stuck with the ‘why’ question because we believe that revealing the answer will fix our anxiety,” Breuer explains. But in reality, this mindset of thinking can make us feel helpless and powerless. The neuroscientist recommends that out of this rabbit hole, try to get into your “worry-free zone.”
How to make friends with your inner critic
One grounding exercise is to sit down and look at your feet and ask, “Which foot is warmer than the other?” This question helps spark curiosity, says Breuer. Research has shown that this wonderful feeling can open the mind to possibilities, allowing us to see our situations from a different perspective. When anxiety throws us into a loop, he substitutes ‘Why is this happening? With “what’s going on?” it can get us out of the “why zone” that is full of anxiety, says Breuer.
Mental health exercises can teach us how to better manage our disturbing thoughts and disturbing feelings. These exercises may also help us think about our discomfort in a different way. “The symptoms of anxiety and depression are the body’s alarm system,” Anhalt says. “By trying to understand them, we can uncover the root cause of our suffering.”
If you’re looking for additional mental health exercises, Wondermind offers a free newsletter with mental fitness tips, Coa offers a free 15-minute emotional fitness class, and Liberate provides health classes to help people deal with stress and burnout.
We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.
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