Many of us have been there before – you’re in a stressful situation and can feel your heart racing or a sudden feeling of being overwhelmed. Anxiety is kicking in. It’s the body’s natural response to stress, but these days, it may feel more prevalent or prolonged than usual.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states large medical outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, may have been associated with increased mental health challenges.
In fact, more than 40% of adults say they are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression.
“This isn’t surprising,” said Dr. Jamie Dupuy, the medical director for Sanvello, an app for anxiety and depression relief. “We’ve been experiencing compounded stressors for two years now, with layers of grief, loss of routine, job instability, family disruptions and more.”
For some people, that mental toll may lead to pervasive anxiety or even depression. Disruptions to sleep, nutrition and other routines may contribute to — and even worsen — mental health issues. As the pandemic continues, it may be worthwhile to understand and assess how your habits have changed.
“In the beginning, many people rallied with the hope we could collectively prevent the spread of the virus. More than two years later, our reality is different, and it’s taken a mental toll on everyone,” Dr. Dupuy said. “We are in a prolonged emotional burnout.”
If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, a good starting point may be to consider how your lifestyle choices may be playing a role on your mental health. While changing these habits may not treat a mental health disorder completely, they may be an essential tool to help manage your symptoms.
Dr. Dupuy shares some actionable tips and recommendations:
1. Prioritize sleep
Sleep is interconnected with mental health. Dr. Dupuy recommends adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night, and try to keep a steady schedule of sleep and wake times, even on the weekends.
“Take a look at your recent sleep patterns,” she said. “You might start by simply keeping track of your sleep for a week. Are you getting less than you used to, or has your bedtime shifted? Are you spending more time in bed? Can you spot any factors which may influence your sleep quality, such as stress, substance use, noise or light?”
Dr. Dupuy says you can then use what you’ve learned to make small changes, such as getting to bed just a half hour earlier.
“Even when we can’t get all the sleep we need, there are steps we can take to improve the sleep we do get,” Dr. Dupuy said. “For example, try switching from watching TV in bed to listening to a podcast instead, and you’ll avoid bright light exposure when you’re trying to fall asleep.”
Keeping a log of your sleep may help identify which changes have been the most helpful.
2. Stay active and go outside
Daily exercise has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“But you don’t have to run a marathon to feel the benefits of exercise,” Dr. Dupuy said. “Just going for a 10- minute walk each day can make a difference in how we feel. It’s about movement, not athleticism.”
Actively moving your body stimulates production of serotonin and endorphins, which may have a positive effect on your mind and your ability to manage stress. Working out may also help reduce fatigue, decrease tension and elevate your mood. Looking for a place to start? Practicing yoga has been found to help relieve stress and anxiety through controlled breathing and physical focus.
Dr. Dupuy also recommends getting outside, noting that even a few minutes of fresh air and sunlight can help improve our mood.
3. Focus on good nutrition
“When we’re stressed, we often forgo good nutrition and reach for the things that bring us comfort,” Dr. Dupuy said.
She recommends taking an overall look at your eating habits, especially what changes you may have made since the pandemic began. What habits would you keep, and which would you like to change?
“When we’re not happy with our nutrition, the best approach to changing it is to make a simple plan,” Dr. Dupuy said. “Spend a few minutes thinking about healthful snacks, and prepare them in advance. Then, when you’re too hungry to plan, you’ll have nourishing and balanced snacks that are ready to go.”
One of the simplest ways to improve your diet and mood is to just drink more water. Even mild dehydration can impact our moods. The next time you feel the urge to reach for a quick snack, Dr. Dupuy recommends drinking a cup of water first.
“It might satiate the feelings of hunger, and this practice will help keep you hydrated,” she said.
4. Avoid or limit alcohol and other substances
For some, alcohol use has increased during the pandemic. Alcohol is a depressant. While in the moment, it may help you feel calm, there’s always an after affect. You may notice the next morning you feel anxious or on edge. This may be due to mild detoxification, which may make you feel jittery or anxious. Alcohol may also affect your sleep — even one drink may disrupt your natural cycle and leave you feeling restless the next day.
“This is another area where tracking your habits can be helpful,” Dr. Dupuy said. “Has your consumption of alcohol or caffeine changed since the pandemic began? If so, has it had an impact on how you feel or function? Track your use, and also note how you feel in the moment, afterwards and the next day. Investigating the how many, the when and the why of our habits can provide useful insights for making decisions that better our mental health
It’s also worth noting, if you are taking an antidepressant or other medications, mixing in alcohol or other substances may worsen your symptoms and may cause unwanted side effects.
5. Practice meditation
“You don’t have to sit cross-legged for 20 minutes to meditate,” Dr. Dupuy said. “Many meditations, including those available in Sanvello, are very short and can fit into any schedule.”
Meditation may help bring a sense of relaxation and a more tranquil mind, which may reduce stress and help calm anxiety. When you meditate, even for just a few minutes, you help clear your mind from daily stressors, which may help regulate your emotions. This may be a key component to reducing symptoms of anxiety or depression.
There are many different kinds of meditation from breathing techniques to walking. Whatever method you choose, it’s important to focus your attention, be free from distractions and relax your breathing.
The past couple of years may have been notably stressful, and it’s important to know, you are not struggling alone. Consider these lifestyle changes to help you cope, better manage your symptoms and reach out to a professional for help, when needed. Consider these resources:
The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk with your health care provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.