How To Keep Going: 4 Psychologists Offer Tips on Preserving Your Mental Health in 2020

World Mental Health Day is Saturday, Oct. 10 making it the perfect time to check in with yourself and see if it's time for a much-needed break.

By Lauren Piester Oct 10, 2020 2:00 PMTags
Mental Health Feature, Self-Care during pandemic, Dr. Kelley Kitley, Dr. Meghan Marcum, Dr. Audrey Hope, Dr. BryantMelissa Herwitt/E! Illustration

No matter who you are or what you do, you have likely had a very hard year. 

Whether you've been hit hardest by the global pandemic, the fight for social justice, the natural disasters or just the never-ending deluge of news that comes with an election year, it's very possible that you need and deserve a break. It's also possible that you're finding it harder than ever to keep going—to work, to find a new job, to keep supporting the causes you care about, to keep up with all of the devastating things that seem to keep happening on a daily basis.

It's all difficult, and we all deserve kudos for getting this far. In an effort to help us all keep going, we reached out to some licensed psychologists to get their take on what's been happening this year and how we can all continue to handle it to the best of our abilities. World Mental Health Day falls on Saturday Oct. 10, so take a moment to take care of yourself and your sanity with a little advice from some experts. 

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In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, clinical social worker Dr. Kelley Kitley cited Mental Health America data showing that more than 88,000 additional people have developed anxiety or depression, while 21,000 people were considering suicide or self-harm. According to MHA, substance abuse and relapses have increased as well. 

"Not only are we in a health and financial crisis," Kitley said, "We are in a mental health criss."  

This means it's more important than ever for us all to take care of ourselves, pay attention to our own needs and be unafraid to ask for help if we need it. However, it's not all doom and gloom. For some people, this forced slow-down has given them time to reflect and to make some positive changes, as Certified Trauma Therapist and Grief Counselor Audrey Hope explained. 

"There is no current manual on how to cope, behave, and survive the trauma of the times," she said. "There are important actions we can take to help us move through the pain with ease and grace but first, I have to say that despite the troubles in our world today, there are so many people reporting positive changes that are taking root in their lives. It is astounding and unbelievable." 

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Even as we pay attention to the positive changes, we can't ignore the trauma we've all suffered. Dr. Meghan Marcum, Chief Psychologist at A Mission for Michael, says there's a lot of work that lies ahead. 

"The biggest dangers are still ahead of us in many ways. As time goes on, we will see people attempt to manage their stress, fear or depression on their own," she said. "People have a tendency to ignore their mental health issues until the problems are severe enough to create major disruptions to their daily life. So, for many people there will be months of untreated symptoms that need to be addressed." 

Marcum says that if people leave their mild to moderate problems untreated, eventually "the focus becomes crisis management," which is not the ideal place to start with getting better. 

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If you or someone you know already dealt with anxiety or depression, you should pay special attention, Dr. Cheyenne Bryant, Doctor of Psychology and Life Coach, said.

"Some of the biggest dangers we may be facing right now in regard to mental health is that of people who were already anxiety prone, depression prone, and suicidal prone prior to the pandemic," she explained. "For individuals who already experienced mental health conditions prior to the pandemic and this racial climate they are now under a dual/triple traumatic pandemic. Their anxiety levels are at an all-time high, their depression symptoms are inflamed, and more than likely their suicidal ideations have increased."

But again, there are steps we can all take to take care of ourselves. Here are a few particular areas to to focus on. 

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How To Know It's Time For a Break

How do you know if you've overdone it and it's time for some rest? 

Kitley: "Self awareness is key! Check in with yourself daily. Assess how your daily living skills are. How am I sleeping/eating? Am I moving my body? Am I reaching out and connecting with others. Although we need to practice social distancing, going for a walk with a friend, logging in for a zoom call, or just talking on the phone can increase mood." 

Bryant: "I constantly tell my clients to make sure they are implementing self-care into their daily lives, so that their mind, body, and soul never gets a chance to tell them it is tired. It is important to learn how to prevent burn out, because often times intervention is too late. Self-care and taking a break should be at the top of your priority list and should be something that is indulged in when doing so. What I mean by that is, don't mix business with pleasure. If you are working then be fully present in work. If you are practicing self-care be fully engaged in self care."

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How To Take a Break 

Bryant: "My best tips for a mental health break is to make sure you are implementing self-care daily. There should never be a day where you work until you are on empty and you do nothing to implement a recharge. Recharging is just as important, if not more, than working. Some ways you can recharge are taking a short walk around your neighborhood, reading or listening to an audiobook, meditating, sitting on your balcony or patio for 15-20 minutes in silence, having a free, fun conversation with a loved one, or just watching a good show that gives you a break away from your work world." 

Marcum: "Do not ignore your mental health. If you had an accident and fractured your leg how long would it take before you went to the doctor? Apply the same principle to your mental health. In the meantime, make sure you spend time socializing with people who are supportive; share your experiences. Be compassionate toward yourself; we are often our own worst critics and now is the time to apply kindness and understanding to ourselves."

Hope: "To be okay, no matter what, the best thing you can for your mental health is to embrace a higher perspective, an expanded view of the world through profound comprehension. Peace can happen in a moment when you see the world through a new perspective. Loss is bearable when it makes sense with deeper purpose and scope.

There is a term in healing called 'alchemy,' which is a process to transform base metal into gold, caterpillar to a butterfly. The journey is about purifying matter into a higher form by burning it. In ancient times, this progression was called 'the great work;' this meant that the 'old' must die before rebirth and resurrection. Things change because they have to. The wake-up call has been sounded for all, and the universe is saying stay home, reflect, take time, make new choices, think, create, reboot, and get ready for a new world. 

Joseph Campbell described it well: 'Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.' There is now an opportunity for mass collective enlightenment.

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To thrive and not just survive the times is to take care of yourself. This means to go out in nature, see the sun, walk barefoot in the grass, watch the moon, laugh with friends, breathe and listen to music. Dance out the pain, let the beauty of life still inspire you, shut off the world, and be still. Meditate, chant powerful affirmations such as 'Everything happens for the highest good.' Everything has to come out into the light to heal.

Visualize your cells being healthy and filled with nourishing light. Think positively and cultivate happiness and joy. Constantly look for where you are grateful in the present moment. Find peace where you are. Find serenity in small things." 

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How to Stay Productive 

Work might be tough right now, but it's important to remember that you are not your productivity. If you have to take things a little slower, that's perfectly understandable, but here are a few bits of advice on getting things done, even now. 

Kitley: "It's a balancing act. One of my biggest tips is looking at your day (we all only have 24 hours) and make sure you fit in time for enough sleep, nutrition, physical activity, work, and relationships. Some of us have a tendency to engage in all or nothing behaviors which will contribute to burn out. Find a mantra that resonates with you. My favorite is 'Easy Does It.'" 

Bryant: "My tips on staying productive while still making sure that your loved ones are taken care of is to time block and make a to do list. Writing a to do list will allow you the mental space of not having to think of what to do next all throughout the day. It allows you to refer back to your list and knock things out one thing at a time. It helps and teaches you how to prioritize what needs to be done first. Time blocking provides discipline and order, so that things are getting done in a timely frame. Most importantly, if you do not complete your entire list for that day be okay with that and remember there is always tomorrow. Be easy on yourself. I'm sure you're doing the best you can!" 

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Hope: "There is a fast-track to healing and staying balanced. It is possible to go beyond the rational mind and the traditional boundaries of therapy to heal at the deep root level of the soul. It is time to use these tools to clear, protect, and align our energy no matter what happens in our daily lives. When we become masters of energy wisdom, we become superior to circumstances and we can overcome our burnout.

An exercise to give yourself a break and meditate to get back in the right headspace: 

Close your eyes. Imagine a ball of sunlight over your head. Say a mantra: 'I am now allowing the light to transform me.' 

Feel this said light going down your spine. Feel the light hitting every cell of your body. Feel the cells being nourished, then decree: 'All negative energy leave me immediately.' 

Imagine the negative energy exiting your body through your feet. Notice what color is leaving you. 

Say 'All hooks, chains, cords, and energy that no longer serves me, leave me.' 

Now feel the light as a rod of power, a pillar grounding you back into the earth. 

Now build a shield around you, two feet on every side. Live shielded, protected and aligned.

If you get thrown off, do the process again.

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How to Handle It All 

We're not just dealing with a global pandemic. Many people have also spent the summer protesting social injustice, and we've all had a lot of mostly bad news to absorb. How do we make sure it doesn't overwhelm us so we can keep doing the things we need to do?

Kitley: "It's important to press the pause button and disconnect. We are overloaded with information. Social media and the news can increase anxiety. Make sure you are in a good emotional space before you log on.  It's so important to keep going but it's also important to engage in self care. If we don't take care of ourself, we can't be helpful to anyone else. Put your oxygen mask on first to recharge!"

Marcum: "Balance is the key to dealing with life's challenges; especially right now. Limit the time you spend on social media and watching the news. The more time we spend consuming negative information the more likely it is to impact our own mental health. Set aside some time each day to unwind, practice relaxation exercises and be sure to prioritize sleep.

If you feel compelled to protest, do it, but make sure you don't sacrifice every free moment of your time. With everything happening between COVID-19 and supporting the movement, you will need to take a mental break. Please know that is not only okay, it is healthy and recommended." 

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Bryant: "It is important to stay engaged with friends and family that celebrate you. Make sure that you are not isolating as isolation breeds depression. It is important that you do not suppress your emotions or feelings during this dual pandemic. Remember suppression results in depression. Get a contact accountability partner where you both are accountable for texting or providing one another daily positive engagement. Lastly, make sure that you are dialoguing and processing what is going on in this current climate, so that you don't create avoidant behavior by suppressing how you are affected by the dual pandemic in this current climate."

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How to Find the Positive 

Most things are bad right now, but not all bad. Sometimes when people are forced to take a step back and put their regular lives on hold, it gives them the perfect opportunity for self-reflection and helps illuminate the things that are most important to them. 

Hope offered examples of the positive things some of her clients have been saying in therapy sessions: "Because of COVID, I am now…." "This virus gave me time to…." "If not for the virus, this would not have been possible…" "I finally have the courage to…. (get my divorce, move on, change jobs, etc.)" "I now want to live my dream which is…"

"It is truly amazing to hear how many are experiencing positive transformation," Hope said. "The virus and the trauma have done what nothing else could do—inspire needed change." 

Hope advised asking yourself a series of questions to determine "the depth of that change in these difficult times." 

1. What have you learned about yourself during this period?

2. What issues are coming up for healing?

3. What fears are coming up for you to clear?

4. What is the universe asking you to change?

5. What new things are you creating?

6. What matters to you now?

7. What are you grateful for?

8. How do you want to live going forward?

9. What do you want to do now?

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What To Do About the News

With the world changing drastically nearly every day, we all need to stay informed, but there comes a point when staying too informed with too much negative information starts to take a toll. 

Marcum: "Balance your day by limiting how much time you spend consuming news and social media. A new research study showed people who spend 30 minutes or less each day on social media tend to feel better in terms of mental health. Choose media sources that are fact driven and try to avoid watching the news before bedtime. Instead, catch up with family or keep yourself engaged with a game or a lighthearted TV show before heading to bed."

Kitley: "Limit the amount of time you expose yourself. Act as if you're merely gathering information with a cautious mind. Don't inundate yourself with having hours of news on or checking twitter multiple times a day. Carve out time dedicated to staying up to speed but put some limits around when. I highly recommend avoiding too much information at night or it could interrupt sleep." 

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Hope: "I found out that paying close attention to the news can be a form of addiction because it has the same symptoms. You get an adrenaline high and like all other addictions, it hooks you. You think about the news constantly and you can't stop. You have cravings and want more. You look for quick fixes of news bumps and you go through withdrawals and feel empty when you can't check out what is happening. News takes you out of reality, it can affect your everyday life and disrupt other activities. The bottom line about watching the news is that it takes you away from inner peace and calm.

We tend to look for info that confirms our pre-existing expectations. Our brain is wired for negative energy as we give more attention to negative detail than positive ones and we respond quicker to negative words. The amygdala is the danger detector located in the temporal lobe and our brains are built with reaction sensitivity to unpleasant news. We can't help but thirst to hear and remember what is bad. Chemically we react strongly to stimuli it deems negative, a chemical hits the brain, there is a surge in electrical activity and this causes arousal but there are remedies. 

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1. You can stop cold turkey, or limit the amount of time you watch the news, maybe 30 minutes a day to keep informed but not to make it a prime activity. 

2. Engage in real life, have discussions with real people and friends in real-time, and go outside. Engage in activities like exercise, walking, talking! 

3. Always remember the spiritual remedy: to laugh, enjoy life, have fun, and keep things in perspective." 

How To Help Others

It's not just ourselves we have to look out for, but our friends and family too. 

Hope: "To help your friends who are having a hard time I recommend being there to help them make plans for their future. Help them imagine a potential future. What do they want more than anything? Help them imagine every single detail of their dream. The joy of the anticipation and the possibility of the dream will soothe the soul." 

Kitley: "This is super important! Check in on each other. Don't assume someone is doing okay. If you notice a difference in behaviors of friends or family such as withdrawing, not returning calls or texts, noticing more negativistic viewpoints or hopelessness, don't be afraid to ask how they are REALLY doing."

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Marcum: "The easiest way we can support our loved ones right now is by listening to them. Often, we shy away from asking how others are doing in difficult times because we don't know how to respond. You don't need to offer a solution or give advice. The act of simply listening to the experiences of others is tremendously helpful because it gives people and outlet to share how they have been feeling. Compassion and empathy are also helpful because we're all trying to cope with uncertainty, and we can tackle issues better when we feel understood and supported." 

Take care of yourself, take care of your friends, and remember we're truly all in this together right now.