5 Ways to Improve Your Mental Health

5 Ways to Improve Your Mental Health

A recent NCAA survey showed that athlete mental health concerns are up by 200 to 250 percent since the pandemic started. And these competitors have an outlet - the picture is far grimmer for the average Joe or Jane, with some research suggesting a 400 to 500 percent uptick in depression, anxiety, and stress. Here are four proven coping techniques to help you deal with whatever life throws at you.

  • Reach Out for Support

There’s a common misconception that if you speak out about depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue, you’re somehow discrediting yourself. Athletes fear losing playing time, business professionals worry about being passed over for promotion, and spouses don't want to burden their significant others. But as sports psychologist and licensed professional counselor Jim Afremow said in his book The Champion’s Mind, “Being in need is not the same as being in trouble.”

Over the past couple of years, Michael Phelps, Kevin Love, and, most recently at the Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles have illuminated the myriad mindset issues that lurk just below the surface for many high performers. The Weight of Gold documentary went even further in shining a spotlight on mental health struggles.

You might not be an Olympian or NBA All-Star, but their message is just as relevant for you – to solve your problems, you need to find a friend, family member, or clinician to talk to about them. You’ll be surprised how willing most people are to assist you and how glad they’ll be that you trusted them enough to be vulnerable. This isn’t weakness on your part – rather, you’re finding strength in numbers and advancing a key relationship by admitting that you need someone to lean on. Don’t try to be your own therapist – get a third party to help you improve your mental wellbeing.

  • Learn to Recognize Thinking Traps

Have you ever seen one of those fairground mirrors that makes you look really tall and thin or really short and stout? Our minds play similar tricks on us and sometimes make us see the world around us, other people, and ourselves as they really aren’t. When this occurs, we tend to fall into thinking sinkholes that prevent us from progressing in our jobs, becoming more emotionally stable, and developing our relationships.

Such traps include under-rationalizing, making things out to be worse than they are, 100 percent thinking (it’s absolutely perfect or trash), and so on. Before you can start to self-regulate and stop these untrue thought patterns from cascading into an avalanche that buries your mental wellbeing, you first need to recognize when you’re distorting your thoughts. Next time you feel yourself starting to spin out of control, pause and ask, “Is this really true?” Try to replay the situation in your head as if watching as a neutral third party. OK, maybe that person did cut you off in traffic or your boss did ignore your point in a meeting. Should this really be enough to derail your day, or can you shrug it off? Once you start to see thinking traps coming, you can avoid them more often and improve your mental health in doing so.

  • Serve Others

It drives my wife crazy when her mom tells her to do something nice for other people when she’s feeling blue. But my mother-in-law is actually onto something here. One of the reasons that we get mired in non-constructive rumination (i.e., thinking the same negative thing over and over again until it consumes us) is that we’re only focusing on ourselves. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be in touch with your feelings or thoughts, but rather that there is such a thing as too much continual introspection. Taken to the end point, this creates the kind of look-at-me narcissism that’s all too common on social media and a disregard for the needs of others.

The antidote is service. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.” You could sign up for a shift at your local soup kitchen, offer to pack gift boxes for an overseas ministry at the nearby church (whether you’re a believer or not), or get involved in a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters to come alongside a young person in need of a mentor. Your service doesn’t even have to be this extensive. Call your grandma to see how she’s doing, help a neighbor move that new couch they just had delivered, or open the door for a mom holding a baby. These little things don’t seem like much on the surface, but if everyone would perform acts of kindness daily, our communities would be tighter, stronger, and nicer places to live.

  • Just Breathe

When situations feel like they’re getting the better of you, there is still a controllable: how you breathe. When you’re in a sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) mode, you start behaving like a prey animal. Your muscles tighten up in anticipation of fleeing or fighting for your life and you either hold your breath or start gasping for air. This merely perpetuates the high-stress state.

The antidote couldn’t be simpler. To downshift your autonomic nervous system into parasympathetic mode (rest/digest), start by making sure that you are breathing only through your nose. This releases more nitric oxide in your para-nasal sinuses – a gas that helps your blood vessels relax and expand so you send more oxygenated blood to your body and brain.

Next, try to slow down these nasal breaths. If you can extend each exhale to seven seconds or more, you will increase your heart rate variability (HRV), which is a key marker of having a balanced autonomic response. The very act of concentrating on your breath and slowing it down will also relax you, and even a couple of mindful breaths in rush hour, before you get on a plane, or when you’re in an argument can boost your mental health and encourage more reasonable and less panicked behavior.

  • Get Grateful

There are few things more irritating than when another person tries to minimize or dismiss what you’re going through. Yet even in the most difficult life circumstance and when struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, there are still some good things going on in your life. It’s just hard to see the light when you feel trapped in a gloomy, dark fog.

To try and emphasize the positives (without invalidating the negatives, which can be very real), simply call out the things that you are thankful for. Maybe someone let you turn during rush hour so you didn’t have to wait another 10 minutes to get home. Perhaps one of your kids drew a nice picture for you at school. Or your colleague might have praised that great job you did on a work project. Try to finish each evening with an attitude of gratitude by verbalizing or writing down three things, people, or situations you’re thankful for. Repeat it for a few nights and you’ve got a new, additive evening routine that will set you up well for restorative sleep – one of the keys to getting mental health issues in check.