As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, this new world we live in has gotten to feel so normal, at least to me, that I wonder how it will be going back to maskless, corona-free lives. In high schools and colleges, we’ve adjusted to a decrease in school gatherings, the expansion of online classes, and a cancellation of sports to maintain low coronavirus case counts and to keep us physically safe. But COVID is not just affecting our physical health; we’re all having to cope with tremendous loss, stress, and anxiety. And with everything going on—not just the pandemic but also politics and the racial injustices highlighted by the pandemic’s release—we need to take some time to acknowledge all this pain and start building ways to climb above it. Here are some techniques and tips to help you tend to your mental health and get through these rough times. 

In and out 

It’s the one thing you’ve known how to do since birth and something that has had direct correlation to improving peace of mind: breathing. Just as simple and mundane as it sounds, breathing will allow your sympathetic nervous system to calm down and boost your parasympathetic nervous system into doing its job: resting. Breathing and resting can allow your body and mind to slow down and take a break from the chaos of the world. Sometimes just closing your eyes and exhaling can help change a negative moment to a positive one. 

Other breathing practices such as meditation and yoga are also key ways to maintain mental health. Seeking out apps or articles that teach you how to practice mindfulness meditation can genuinely affect your mood and personal life for the better. One, for example, encourages you to relax, calm down, focus, and sleep. Meditating for 10 minutes in a guided session while listening to waves or rain in the background can help ease the worries of your day, if only for a little bit, and help you focus on your breathing. This is especially good to do before starting homework that is on your mind, stressing you out. It might just be the thing needed to put you in the right mindset before doing that more difficult work. 

In the context of today, mindfulness can go a long way in protecting yourself from the worries and stress of the world. Even doing a short, 10-minute exercise can prepare you for tackling the day’s problems. Just breathe, and let the world pass away. 

Stretch those muscles 

Physical activity is the next item on the agenda because it can also help you center yourself. Getting your heart pumping and blood flowing increases dopamine and serotonin levels, which can improve your mental well-being. It doesn’t have to be much: doing a little stretching when you wake up and before bed can prepare you to conquer the day. Incorporating breathing exercises and practicing yoga would also combine physical activity with mental strength, allowing both mind and body to work in harmony.

But what if, like me, you’re one of those people who hate going to the gym and sometimes find running a bit too strenuous? My solution was biking. Every evening before dinner, I ride my bike for about five to eight miles, and already, I’ve noticed that I am happier and in better spirits when I’ve been outside in nature getting exercise. So find some physical activity that you enjoy doing. And if the weather is nice, try going outside. The sunshine might improve your attitude, and taking a walk, even just to your mailbox, might remind you that COVID doesn’t have to dampen your spirits. 

Share the joy 

Keeping those around you uplifted and positive can have beneficial effects on your own life, too. Doing little things for family members, friends, or neighbors, like leaving inspirational quotes on a mirror or doing a chore before your parents ask you to do it, can go a long way in creating a positive environment for everyone. 

And I know we have masks, but smiling at passersby always goes a long way to improving my mood. Studies show that seeing a smile on someone’s face increases your likelihood of mirroring them, which triggers a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps you feel happier. And even though they might not be able to see your mouth, it’s all in the eyes when a smile is concerned. As Tyra Banks says, “Smize”—that is, smile with your eyes. You might get a smize back. 

Finding that one thing

Beyond breathing, exercising, and smiling (or smizing), try doing whatever it is that you already know lifts your spirits the most. During quarantine, I had a lot of time to read all the books I’d been putting off, and I found that not only was I able to enjoy whatever fiction book I was reading, but I could escape this COVID-infested world and step into a new one. That gave me the comfort and mental space needed to take control of other areas of my life. 

As Jason Bonick, the director of the Southwestern University Counseling and Health Center, says, “All the uncertainty in the world right now is made worse by a sense of hopelessness we feel. We must combat that by taking control of our lives, which we do by finding that one thing—unique to you—that allows you to gain a sense of purpose, a value or worth, where [you] feel empowered.”

Finding that one thing that moves you to get out of bed in the morning is how you take control of the chaos of the world and turn it into something positive and beneficial.

So what helps you? Finding that one thing that moves you to get out of bed in the morning is how you take control of the chaos of the world and turn it into something positive and beneficial. Spending time with family or friends (virtually or socially distanced, of course!), watching your favorite streaming channels (they’ve gone all out for us, coming out with new movies and shows weekly it seems), practicing religion if you’re religious, doing projects that have been put off, learning a new skill (e.g., cooking or baking, playing an instrument, or learning a language)—any of these time consumers can go a long way in helping distract you from the world. And who knows? Participating in any one of those activities might end up creating a positive memory for you despite these difficult times.

Professional help

Therapists have been seeing an increase in patients since 2020 began, and I expect they’ll see a lot more before long. But that’s a good thing. This summer, I, too, saw a therapist because I realized that it would be so beneficial to talk with someone who wasn’t my family or close to me, to just unload everything on a professional who could give me tools to stay mentally healthy. And it worked. Talking with someone, expressing and unburdening ourselves of the troubles of the world: we as humans all need to do that. We don’t have to do that on our own. Being an optimist, especially in today’s climate, is hard, but it’s doable with some help.

Not everyone can breathe, exercise, or smile their way out of a difficult situation. These are rough times for all of us, and downplaying it helps no one. But practicing mindfulness and wellness strategies might be beneficial to you, especially as the pandemic rages on. Hopefully, these suggestions can give you some peace of mind as you tackle the new normal. Good mental health!

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