And HACKS ‘an appropriate application of ingenuity’, to Help Quickly
Many people’s routines, which normally might have built-in self-care like the gym, healthy meals at work or school, and regular social interaction, have been completely disrupted by the current situation, which may or may not be the new “normal” for the next several months. General mental and physical health can decline and leave us at risk for emotional health struggles and can lead to an increased risk of addiction, depression, and anxiety. These can rise to the level of needing outside help, however, there are things we can do on our own to prevent these problems from taking over our lives. You may already be noticing a decline in how you feel, difficulty sleeping, negative self-talk, and increased anxiety. The most important things that can help quickly, with suggestions for hacks, are nutrition, movement, and social interaction. There are many others, including increased spirituality, finding ways to help others in this time of need, and decorating, cleaning, and fixing up your home environment since you’re spending so much time in it, all things that can help as well.
Gut-Brain Connection to Mental Health
Current research describes how what we eat influences how we feel, with implications for anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and even conditions like autism. Essentially, maintaining the right kinds and quantities of bacteria in our stomachs enables us to feel good, while lots of processed foods or antibiotics can negatively affect our mental health. To maintain that optimal stomach biome we need to eat prebiotics like vegetables and fruit, and probiotics like yogurt and kefir (drinkable yogurt, with more probiotics), pickles and other pickled vegetables, dark chocolate, honey, almonds, and to really improve and maintain how you feel quickly, fermented foods like sauerkraut, natto, and tempeh, among others.
If you’re busy, or lack cooking skills (inability to read and follow instructions), or lazy, like me, here is a relatively quick and painless way to get everything you need for a week or more to supplement any healthy meals you do put together. I spend about an hour a week buying and blending fresh fruit, vegetables, ginger, nuts, low-calorie sweetener, and sometimes things like natto, kefir, protein powder, turmeric, or other things I want to try. You can find recipes online for specific purposes if you have a health condition you are concerned about google the diet for that condition and use those ingredients, but this is a general outline that works for me. I pour this mixture, which is usually some version of slightly chunky green, into sandwich size ziplock freezer bags, and freeze them, thawing one every couple of days. I usually end up with around a gallon of the green goo. To get the most nutrition out of this mix I sip it throughout the day, especially after a meal, so that my stomach can fully absorb it, not pass it through quickly. Nutritionists say that if we eat 30 different things each day we will get everything we need, and since there is no way I’m going to cook or even take the time to eat that many, this is an ideal way for me to get what I need, especially when my diet is lacking or I forget to eat while busy. Actual food, especially raw, can be used more fully and effectively than supplements and powders to increase and maintain health. Staying hydrated, especially with water, is also important for optimal health. Keep a water bottle near you and sip frequently.
Everyone knows we benefit from exercise mentally as well as physically so I won’t spend time on that except to suggest finding ways to move at home. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to trails or an area big enough to play frisbee or catch with someone while social distancing, of course, that is best since the fresh air, beauty, and change of environment is great for mental health as well as physical.
At home, a short routine like sit-ups, pushups, jump rope if you have room, and some cheap free weights or exercise videos can provide a break from our computers. Commit to 15-20 minutes at a certain time each day to help improve your chances of following through.
Social connection is a basic need for most of us and has the ability to improve our mental and emotional health on many levels. Finding ways to connect in our current lives is important and takes a little extra effort and/or creativity.
Social Connection Hacks
Besides the usual social media ways of connection with the people in our lives, we can also use an old fashioned one, actually calling someone to talk, see how they are doing, just check-in. Hearing someone’s voice is more connecting than reading what they might write on social media, and more personal. If you have older relatives who are isolated now, they would love a call even if you haven’t previously been close.
Now is a good time to improve your relationship with your significant other. You have more time together than usual, and while that can be part of an increase of stress at home, it can also be a valuable improvement to emotional health and the ability to draw on each other to help with the stress. A book I recommend is “Intellectual Foreplay”, designed to spark stimulation and interest through intimate communication. In addition to a valuable discussion about relationships, it contains many questions designed to draw out what your significant other thinks about, memories they have, and beliefs that direct their behavior. This can restore the wonder and feeling of connection we felt when we first met our partner, and go a long way towards improving the emotional tone in our homes.
Increase or Initiate Spiritual Connection
Organized religion is for fewer and fewer people in the US now in general, and especially now while attending church is not possible. A connection to a spiritual power outside ourselves can have many mental health benefits. In these times of increased anxiety, we can find peace and calmness, at least until we watch the news the next time if we have a short spiritual practice each day and a sense that there is a resource outside ourselves that cares about our well being.
- Find inspirational and/or spiritual reading material that is broken into short daily readings, and take a few minutes after reading it to think about its application in your life. My current favorite is a little book called “Twenty Four Hours a Day 2”, Anonymous. While the sections about AA are not as relevant to me after years of sobriety, they usually have application for my spiritual life, and the Meditation for the Day and one-sentence Prayer for the Day always seems to be what I need to hear to direct my life in an uplifting, positive growth mindset. Even if I had never gone through addiction I would find this book to be a little gem.
- Find an app with reminders about prayer, just little alerts that remind you to think a brief prayer of gratitude and connection. Spend a longer period in the morning or at night as part of your routine, connecting with whatever spiritual being that makes sense to you, being thankful, and asking for what you need. Gratitude can change your attitude quickly from one of negativity about your current situation to a positive mindset that influences how you feel and think
- Keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings to help you sort through them and gain insight.
- Meditation can seem boring or difficult yet we keep hearing about how beneficial it can be. There are many techniques for breathing and other practices, however, the most impactful one I have found that is also easy for me to focus on is Kriya Yoga (not yoga as we know it in the West). A quick description of what works for me is finding a quiet place to sit with my back straight and body relaxed (a chair since I’m not flexible), and visualizing a flow of energy circling my vertebrae from the chair up through the top of my head and back down again, breathing in as the energy goes up and out as it goes down. This can super oxygenate your blood quickly and you can become light-headed so pace yourself. You can learn more about it here:
Find a Way to Help Someone Else
Of course helping someone else meets a need that person has, but it can also have a positive effect on our mental state, sometimes a significant one. We spend so much of our time thinking about ourselves and what we want and need, but reaching out to another person to help them in a variety of ways improves our view of ourselves, our feeling of connectedness to others, and our emotional health. This can be simple and quick, or take more of your time and resources, you decide what makes sense in your current situation.
Service Hacks in Today’s World
The easiest one for some people is donating money to legitimate organizations that make sure your money does the most good possible. Local food banks, overtaxed public hospitals, assistance with homelessness, anything that helps with the strains that are on people and organizations currently. Less obvious ways to help include:
- Donate blood. Schedule a time to donate blood, plasma, red blood cells, whatever is most needed, to a local blood bank that is taking careful precautions to protect people who donate from contagious viruses.
- Help with child care for people who have to work from home currently or online education for kids who are struggling at home while not in classrooms to get the extra help they need to be successful. Make sure the homes you are considering take the same precautions you are taking to stay safe.
- Use current or newly learned skills to help with new needs, one example is sewing masks for use by people who don’t have access to other masks. Youtube has many how-to videos on this or any topics.
- Watch your local or national news and look for problems they are identifying, with a mindset about how you can help.
- Little acts of service and kindness with the people you are at home with can go a long way towards improving the emotional health of everyone.
Improve Your Home Environment
Since we’re spending a LOT of time at home, spend a little time cleaning and organizing, touching up or repainting walls and trim, adding fresh decor, or even doing big projects that challenge your skills. These kinds of projects add movement, a sense of pride every time you walk by what you accomplished, and an overall improved environment. You can watch shows on home improvement, decorating, and videos on how to do things, do whatever seems like a high priority or something that is interesting to you.
A fun idea that will also help if your finances have been impacted is to sell things you don’t want anymore on Ebay, Poshmark, or Etsy, all legitimate websites that make it easy to sell everything from clothes and shoes to homemade masks, jewelry, and tools. Seriously, really simple. Takes about 5 minutes to take pictures and get something listed. You do need a PayPal account but that’s it. That will help clean out your clutter at home in addition to making a little money and learning a new skill. You can be an entrepreneur by the end of a day!
Is this a lot to add to your life?
These suggestions do not all need to be added at once, pick, and choose the things that seem most helpful to you, although good nutrition is an important foundation for everyone. If you want to turn around your emotional health quickly however, add any or all of them. One way to think of this as less overwhelming is to calculate how much time you typically spend on your daily commute and set aside that time to take care of yourself. None of my suggestions need to take much of your time, even five minutes a day in each area will pay dividends in your mental and emotional health.