How to stay mentally healthy during stressful times

Expert tips for keeping your mental health in check - whatever life throws at you.
Published 20 March, 2020

If your mental health has suffered a bit of a wobble this year, you’re not alone. 

“Humans like control and like being in charge,” says licensed clinical health psychologist Dr. Robyn Pashby, PhD, founder of DC Health Psychology, a counselling practice in Bethesda, Maryland. “In times like these, stress is primarily driven by lack of control, lack of predictability, and fear of harm or danger to oneself or loved ones.” 

Sound familiar? While it’s impossible to control everything that's going on in your life, employing self-care techniques that make you feel grounded and connected can protect your mental health. 

Expert tips for staying mentally healthy

1. Make sleep a priority

The average adult needs about seven to nine hours of sleep per night. But stress and anxiety can make it difficult to clock that much, let alone get good quality rest, Dr. Pashby explains.

The thing is, poor sleep doesn’t just leave you with droopy eyelids; it can also contribute to mood dips and heightened anxiety. What’s more, skipping zzz's can mess with your insulin sensitivity in a way that increases your appetite, according to a review article in the journal Nature and Science of Sleep.

To outsmart stress and get ample shut-eye, try to: 

  • Develop a restful and relaxing bedtime ritual such as shutting your laptop and stowing your phone out of reach, turning off the news, and taking a bath or stretching.
  • Get into bed at the same time every night. Not sleepy? Read a book or magazine until you begin to feel tired. Remember, scrolling on your phone isn’t the same as turning pages since the blue light that emanates from your device may suppress melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep/wake cycles, and keep your brain on high alert.
  • Avoid excessive caffeine consumption. Typically, it takes four to six hours for your body to metabolise half of the caffeine you’ve consumed. So if you drink a cup of coffee at 3pm, you may still feel remnants of the buzz at around 9pm.
  • Opt for non-alcoholic beverages. While alcoholic beverages may initially make you sleepy, having even one drink in the evening may affect your second and most important stage of sleep, leading to sleep disruptions throughout the night, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  • Expose yourself to bright sunlight first thing in the morning. Natural sunlight supports your natural circadian rhythm, or internal clock that regulates your sleep/wake cycles. Research suggests that exposure to daylight can also improve duration and quality of sleep.
  • Get out of bed at the same time every day. Even if you didn’t sleep too well the night before, maintaining a consistent wake-up time and resisting naps over 30 minutes helps your body develop and stick to a natural sleep schedule.

2. Maintain your regular routines

When things feel unpredictable and out of your control, your body may produce an abundance of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Over the course of weeks or months, a chronic surge can heighten your risk of depression, heart disease, and obesity.

However, sticking to a typical schedule, such as eating lunch at the same time every day rather than grazing all day when you’re working from home, can help you feel more in control and rein in hormonal fluctuations, Dr. Pashby says. 

3. Amp up your physical activity

Exercise can help reduce stress, one reason why it’s smart to follow guidelines from the NHS and get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 weekly minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity every week.

Because spending 20 to 30 minutes out in nature may help lower cortisol levels, taking your exercise outside can deliver a double whammy.   

4. Reframe self talk

Stressors can trigger negative thoughts (i.e. “I can’t handle this” or “I feel out of control”) that reinforce pessimistic beliefs and attitudes, according to the American Psychological Association.

To reverse the effects, Dr. Pashby recommends taking four to five deep breaths and then reframing those thoughts to feel less catastrophic (i.e. “I’m feeling very anxious about what is going on around me, but I am taking as many precautions as I can to keep me and my family safe”). 

Try writing your thoughts down in a journal to help reframe negative thoughts into positive vibes.

5. Avoid emotional isolation

Interacting with other people - whether it’s a phone call, video chat or text message - can ease the symptoms of stress and help you cope, according to a small 2015 study of 77 healthy adults published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

If you start feeling isolated, think of others: reaching out to neighbours or elderly friends with an offer to prepare a meal, pick up a prescription, or walk a dog can help you feel more in control, and helpful, Dr. Pashby says. Goodbye, stress! 

6. Side-step stress-eating

While digging into a pint of ice cream or another treat that’s high in fat and sugar may temporarily distract you from stress, indulging won’t stomp out the source of it, says public health consultant, certified health coach and yoga instructor Allison Rose, MHS.

Before you reach for a handful of crisps or a second serving of lunch, ask yourself: is your stomach really grumbling, or are feelings fueling your appetite? If you’re dealing with complicated emotions rather than actual hunger, try calling a friend, going for a walk or doing another non-eating activity that may help you feel better than a pint-sized, sugar-laden pick-me-up!

How to take charge of emotional eating

See your GP if anxiety is affecting your daily life or is causing you distress. Read more about anxiety on the NHS website.