Maintaining Your Mental Health

Mindful tips for reducing the effects of life’s stresses

One in five Americans is affected by mental health conditions.

In a 2006 survey, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that:

  • 72 percent of the people who said they have daily stress and anxiety also said it “interfered with their lives at least moderately.” Yet, only 9 percent of the participants had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
  • Stress and anxiety most often impacted employees’:
    • workplace performance (56 percent)
    • relationship with coworkers and peers (51 percent)
    • quality of work (50 percent)
    • relationships with superiors (43 percent)

It happens to the best of us. You feel as if you keep putting off making a change in your life. Or maybe your personality doesn’t exactly mesh with those of your new coworkers. Or you have an important email or report to write. Or maybe, like me, you have a blog post to write and don’t know how to begin without starting to feel overwhelmed. We both should probably just close our eyes, stop our thoughts for a moment—and breathe.

All of life’s ups and downs has an impact on your mental health—for better or for worse. Maintaining a positive mental outlook is important to your overall well-being, but you have to remember that life situations constantly evolve. But for those times when it seems like just too much, we want to make sure that you have the skills and tools to course-correct and get back to a happy medium.

This month’s blog post focuses on ways you can overcome the stress and anxiety—in your career path, in your education and in your personal life—in order to succeed in all of your endeavors.

Step 1: Practice Mindfulness

By being mindful, you are becoming more keenly aware of your thoughts, emotions and experiences. In this way, you can recognize the signs of when you’re about to tip over into the stress zone. Here are some thought-starters:

Feeling burnt out? Here are some signs that you are disengaged. Time to reset your brain and rejuvenate your spirit.

Annoyance level rising? The Guided Meditation Site recommends taking a mental step back to observe your thoughts and assess their rationality before reacting to situations on autopilot.

Overwhelmed? Whether you set a micro-goal of getting out of your comfort zone for five minutes or a big goal of changing careers, make your goal timeline one you can stick to.

Step away from the cookies. One of the negative effects of stress is that it can trigger over-eating or other addictive behaviors. By incorporating an experiential exercise such as mindful eating into your day, you can focus on choices that promote your well-being.

Write it down. Extension instructor Carley Hauck recommends journaling. Journaling your feelings can help you battle ongoing anxiety and be mindful of what is going on in your life. Or try simple notes to yourself: What are you thankful for? What is your goal for the day? What is causing you to feel anxious in the first place?

Listen to your inner self. A study by Case Western Reserve University found that “mindfulness has been shown to improve three qualities of attention—stability, control and efficiency. The human mind is estimated to wander roughly half of our waking hours, but mindfulness can stabilize attention in the present. Individuals who completed mindfulness training were shown to remain vigilant longer on both visual and listening tasks.”

Step 2: Breathe

One of the easiest things to do is to simply breathe slowly.

There are multiple approaches to cathartic breathing. One way is to make it a meditative practice. Dan Harris at Time magazine suggests five to 10 minutes a day to start, but even a minute can count toward reducing stress.

Too fidgety? Try some yoga postures and mindful walking around your office or neighborhood.

Up the ante with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques. You practice with a group for at least two and a half hours per session for a certain number of weeks. This technique is structured with activities that include “meditation practice, yoga postures and mindfulness during stressful situations and social interactions” and requires daily “homework assignments.”

Navy SEALS use box breathing, which calms the nervous system and lowers blood pressure. It is said to also help with managing pain, battling insomnia and treating various mental health disorders.

Step 3: Get Organized

Clutter can happen in your mind, in your home, on your desk or even on your calendar. Getting organized is another way to reduce your stress level.

  • Don’t start your day with a messy workspace. Over the course of the day, tools might get taken out or papers placed on your desk for review. By the end of the day, pens get left out on a notepad, Post-Its get attached to the monitor with to-dos, a project sits not quite finished on a work surface. What should you do to reduce anxiety? Organize the Post-Its in order of importance to reduce chaos, and put everything back where it belongs before you leave the office or studio.
  • Do keep a calendar of what you need to get done. But don’t overschedule yourself. In Sarah Benzuly’s “The Elusive Work/Life/Study Balance,” she recommends scheduling out your time, but not to forget to schedule in “me time.” She says, “Knowing all of your commitments in advance will help you allocate time to do schoolwork and maintain that needed balance.”

Step 4: Always Ask for Help

Recognizing what makes you anxious, nervous or depressed is an important first step in maintaining your mental health. It’s okay to seek additional help from your instructor, mentor, boss, colleague or a mental health professional to help achieve inner balance. Recognition of that need is itself mindful.

So here are some tips from our community:

  • Manage expectations. “If you’re at a point where you have unrealistic goals or you have objectives and outcomes that can’t be achieved, reset expectations on what can be achieved. Philosophically, maintaining the appropriate balance among family, health and job is always at the forefront,” says Anoop Grover.
  • Find community. Knowing that you’re in the same boat with others can help alleviate stress. For example, in our writing community, the stressors of wondering if you’re going to get published or be accepted into graduate school can take their toll. “The ‘business’ of writing—activities like submitting work for publication and getting help with challenges that inevitably arise in the drafting process—is best done in the company of others. Being part of a vibrant literary community is critical to the life of every writer. Classes help build a writing community, and literary readings provide another great way to connect with fellow writers and get inspired,” says Laurie Doyle.
  • Know the company culture beforehand to avoid disappointment. “In a conscious culture, the work environment is engaging and purposeful with employees who want to be part of the company. Good friendships are developed at work. Friends and families become proud of the employee because they have found a job that is a great place to work,” asserts Russ Eliot.
  • Make time for things (and people) you love. “I have a beautiful and amazingly gifted wife and three wonderful kids. My wife designs and sells handcrafted greeting cards, and I do what I can to support her. My oldest now loves volleyball, and I share her passion. My middle one loves anything Star Wars, so we watch the series over and over again. He also loves basketball, so I have been an assistant coach for his team. My youngest is into all things sports and so I play baseball, tag, hide and seek, and everything else,” says Stephen Wong. “I have been serving as one of the co-directors [of a summer camp] for as long as I have been teaching at Extension! It is tons of fun and lets me be a kid again. I also co-teach Sunday school and have been doing so for a number of years. It is quite life changing.”
  • Reflect on how far you’ve come: “There was a moment one week before my portfolio was due when I was pretty stressed, trying to get all of my pieces ready, moving the files between Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop quickly. In the midst of all that, I suddenly stopped and realized that a year before, I would have had no idea how to do what I was currently doing. That’s when it hit me that I had gained an enormous amount from the program,” says graduate Cezanne Rothberg.

Step 5: Take Action Today

There is no time like the present to begin a self-care routine. Not only will having a mindfulness process help you maintain your health, it can “improve your mood, boost immune function, promote longevity and allow you to be more productive.”

What tips do you have for maintaining your mental health at work or at home? Let us know in the comments!