When we break a bone, we’re not embarrassed to go to the ER and get a cast. When we catch a bug, there’s no shame in calling up the doctor for a prescription. But for some reason, when we’re struggling with feelings of depression, loneliness or anxiety, there’s often an emotional roadblock around asking for help.
While the stigma around mental health conditions has certainly started to wane, too many people are silently hurting. Over 40 million Americans — or 18% of the population — experience anxiety disorders, and while these tend to be highly treatable, roughly 60% of those suffering don’t seek help.
Similarly, it’s estimated that 15% of the adult population will experience depression at some point in their lifetime, but only half will get help. To put these numbers into context, around 8% of Americans get the flu each year.
When we start viewing mental illness as an “all of us” problem, just like influenza or the common cold, we open the door to hope and ultimately, a return to happiness. Simply knowing these statistics can go a long way in normalizing mental illness, but it can still feel like an uphill battle if you or your loved ones are in pain.
To help demystify how to get started on the path to recovery, we spoke to Nichelle Haynes, a psychiatrist in Austin, Texas, about her tips for improving your mental health. Here are five recommendations that Nichelle says may help.
1. Maintain a routine
When we maintain a routine, we give our brains some of the certainty that it likes, which can help reduce the risk of depressive episodes, Nichelle said. “Routines provide us with a script for the day and helps us accomplish our daily tasks.”
Here’s how Nichelle’s recommends getting started:
Wake up around the same time each day
Expend about the same amount of energy each day
Reduce screen time (in all forms) toward the end of the day
Start a wind-down routine an hour or two before bedtime (this could include a bath, reading a book, journaling or meditating)
Go to sleep around the same time each day
2. Focus on identifying what is in your control
When things are uncertain, it can feel like life is out of control. The reality is that we have a lot of control over things in our lives and focusing on them can help reduce anxiety.
“If this seems overwhelming, start with simply watching your breath or something easy, like what you’ll wear for the day,” Nichelle said.
3. Practice staying present in the moment
The key word here is practice.
“No one can do it perfectly, and it’s normal to be frustrated with a wandering mind in the beginning. But just like anything else, practice helps improve the ability to stay present, and in turn, helps improve mental wellbeing,” Nichelle said.
During times of stress, our brains are working in overdrive, which can lead to worry and thoughts about the worst possible outcomes. Staying in the moment can be a gentle reminder to ourselves that our feelings are okay and temporary. You can even practice saying aloud, “This too shall pass.”
4. Allow yourself to feel
“If you’re feeling sad, let yourself feel this emotion,” Nichelle said. “It’s normal to grieve the loss of what you had expected things to look like. Cry if you need to. Repressing our feelings is usually not helpful, and it’s okay to let yourself feel all of the emotions that come up, not just the positive ones.”
Allowing yourself to experience emotions as they come can help reduce the risk of bottled up feelings, which can be detrimental to your health and wellbeing.
5. Spend time outside
Being in nature has been proven to have many health benefits, including supporting the immune system and mitigating pain.
“At a minimum, being outside can provide a change of scenery and help us reset,” Nichelle said, “but it can also be an opportunity to get some exercise — another activity that’s proven to help boost your mood.”