Small Steps to Improve Your Mental Health in 2023

By Hannah Seo – NYT

Hyosun Hwang

Four figures, all wearing hats; one person’s hat has little cloud shapes drawn on in it; one person’s hat has stars and dots on it; one person’s hat has horizontal lines and dots on it; one person’s hat has long wavy shapes on it.
Credit to Hyosun Hwang

Hyosun Hwang

This year may not have been the sea of calm you had hoped for after the tumult of 2020 and 2021. The pandemic continued; war broke out in Europe; we experienced natural disasters and troubling shortages; and more viruses stoked fears. But 2022 was also a year of learning and discovery.

At Well, we found new strategies to combat stress in our lives and build psychological resilience. Here were some of our top mental health stories of the year — packed with essential guidance to usher you into 2023.

1. Pay attention to the physical signs of burnout.

From insomnia and fatigue to headaches, stomachaches, and changes in appetite, there are many ways your body may be telling you that you’re burned out. And while “burnout” may not be a formal medical diagnosis, Melinda Wenner Moyer reported, it doesn’t mean you should ignore its symptoms. Addressing burnout may take more than bubble baths and cups of tea, experts say, so consider consulting with a healthcare provider or a mental health professional to figure out the root of the issue.

2. And understand how burnout differs from depression.

The symptoms of depression and burnout can be challenging to distinguish: Both may cause you to sleep too much or too little, or to struggle to focus. But depression is a diagnosable medical condition, whereas burnout is not, Dani Blum wrote.

With burnout, you might feel overwhelmed by unrelenting tasks at work, leading to feelings of cynicism, depletion, and resentment of your job, which might cause a lack of energy for your hobbies. With depression, on the other hand, said Jeanette M. Bennett, an associate professor who studies the effects of stress on health at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, you might not find your hobbies enjoyable at all. Or you might isolate yourself or neglect your hygiene and physical health. Understanding the difference is the first step in finding relief.

3. Find joy in a workout.

Think about a time you’ve felt the most elated and free. Were you jumping around with your arms raised at a concert? Were you cheering on your favorite sports team? Turns out the movements we make in response to feeling happy can elicit feelings of joy, too. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, and lecturer at Stanford University, put together this eight-and-a-half-minute Joy Workout, which includes six moves designed to inspire happiness, no matter your age or abilities. You can make the moves as big or small or as fast or slow as you would like. The video features a standing workout, but you can try it seated, alone or with family members, inside or outside, or to different music.

4. Free yourself from ‘task paralysis.’

It’s common to freeze up when you have a lot on your plate — with never-ending to-do lists at home and mounting tasks at work, you may not even know where to start. This is what some people refer to as task paralysis, a phenomenon that arises when your brain views your to-do list as a threat, Dana G. Smith reported. And perfectionists are especially susceptible. To nip this kind of anxiety in the bud, it’s important not to let yourself keep avoiding things or putting tasks off. Remembering why the tasks ahead are important to you, and promising yourself small rewards once they’re done, can motivate you to start ticking them off. It can also help to break each task down into small, tangible steps. Once you’ve thought about the actual time and energy it would take to get things done, it won’t seem so daunting.

5. Turn to the wilderness for healing.

A growing body of evidence suggests that “ecotherapy,” or the practice of participating in activities in wilderness and nature, has a range of mental health benefits. Everything from hiking and white-water rafting to walking on a tree-lined street or having a plant at home can have mental health benefits, Alisha Haridasani Gupta reported. But getting outside, for some, can be easier said than done. Black, Hispanic, and Asian people are three times as likely as white people to live in nature-deprived areas. “Awe-inspiring natural spaces in the United States, like national parks, are also tarnished with racist histories,” Ms. Haridasani Gupta reported. Organizations and online forums have sprung up across the country, encouraging people of color to step outdoors and soak in the mind-healing benefits of nature.

6. Understand what to do during a panic attack.

Panic attacks can be frightening, especially if you’ve never experienced one. Dani Blum walked us through the causes and possible symptoms of panic attacks (which can include feeling as though you’re unable to breathe, a racing heart, a tight chest, nausea, and tingly limbs). She also explained how you can coach yourself through one, including talking yourself down by reminding yourself that you are not in danger, breathing from your diaphragm, and calling a friend. Distraction exercises, like counting and naming the colors around you, can also be effective. If you’ve never had a panic attack and are experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath, you should go to the emergency room to confirm that you’re not having a cardiac issue.

7. Get to know one of the body’s most crucial nerves.

The vagus nerve (referred to as an “information superhighway”) runs from the brain to the abdomen and influences nearly every internal organ. Some experts suggest small exercises like mindfulness sessions or pacing your breathing to help regulate the vagus nerve. Some people report that submerging your face in cold water triggers the “diving reflex,” a response that slows the heartbeat and constricts blood vessels, which might help you calm down. However, wellness companies have also capitalized on this trend, with products like “vagus massage oil,” vibrating bracelets, and pillow mists, which have not been backed by research.

8. Try listening to brown noise to calm your mind.

The soothing, steady hum of brown noise, which is similar to white noise but has a lower and deeper sound quality, is gaining popularity online, especially among people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Dani Blum reported. Some say brown noise helps them feel calm, focused, and less stressed; others say it soothes them to sleep. But for some, the constant hum of brown noise could be distracting or anxiety provoking. There’s most likely no harm to listening to brown noise for extended periods (unless you’re listening at unsafe volumes), experts say, but there’s not much evidence that it will do anything beneficial, either. If the rumbly buzz of brown noise brings you calm, listen to your heart’s content.

9. Use your anxiety as an asset.

When your anxiety spirals out of control, it can be debilitating, but when humming along at normal levels, anxiety can actually be a strength, Christina Caron reported. A small bit of anxiety can serve as an alarm bell when you’re about to do something unsafe and can make you a more conscientious person. If you’re feeling anxious, it could also be a sign that something in your life is not working, and there may be a need for change. Accepting anxiety can also help you face your fears and build personal strength.

10. Figure out your wellness ‘non-negotiables.’

A daily pastry with coffee and the newspaper; a 90-pound Bernedoodle sitting in your lap — it’s the little rituals that keep us going, Dani Blum reported. We asked readers to share the things they do each day that anchor and bring joy to their lives. Some may sound familiar, or perhaps they might inspire new habits.

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