Like many of you, I’ve had a tough year. For the past eight months, I wake up every morning with my heart racing. As soon as my alarm goes off, before I’m fully cognizant of the fact that it’s morning, my body lets me know how anxious I am to start the day. That is, until last week.
For almost the entire year, I’ve been fighting breast cancer. My alarm signifies another day of treatment. When I completed thirty-three rounds of radiation two weeks ago, I still woke up anxious. Then it dawned on me one morning to do something so incredibly simple — I changed my alarm tone to something completely different, something a bit more cheerful and not associated with panic. I began waking up each morning without a racing heart. Simple changes in your daily routine can make a huge impact on your anxiety.
I decided to ask a professional what she thought. Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York City and director of Comprehend the Mind, confirmed that yes, small changes can have a substantial impact on a person’s anxiety. She shared with me, “Making one small change can introduce more healthy and positive patterns in your daily routine and improve mental health.” Get this. If all you do to improve your mental health is practice mindful breathing, this simple action can “lower your heart rate, relax your body, and relieve stress, which can diminish negative thoughts and emotions.”
The good news is that you don’t have to meet a major goal to see improvement in your anxiety level. Many of us believe if we could just lose twenty pounds, if we could just get out of debt, or if we could get our kids to behave, we would have a magical, perfect life. The reality is, life is messy, and many of us live with anxiety. The “little things” can improve our lives today and immediately.
Dr. Hafeez shares that a lack of sleep can “lead to depression, anxiety, and stress.” By making an immediate commitment to improving our sleep, we can have a better tomorrow. Of course, we know this isn’t easy. All of us have so much to do, and children aren’t always the best at helping us sustain a great sleep routine. However, Scary Mommy recently shared some tips on how to get a better night’s sleep — tonight. By shutting down screens two hours before bed, for example, you will sleep better than if you’re browsing social media until nearly midnight. Also, a “caffeine curfew” — that is, setting a time during the day when you cut off the coffee consumption — can help you get better shut eye.
Obviously, it’s not a good idea to quit your meds and drop your therapist, instead solely relying on small lifestyle changes to sustain your mental health. However, small changes can enhance the plan you already have in place. Dr. Hafeez shares that “lifestyle choices can reduce psychological symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, and poor self-esteem.”
Another stress-reducing activity that “pumps up your endorphins” (which “trigger a positive feeling in the body”) is exercise. I know. I can hear you groaning. But hear me out. Dr. Hafeez shares that “regular exercise has been proven to improve sleep, reduce stress, and boost self-esteem.” See what’s happening here? One positive change has a domino effect.
You won’t be surprised, but “maintaining a balanced diet” is another change you can make that will have an immediate, positive effect on your mental health. Dr. Hafeez shares that “your brain needs a mix of nutrients to function properly and stay healthy.” Furthermore, eating well can “help us feel more alert, think clearly, and improves mood and wellbeing.”
She also shared with me that giving your phone (and your brain) a break, such as choosing to disconnect from your screen for a set time each day, gives you the opportunity to “recharge and decompress.” She suggests trying for an hour a day. “When we unplug, we are able to connect to others around us, be more mindful of the present moment, increase focus, and enjoy nature, among other benefits,” Dr. Hafeez shares.
Another option is to take a certain amount of time each day to practice self-care, knowing that “focusing on yourself is not selfish.” Instead, Dr. Hafeez says we need to acknowledge it as an act of self love, which will create emotional stability. Not only do we see the benefits of self-care, even just ten minutes a day, but self-care can “improve your relationships with others, minimize negative self talk, and make room for positive-self evaluation.”
She also reminded me of a big one, the B-word. When you choose to establish boundaries with those you love, you are able to then “feel safe in a relationship, heard and listened to, and have your needs met.” She told me this is an act of self-care, because you are able to identify your limits and practice being in a caring and respectful relationship. I know sometimes creating boundaries can be very difficult, but think about it this way. Dr. Hafeez reminds us, “Without boundaries, you are likely to be at the mercy of others and allow others to do harmful things, which can negatively impact your mental health.”
Of course, you can’t suddenly put all of these changes into place all at once. Take some time to evaluate what you feel you need most, what would benefit you in your current life. For me, it was changing my phone’s ring tone, but for you it might be going for a ten minute walk each day, which would be an act of self-care and creating an exercise routine. You can absolutely combine activities to see benefits. Another example is taking a one hour phone break each day — in the hour right before bed. By doing so, you’ll sleep better, you’ve practiced self-care, and you aren’t glued to your screen instead of talking to your partner or reading a book.
The possibilities of immediate changes to your mental health are endless — and they are incredibly impactful. Whether you opt to create a more balanced meal plan for yourself this week or establish a boundary with a friend, you are taking a step toward a less-anxious you.
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