With the start of school this week and next, the “unofficial” start of fall is officially upon us. Normally, this time of year would be filled with the smell of freshly sharpened pencils, the noisy chatter of kids getting on the school bus and navigating the hallways to their new classrooms, and parents adjusting to an expected post-summer new normal with their kids out of the house during the weekday. This year, however, things look and feel different. We’ve got chromebooks instead of pencils, at-home classrooms instead of school buses and hallways, and days filled with monitoring distance learning as we try to juggle our jobs and other responsibilities. It’s a back-to-school unlike any other, and I will be the first to admit that I’m a little bit nervous about it.
Even for those of us who are not parenting school-age children, this fall is likely to be filled with new stressors. The current political climate, a high-stakes election in just over 8 weeks, continuing limitations on our work and social lives due to COVID, and psychological distance from loved ones all add up to a super challenging Q4 2020.
For all of us, getting through the rest of this year will likely require us to dig deeper than we’ve had to dig before. One of the best things you can do to prepare is to line up a good self-care regimen. Over the past several months, my colleagues and I have tried to bring you lots of healthy ideas about how to manage on the psychological and social fronts. Today, I’ve got some ideas for you that are more biological in nature.
On the biological front, I encourage you to think about ways to move your body toward its healthiest state. Often, when we’re stressed, we cut corners on things that we know are good for us physically–and this can have a significant and negative impact on our day to day experiences and our mental health. There are a few relatively easy things you can do to keep yourself in good physical shape:
Clean up your sleep. Good “sleep hygiene” is critical to making sure that you start each day rested and alert. Chronically not getting enough sleep can lead to a multitude of problems, such as difficulty paying attention, short patience, a weakened immune system, and many others. Good sleep hygiene means:
- Going to bed and waking on a consistent schedule (yes, even on the weekends!). Most of us need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep to be fully rested. If you’ve got a 5:30am alarm, that means you should absolutely be in bed and ready to snooze by 10:30pm at the latest.
- Getting some natural light each day — this helps regulate your body’s natural sleep/wake rhythms. Research shows that those who get natural light each day actually get better quality sleep. So, make it a point to get outside for 30 or so minutes every day — and it doesn’t have to be all at once. Talk about low-hanging fruit!
- Limiting or avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and smoking. The roller coaster of these stimulants and depressants act to confuse your body’s natural rhythms, and your ability to read its signals. Learn where your healthy limits are (e.g., no caffeine after 11am) and try to stay within them.
- Establish a pre-bedtime relaxation routine. Many of us are so busy that we go, go, go until we collapse into bed. But, this often leads to difficulty falling asleep as we have to wait for our brains to calm down. Calling it quits on your to-do list 20 or 30 minutes before you’d like to be asleep, and then using that time to relax, can make a big difference. Taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book for pleasure, listening to a guided meditation or good music, are often effective ways to find calm during this time. Limit exposure to TV and electronic devices in the last hour before bedtime.
Exercise. The mental health benefits of regular exercise include lower stress, clearer thinking, better memory retention, better sleep (see above!), improved self-confidence, and just feeling better inside your own skin. We can all relate to the difficulty of fitting in a workout when schedules get busy, but I promise you that it’s worth the effort. Just 30 minutes a day of any exercise that elevates your heart rate will convey a benefit — whether it’s a walk (or two short walks), a bike ride, a Zumba class, strength training… and even better when you include a variety of different exercises in your routine. The fact that gyms are currently closed makes this more challenging, but there are TONS of free and available resources that you can access at home. For example, take a 30-minute walk (you can get your daily dose of sunlight at the same time!), turn on your favorite music and have a dance party, or see if you can engage your kids in a YouTube Disney-themed Zumba class during their “recess” at school.
Nourish your body. It is fair to say not only that a healthy diet improves mood, but also that a diet devoid of the right nutrients can be a trigger for a wide range of mental health issues, from mood disorders like depression and anxiety to ADD/ADHD. In recent years, the medical field has rapidly expanded its understanding of the connection between gastrointestinal health (often referred to as “gut health”) and the brain–where mood and mental health reside. Eating unhealthy food–especially sugar–promotes inflammation, which blocks important neurotransmitters from doing their job effectively to regulate mood. Eating a healthy diet promotes good gut health, which in turn allows your body’s neurotransmitters to operate smoothly and efficiently, resulting in regulated mood and increased ability to adapt to stressors. Here are some important components of a healthy, balanced diet:
- Whole foods (as opposed to processed foods). One convenient way to think about this is to shop around the perimeter of your grocery store — because that’s where whole, healthy foods are typically displayed. Make an extra effort to limit your consumption of food colorings and other additives, which have been linked to both mood disorder and hyperactivity.
- Lots of water. Most humans should drink about half an ounce of water for each pound of body weight, every day. For the average adult, that translates to 10-12 cups of water daily. I find it helpful to break my water consumption up into manageable amounts — three 32-oz bottles full of water per day is about right, so I try to consume the first one by noon, the second one by 4pm, and the third one by bedtime.
- Fiber. A diet rich in fiber will help your body smooth out its absorption of glucose, regulating blood sugar and avoiding the rush/crash cycle that can happen without it. Focus on consuming a rainbow of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (legumes, beans, quinoa, oatmeal, barley, etc.) and avoid refined grains like wheat flour, white bread, white rice, etc. as these lack the fiber, iron, and B vitamins that make whole grains effective at nourishing your body.
- Antioxidants. These tiny warriors are superstars at fighting inflammation, so make sure to include berries, leafy greens, turmeric, and even a little bit of dark chocolate in your diet regularly.
- B vitamins. B12, B6, thiamin, and niacin are known to improve cognitive function, reduce alcohol cravings, improve mood, reduce stress, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Because B vitamins are water soluble and therefore not stored in our bodies, we must consume them daily to have enough available to do their many important jobs. Eating plenty of B-vitamin rich foods, as well as considering a B-complex supplement, is appropriate for most Americans.
- Vitamin D. This crucial vitamin is closely linked to serotonin production–the hormone responsible for stabilizing our mood. In addition to getting vitamin D from sunlight, a supplement is helpful for many–especially during the winter months when we spend less time outside.
- Magnesium and probiotics. Both of these are closely related to the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, which is vital to mood stability. Leafy greens, nuts, bananas, kombucha, sauerkraut, etc. should make regular appearances on your menu.
Touch and be touched. As humans, we are social animals primed for connection. From birth, oxytocin acts to bond us to our caregivers and produce positive feelings that make us feel safe and happy. As we age, safe touch and the oxytocin release that it provides continue to convey benefits such as positive thinking, increased compassion, lower stress, increased capacity to learn, faster recovery from stress, a stronger immune system, and lower heart rates and blood pressure. Research demonstrates that many different kinds of touch–from hand holding, to hugging, to kissing, cuddling, and sex–convey benefits, and that touch from friends, partners, family members, and even pets is effective. Some things to keep in mind when working to increase touch in your life:
- Consent is imperative. Everyone has their own preferences and boundaries around physical touch. Make sure the person (or pet) you’re interacting with feels comfortable and safe with your touch-based interaction.
- Repetition is good. You may recognize patterns of touch interaction in your own life already; for example, perhaps you give your kids a hug and a kiss each night before they go to bed. I bet you can also recognize that you look forward to those touchstones each day. Think about ways to build in other positive, habitual touch with your loved ones — for example, a long hug when you greet your partner after work, a snuggle with the dog mid-day, a Saturday night date-night with an eye toward intimacy.
- Hug heart-to-heart. This means welcoming your hugging partner in for a close embrace, with your heads next to each other, so that your hearts are right next to each other as you hug. Hold this position for a good bit of time — 30 to 60 seconds if you can. Allow your breathing and heartbeats to come into alignment, and just enjoy the connection that this slow, intentional hug allows.
- Try massage. Therapeutic touch is an effective way to get your physical touch needs met, especially for those who live alone and may not have easy access to daily physical touch. You can also try trading massages with a partner to enjoy massage in a mutually beneficial way.
- Focus on self-touch. Even when you are alone, physical touch is available to you–and self touch can effectively facilitate an oxytocin release. Create tactile experiences with clothing, textiles, baths, etc. And yes, masturbation also fits into this category. Dedicate some time to intentional, patient exploration of your own body and its ability to create positive sensations, and find out what feels best for you.
So: Sleep, move, eat, touch. Four broad categories, comprised of a wide variety of ways to focus on your physical well-being that will move the needle on your psychological and emotional health, too. Find something from this list, and commit to working on it for 10-14 days. Once you feel ready, come back and pick something else. I’d love to hear about what works for you!
Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, L(C)MFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsey.