Our struggles with mental illness—anxiety and depression, at least—have been talked about and meme-ified into oblivion, so we can stop pretending we aren’t freaking out about the insurmountable piles of stress weighing us down. Young people are more anxious than ever before, and unlike previous generations, we are actually talking about it—recent research suggests that millennials are more accepting of mental illness, and more willing to be open about it, than previous generations. But tweet all you want; that won’t fix the problem. What will?
We can’t change most anxiety-inducing situations—like a work deadline coinciding with a hostile breakup coinciding with a politics-induced migraine—but there are factors completely within our control that set us up to be our most unshakeable selves. Here, based on a combination of reporting and advice from David Klemanski, a psychologist and the behavioral medicine director at Ohio State University, are the four fundamental tent poles of mental stability.
Eight hours a night is still the general recommendation for a solid night’s sleep. Even if you feel fine after four or five hours, odds are you need more for optimal mental health and cognition (so-called “short sleepers,” who truly need no more that four hours a night, exist, but are extraordinarily rare). More specifically, the sleep-deprived are at a higher risk for developing or exacerbating anxiety and depression. If you can’t seem to fall asleep or stay asleep and you feel like it’s starting to take a toll on your mind, consider this advice from psychologists and sleep experts:
- Keep a pad next to your bed and at night and write down a list of things you’re worrying about. The physical act of setting these concerns aside temporarily may alleviate some anxiety and let you relax enough to sleep.
- Try simple deep breathing—in and out, slowly (about seven seconds each on the inhale and exhale), ten times in a row. By doing this, you’re re-focusing your mind, ramping down your anxiety, and slowing down your body to prepare it for sleep.
- Add white noise or rain sounds or whatever feels soothing.
- Don’t go to bed unless you’re actually ready to sleep, and if you’re not asleep after ten or 15 minutes, get out of bed until you feel tired again.
Exercise for once
While exercise can’t cure your anxiety or depression, there’s a strong link between your emotional well-being and how physically active you are. That means if you’re not getting enough exercise, you’re passing up endorphins and other naturally occurring chemicals that can vastly improve your mood. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise, three to five days a week—any type counts, but cardio can be especially beneficial for people experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. If you’re having trouble dragging your mopey ass off the couch, here are some tips:
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- Don’t wait for motivation to strike. The simple act of getting up and doing something will change your mind-set. You don’t even have to go to the gym—start small with a short walk or an errand, and build from there.
- If you want to knock out a run early in the day but lack motivation, consider sleeping in your workout attire and keeping your sneakers right next to your bed. It sounds silly, but the less effort it takes to get out the door, the more likely you will be to do it.
- Recruit someone to work out with you to both make it more fun and to hold you accountable.
- Reinstate an old fitness habit that you enjoyed in the past. Reactivating an old practice can be easier on your brain than starting a new one.
Take stock of your substance use
Having one drink or four takes the edge off in the moment, but alcohol is a depressant that tends to change levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, and that can actually worsen your anxiety. While weed similarly helps many of us relax, it’s a temporary fix, and can highlight how on edge you feel when you’re not under the influence. Weed and alcohol are basically inebriating Band-Aids. If you’re noticing spikes in anxiety, or depressed or numb feelings after partaking, there are a couple of changes you can make without having to give up these habits altogether:
- If you’re drinking to distract yourself from an uncomfortable feeling or situation, it’s easy to go from zero to sloppy, real quick. Remember: everything—even your liquid courage—in moderation. For most people, that’ll mean having a couple of drinks instead of three or four.
- If you want to rely less on weed, consider rationing a specific amount for each day with a gradual reduction. Keep in mind that breaking a habit rarely happens linearly, so give yourself the leeway to practice restraint on some days and be less successful other days.
- If the idea of being sober in social situations feels impossible, it might be worth trying talk therapy to reframe how you manage social settings, or talking to a doctor about trying meds that strategically interact with your neurotransmitters—these could take care of at least some of the anxiety.
Use tech smartly
There’s a reason every Black Mirror episode is depressing as shit; too much technology can become a downer. You know it’s a problem if you turn to social media to distract yourself from emotions you don’t want to feel (that backfires anyway, since Instagram is a human-powered inadequacy factory). Messaging, meanwhile, is a breeding ground for miscommunication; people who already have underlying depression and anxiety will find that waiting for a text or trying to interpret one that’s come in is not fun or good. None of us will do anything as outlandish as turning off our phones at 10 pm, but there are harm-reduction techniques for curbing a sanity-crushing tech addiction:
- Try sending audio notes instead of texts. This could help limit the miscommunication that happens when you can’t tell someone’s tone.
- Switching your entire phone to grayscale makes using it bizarrely difficult, or at least not enjoyable—which is helpful if you’re trying to cut back on screen time.
- Plan daily mini technology vacations. Make it easier for yourself by engaging in an activity that has nothing to do with your phone or laptop for say, 30 minutes. This has a dual benefit: You’ll reduce your tech use while adding some new (ideally healthy and stimulating) behavior to your life. Consider it one baby step of many in the right direction.
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