You’ve probably spent more time dissecting your mental health this past year than during any other time of your life, and for good reason. Either a pandemic or political unrest would be enough to cause serious stress on their own — but put them together and we’re all walking around feeling like we may spontaneously combust.
The last year hasn’t exactly looked like what we’re used to, and the same goes for mental health guidance. It’s not that the advice you’ve received in the past isn’t valid. It just doesn’t apply to what life looks like today.
We asked experts share the mental health tips that don’t really apply to this time in our lives, and what to do instead to help take care of yourself. Here’s the common mental health advice you should ignore right now:
Stay off social media.
Instagram rarely looks like reality, and deleting social media apps for a while might have previously helped you manage your mental health. Many experts also typically advise unplugging completely and taking time away from your screens.
But there’s a good chance your phone or computer has been a lifeline to some semblance of normalcy, whether it be attending a weekly Zoom happy hour with friends or flipping through your feeds in an effort to feel connected to what’s going on in the world.
“Social media is really a double-edged sword,” said Kristin Gernon, a behavioral health training and development specialist at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City. “It can keep us connected to others and help us find supportive groups. On the other hand, it can also be a great source of misinformation and can lead the most secure among us to compare our seemingly average lives to others who appear to be on extraordinary adventures.”
To get the benefits of connection and community while protecting your mental health, Gernon said it’s important to be intentional about what you’re seeking out. App algorithms feed you more of the content you’re already looking at, so instead of doomscrolling through the news all the time, mix in some inspirational quotes, healthy recipes, cute puppies or whatever else makes you smile.
Focusing on the positive.
“There is a time and place for this, but it’s essential to acknowledge the reality of your situation, the difficult feelings you feel, and respect that those feelings are there,” said Jessica Meister, a licensed clinical social worker with advanced clinical training in psychotherapy based in Los Angeles. “Then you can work from that starting point to begin healing and managing those challenging feelings and issues.”
Sometimes you simply can’t muster up gratitude and optimism, and that’s perfectly valid. In fact, pushing for a heavy focus on the bright side can be what experts call “toxic positivity,” which does more harm for your mental health than good.
Distracting your mind.
There’s nothing wrong with a little diversion — say, a new morning routine or fitness program to break up the monotony of being home so much. Just don’t think that keeping your brain busy will solve all your problems.
“We can’t trick our bodies into believing we are OK. Ultimately, we have to deal with what we are feeling,” Meister said. “This is where an exercise like meditation can be a useful new habit to form, as it is focused on noticing and not judging thoughts and feelings rather than ignoring or stuffing them down.”
Saying “yes” to all opportunities.
In the past, you may have been told to put yourself out there and open yourself up to new experiences, people and interactions. But don’t say yes if you don’t want to. In fact, get more comfortable with saying no.
“It’s good to say no to things that don’t feel right on a gut or emotional level, whether that’s a new opportunity or simply going for a walk with someone who isn’t taking COVID precautions seriously enough for you,” said Hillary Schoninger, a licensed clinical social worker who has a private psychotherapy practice in Chicago. “Saying yes when you don’t want to will just set you up for more chaos and negativity.”
Schoninger said to focus on self-acceptance instead: not judging yourself when you don’t feel like doing something and holding yourself accountable to do what you want to do, not what you think you should do.
Seeing any therapist.
Therapy is an incredibly effective way to manage your mental health, and you don’t need to have a diagnosable condition to benefit from talking to a professional. However, it’s important to find the right person in order for the process to work.
“Not everybody is meant to be someone’s therapist,” Schoninger said. “You have to shop around a bit once you decide you’re ready to talk to someone. You have to find a good fit, otherwise the work really does not get done.”
Thankfully, there are more resources out there than ever when it comes to finding the right type of therapy for you.
“The pandemic created the need and space for virtual tools and telehealth options that were beginning to emerge in the behavioral health field leap ahead, making behavioral health treatment options more available and accessible,” Gernon said.
Take the time to research in-network providers with your health insurance plan or see if there are any free or income-based mental health services you qualify for in your area. Search for a federally qualified health center through the Health Resources and Services Administration. You can also ask your therapist if they can work on a payment plan with you ― some may adjust their fees based on your financial situation. You’ll find that many local hospitals also provide telehealth behavioral services, and these are often at a lower cost than an in-person visit would be.
The one exception to this rule? If you’re in crisis. It’s crucial to get help immediately if you’re at risk of harming yourself. It’s possible to feel better.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.