Mental health is not something most of us want to talk about; the subject is still taboo in this country. But like the elephant in the room that no one mentions, it is far too big to ignore. Nearly 44 million adults experience mental illness at some time in their lives—that’s about one out of every five adults—and the events of these past few years have certainly added to the trend.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which might shine some light on an issue that has been too long in the shadows. We were all affected by Covid-19 in some way. We either had it or knew someone who had it or, worse yet, knew someone who died because of it. Businesses were closed, jobs lost, and plans upended. Many of us were isolated for long periods of time, or we wore masks and stayed six feet apart. People who had no previous experience with mental health problems suddenly found themselves face-to-face with new and uncomfortable feelings. People who already suffered from depression or anxiety saw their symptoms worsening.
Now is the time to change that pattern. What better time than Mental Health Awareness Month to begin to take care of that important aspect of our overall well-being? Where do we begin? These suggestions aren’t new. You’ve probably come across them before, but a refresher never hurts.
- Carve out some time just for you.
If this is a new idea to you, think for a moment how it would feel to do something you enjoy—it could be anything from walking on the beach to reading a book to going to the movies (during the day!)—and doing it without guilt. You’d need to change your mindset. Getting lost in an activity—or no activity—is taking time for you, time to recharge your batteries and switching off the thinking part of your brain.
There are no shoulds involved. As a matter of fact, when you hear yourself say, or think “I should .…” you’ve missed the point. If you’re like most of us, you have more than your share of stress. This time for you should be stress-free. Difficult? Yes, possible? Also yes.
Some common me-time activities include reading, cooking, and drawing, but it can even be as simple as walking through the park or lying out in the sun. This time out can produce other benefits if you practice journaling. In The Artists’ Way, Julia Cameron suggests starting the day with “morning pages.” The idea is to just fill the pages with whatever shows up with no agenda. It’s kind of a mind dump before you plunge into all the things that make up your day.
This time doesn’t have to be solitary. It provides the same benefits if you do it with a group of people who enjoy the same thing you do or are pursuing a similar goal. This idea will take some getting used to, but it’s worth the effort. It is a well-deserved gift to yourself.
- If haven’t tried meditation yet, this would be a good time to do it.
In the late sixties and early seventies, when transcendental meditation (TM) was first introduced to Americans, it was steeped in secrecy and ritual—part of the “New Age” phenomenon that was sweeping the country. At the same time, mindfulness meditation—also imported from countries like India, Burma, and Nepal— which ushered in a new appreciation of Eastern philosophy.
What is meditation? At its essence, it is an internal, personal experience. From the outside it is invisible, but on the inside, there is a lot going on. The point of mindfulness meditation is to become more present in your body and aware of your thoughts, usually by noticing your breathing.
It’s not complicated or mysterious. All it takes is a block of time to sit down and breathe. There are many sources of information about how to practice, but they all start with focusing on your breath. There are Meet-up groups, meditation centers, retreats on both coasts, and hundreds of books by US meditation pioneers, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and many others.
- 3. If you only do one thing on this list, make it exercise.
There is no way to over-emphasize the importance of exercise to your body, mind, and psychological well-being. Humans were meant to move, no matter our age. As a matter of fact, the older we are, the more important it is to keep moving. It’s hardly a news flash that regular aerobic exercise will keep your heart and lungs healthy, your bones strong, and your mind sharp. In fact, one of the greatest benefits of exercise is its effect on our brains. Exercise reduces the brain fog that comes with age, protects memory and thinking skills, improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress.
The pandemic wreaked havoc with much of our routine self-care. Before the order to stay six feet away from others, we were told to stay at home; and stay at home we did, usually with very little physical activity. When we were finally cleared to resume our lives1 I, our muscles had turned to mush. Now is the time to slowly and patiently rebuild what we have lost in strength, muscle mass, and a healthy outlook on life. Some of the best ways to ease back into your routine are walking, hiking, yoga, stretching, swimming, or playing pickleball (Really. It’s caught on big time with older adults.)ggg
- 4. If you are what you eat, it may be time to take stock of your habits.
A well-rounded diet is one of the most fundamental components of any healthy lifestyle. It’s much easier to eat balanced meals if you shop the perimeter of your grocery store and prepare homemade meals, rather than getting take-out or opting for restaurants. It is not new advice to avoid processed foods, sugar-laden desserts, and fast food. It’s just common sense to be aware of what you are eating.
If you are well and active for your age and do not have any major diseases, you should follow these guidelines:
» Reduce your calorie intake over time without reducing your nutrient intake.
» Limit your intake of sodium, refined grains, solid fats, and added sugar.
» Get enough protein. A slightly higher protein level should help you to maintain lean muscle mass.
» Select fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products (yogurt, cottage cheese) to boost calcium intake, maintain healthy bones, and prevent osteoporosis.
» Incorporate seafood, lean meats, poultry, and eggs into your diet to boost your high-quality protein.
» Eat vegetables as often as possible, particularly dark green or dark yellow vegetables, which are rich in beta-carotene (e.g., spinach, butternut squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, peas).
» Try to eat at least 50 percent of all grains as whole grains.
» Eat real foods, rather than liquid meal supplements, although these are helpful if you have problems with eating or need to gain weight.
- The song, “People who need people ….” had it right. Revamp your social life.
Because humans are inherently social creatures, a fulfilling social life is a major influence on both mental and physical health. Since Covid officially ended, many people feel a bit out of practice with their interpersonal skills.
If you have found that the older you get, the harder it is to make new friends, believe me—you are not alone. All the ways in which we made friends when we were younger don’t apply to our current stage of life. Some of our old friends have either drifted away or become ill; perhaps we have drifted away as well without realizing it. Staying in touch with people who are no longer part of our lives takes a lot of energy and motivation.
We need friends all our lives but never more than in our later years. According to Abraham Maslow, “Humans need to love and be loved … Many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and clinical depression in the absence of this love or belonging.”
Reseaecbhreveals that having a dwindling social circle or not having enough close friends has a similar risk factor as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. Having strong social bonds helps us live longer. It boosts our immune system and allows us to enjoy a more meaningful life. Strong friendships can help to reduce stress, chronic pain, the risk of heart disease, and high blood pressure.
The best way to get back in the swing of things is by connecting with others who share your interests. This gives you a common motivation, makes small talk flow more smoothly, and can help you feel that socializing is always worthwhile, even if it’s a little daunting.