Show me a person who’s never felt stressed or down in the dumps. No really, I’d like to meet that glittery rainbow unicorn. And so would the Well+Good reader, 95 percent of whom reported being stressed in a 2018 survey.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, which means that it’s the perfect time to re-prioritize our mental well-being. That’s why we created a 30-day Mental Wellness Challenge: a month’s worth of daily tasks designed to help you prioritize your mental wellness needs.
“The data shows that small changes build up. When we notice ourselves making changes to feel better, we start to feel better,” says Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D., director of psychology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry and a member of the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Datillo regularly uses the mnemonic “ESCAPE” to discuss mental wellness with her clients. The acronym stands for Exercise (an instant mood booster and stress reducer), Sleep (which helps your brain function at its best), Connect and Appreciate (because social connections and gratitude can foster better mental health), Pleasure (an important component of overall happiness), and Exhale (a powerful way to calm anxieties and reduce stress). These six strategies, she says, are the most science-backed ways to manage stress and emotions to promote better mental well-being.
Each tip in the month-long challenge (which we’ll be sharing on Instagram, too) is designed to help you to re-define self care, manage daily stressors, start a conversation around mental health, or address a common lifestyle trigger that impacts mental health. No matter your current mental state—from feeling mildly stressed to dealing with something more serious—these tips can provide a reminder to take a minute for yourself to find balance and peace in the daily chaos of life. These tasks should only be part of your overall mental wellness plan; they complement treatment but don’t replace it.
This challenge is also about trying new strategies to find out what works for you. So keep your mind open to experimentation. “Don’t feel guilty if something you try doesn’t work for you. Something else will,” says psychologist Aimee Daramus, Psy.D.At the end of the 30 days, choose the changes that have the biggest impact on your happiness, and keep them up the rest of the year for a calmer, centered you.
Ready to start the challenge? Here’s what we’ve got in store for you for the next 30 days:
Day 1: Open up about something on your mind
Chat with a trusted friend or family member about stress you’re experiencing or a mental health diagnosis you’ve received. In addition to helping us to work through our problems, opening up a discussion around mental health is the first step to normalizing the topic. “It would be lovely to share what you’ve learned in therapy to reduce the stigma of seeking treatment,” says Dr. Datillo. “We keep it a secret, which promotes stigma and shame. One of the worst things for mental health is feeling ashamed.”
Day 2: Imagine your happy place
Picturing somewhere you love can make you feel relaxed and comforted, says Dr. Datillo. Get in a comfortable position sitting or lying down and close your eyes. Imagine a place where you feel happy, safe, and loved. It can be somewhere you’ve already been or a spot you’d like to visit but never actually have. Then fill that place with sensory detail. What colors do you see? Is it warm, cool, or soft? Who’s there? What does it smell like? What are you doing? Once you’ve found your happy place, go back any time you need a mental vacation.
Day 3: Unplug for one hour
Maybe the news makes you feel out of control. Or maybe social media breeds FOMO. These kinds of unhealthy distractions can make us feel worse, and even promote feelings of anxiety and depression. So consciously put down your phone and turn off the TV for one full hour to be present in the here-and-now. “Once you unplug, you’ll realize you’re not really missing that much,” says Dr. Datillo.
Day 4: Schedule an IRL friend date
We’re all busy—and seeing friends and family often falls low on our priority list. But feeling connected to other people is an essential ingredient to happiness. “Social media can make it feel like you’re connecting, but there’s a big difference between text and face-to-face interactions,” says Dr. Datillo. Some research has linked increased social media use to depression and feelings of loneliness. Being in the same space at the same time with your favorite person connects you in a way that your smartphone can’t match.
Day 5: Do five minutes of physical exercise
“Sweat therapy,” as Dr. Datillo calls it, is one of the best ways to reduce stress and improve your mood—and the effects are immediate. “Making time to regularly work out is an important long-term strategy for stress prevention and management,” she says. To enjoy the benefits, your workout has to feel effortful and intentional. This doesn’t mean you have to do HIIT or a 10-mile run every day; even a couple minutes of hard work does the trick. Try five minutes of exertion: one to two minutes of planks, one to two minutes of push-ups, and one to two minutes of squats or wall sits—or W+G’s “Trainer of the Month” club workouts, which are only seven minutes long.
Day 6: Go to bed an hour earlier
Research has shown that sleep deprivation increases stress and irritability, upping the risk of depression and anxiety. “Sleep’s greatest benefit is letting your brain unwind and recharge so it’s at its best day to day,” Dr. Datillo says. Dedicate today to making seven to nine hours of quality sleep a priority. (Try some of these tips to reset your circadian rhythm if you’re at a loss).
Day 7: Pay it forward
Buy coffee for the person behind you in line. Give up your seat on the subway. Open the door for someone. These gestures take little effort but can make a big positive impact on another person’s day—and your own. “That sense of connection with others has been shown to enhance mental state and positive warm feelings,” says Dr. Datillo.
Day 8: Pledge to stop using stigmatizing language
Terms we use every day, like “crazy,” can stigmatize mental health conditions. “I think the words we choose reflect more on us. If the goal is to feel better about ourselves, how we communicate and what we say matters,” says Dr. Datillo. Count how often you use words like ‘crazy,’ ‘psycho,’ and ‘schizo’ in conversations today. Then reflect on how this kind of language might be harmful to anyone who is suffering from a mental health disorder (including yourself), and the next time you’re tempted to use these words, think about a better replacement. (For example, instead of saying you had a crazy day, say that your day was hectic or super busy.)
Day 9: Do a “brain dump”
“When we ruminate or worry, our brains are inefficient. We spend a lot of time focusing on solving a problem that may not be solvable,” says Dr Datillo. If you’re a worrywart by nature, journaling can move your concerns outside of your head and onto the page. However, Dr. Daramus adds that journaling should be used to leave something in the past and move on. “While journaling can help if it lets you move forward, it can hurt if you use it to stay stuck,” she says. Which is why she recommends doing your brain dump on a piece of scrap paper and then recycling it to avoid fixating on your problems.
Day 10: Set a reminder for a daily walk
Getting your blood flowing reduces the stress hormone cortisol and releases feel-good endorphins—plus spending even 20 minutes in nature has been shown to relieve stress. “Exercise is the best thing you can do for immediate stress relief,” says Dr. Datillo. If you can’t leave your office in the middle of the day, do jumping jacks, take a lap around your floor, or walk up and down a couple flights of stairs.
Day 11: Do a friend a favor
Doing a solid isn’t just selfless; it also boosts your mental health. Psychologists say that gift-givers actually reap more psychological benefits than recipients. “It helps you to feel purposeful,” says Dr. Datillo. Offer to pick up a friend’s dry cleaning on your way home from work or babysit their kids. And if you can’t think of an appropriate favor, offer a loved one a little “just because” gift that you think they’ll enjoy. It’ll make their day—and yours, too.
Day 12: Create a mood-boosting playlist
Pick tunes that help you pump it up or chill out—whatever fits your mood today and resonates with you. “Music is a very accessible way of quickly shifting your mood. It has a way of connecting with us emotionally,” says Dr. Datillo.
Day 13: Review your to-do list
Working long hours is a common trigger for stress, anxiety, and depression. Start your week by making a to-do list—or revisit the one you have—to figure out what really needs doing…and what can wait for later. You don’t have to finish everything, but it can be helpful to get tasks out of your head and onto paper. “Sometimes it’s about managing time, but often it’s about managing your energy and pacing yourself throughout the day,” says Dr. Datillo. “You’ll start your day feeling productive and accomplished, which is sets you up for success. When we feel accomplished, we’re motivated to accomplish more.”
Day 14: Plan your next getaway
Goal-setting helps you look forward while focusing on the present, which can improve your mood. “It keeps you from feeling stuck and overwhelmed. Even if it’s months away, it encourages you to keep going, because relief is in sight,” says Dr. Datillo. Make an inspiration board of places you’d like to visit, browse your calendar for potential dates, or finally book that flight.
Day 15: Say no at least once
Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities is a powerful trigger for negative emotions. We all struggle to say no because it makes us feel guilty, and many of us are unsure of how to gracefully decline an opportunity. But saying no honors yourself. “What you’re doing is saying yes to the things you really want to do and yes to self care,” says Dr. Datillo. Try, “I’d love to, but I simply can’t,” or “I have to decline that opportunity today, thank you.”
Day 16: Watch something that will make you laugh
This is one of Dr. Datillo’s top tips for her patients. Whether you’re watching a standup special, your favorite romantic comedy, or a sit-com, laughing is the ultimate stress-buster. “You can’t laugh and be stressed out at the same time,” Dr. Datillo says.
Day 17: Listen to a friend
We all talk so much that many of us forget to listen. But listening is the best way to connect with others. Instead of trying to solve or diagnose a problem, offer to be available to a friend or family member to vent for as little or as much time as they need. “To connect and understand someone else’s point of view is very good for your own mental health and well-being,” says Dr. Datillo.
Day 18: Try a breathing exercise
Focusing on your breath is a form of meditation that switches your parasympathetic system from fight-or-flight to chill-out mode, says Dr. Datillo. Get in a comfortable position, whether that’s seated or lying down. Concentrate on your breathing and slow it down, taking deliberate, even-paced inhales and exhales. If you want more structure, breath in for five and out for five; experiment to find the count that’s comfortable for your body.
Day 19: Cook dinner tonight
When our to-do list is longer than the Trader Joe’s checkout line on Sunday, making dinner can take a backseat to other priorities. While you’ve for sure heard that eating at home is better for both your body and your wallet, it’s also good for your mind. “Meditation is single-tasking, or intentionally bringing your focus to one thing,” says Dr. Datillo. And cooking definitely falls into this category. Pick your favorite nourishing meal and savor whipping it up tonight. “If you’ve never really connected with meditation, this can help,” says Dr. Daramus.
Day 20: Break out the crayons and color
There’s a reason kids (and Kate Middleton) love coloring—and it’s not just the joy of being creative. “When you concentrate on one thing, whether it’s coloring, breathing, music, exercise, lighting a candle, or guided imagery, it’s a form of meditation,” says Datillo. In fact, 62 percent of users in a Saatchi Art survey of 700 people said that making art of some kind helped them manage stress. “[Experts believe] that repetitive crafts can actually lower blood pressure,” adds Dr. Daramus. “With any of these techniques, including meditation, you might get some results right away, but the real results can take time.”
Day 21: Find your go-to mantra
Unrealistic expectations (like the idea that anything in life can be “perfect”) feed negative self-talk, which increases feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Find a mantra that speaks to you, like, “I can do this,” “I am worthy,” “It’ll be okay,” “It will all work out,” “I am strong,” or “I got this.” Then write it on a Post-it and hang it someplace you’ll see it—your fridge, front door, or mirror. “The way we talk to ourselves affects the way we feel and what we do. When we use encouraging statements, we tend to feel better and are more productive,” says Dr. Datillo.
Day 22: Marie Kondo your wardrobe
If it doesn’t make you happy, it’s taking up space and detracting from the things that do brighten your day. Pick out three things from your closet that you don’t wear anymore and donate them so someone can really use them. You’ll be doing a stranger a solid—another way to feel connected and purposeful to boost your mental health. Plus, decluttering brings instant relief.
Day 23: Eat a square of dark chocolate
Eating chocolate (or any other food you love but limit) fulfills the “pleasure” in Dr. Datillo’s ESCAPE pneumonic. “Some people never stop to think about what they enjoy. Your five senses can help you to re-activate your pleasure centers,” says Dr. Datillo. “Taking time to really taste your food has been shown to have great benefits in stress reduction. It’s another form of meditation.”
Day 24: Dabble in a hobby
What’s one thing you wish you could spend more time doing? Writing on your blog? Volunteering with animals? Learning a new language? Take an hour today to immerse yourself in whatever hobby gives you a boost.One of the biggest sources of stress and anxiety is life dissatisfaction, says Dr. Datillo, or feeling that we’re not passionate or purposeful. Doing something that gives your life purpose has been shown to greatly benefit your mental health, she adds. While loving your work is one way to feel purposeful, hobbies are another way to fulfill a passion.
Day 25: Do something totally out-there
Dr. Daramus suggests forgetting “balance” for a few hours and going all in on a favorite silly habit. Read a trashy novel, binge-watch a cartoon that you’re way too old for, or spend the whole afternoon in bed with your partner. Sometimes you need to give yourself space to let loose.
Day 26: Break out the Nintendo
There’s a curious new trend in gaming: video games—like Sea of Solitude, Night in the Woods, and Pry—that are designed to help with depression or anxiety. “Nonviolent games that take up a lot of concentration may help with letting go of a bad day by turning your mind to something else, reducing the impact of a panic attack or a bad memory, or just giving a busy mind a chance to relax,” says Dr. Daramus. Mario Kart, anyone?
Day 27: Count in your head
If meditation seems daunting, try counting to bring your mind back to the here and now. “Counting is a great form of distraction, especially if you’re overwhelmed, stressed, overthinking, or worrying. It breaks you out of that cycle by refocusing on things happening in your environment,” says Dr. Datillo. When you’re feeling stressed, take a look around you and identify five things you see and five things you hear—and, voila, you’ve meditated today!
Day 28: Fix something that’s been bugging you
You’ve been meaning to take some jeans to the tailor, repair a door knob, or sort your files—but you just can’t find the time to tackle little tasks. Make it happen today. Address two to three little things that have been in the back of your head but on the back burner. You’re clearing out the clutter, both physically and mentally, so you can put more energy toward the things that are really important to you.
Day 29: Hug your pet, partner, parent, or friend
Getting cuddly increases the bonding hormone oxytocin and decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which makes you feel more relaxed and happier. “People crave connection. It’s a critical aspect of wellbeing,” says Dr. Datillo.
Day 30: Note one thing you’re grateful for
Negative thinking is a slippery slope; while a cathartic vent sesh can help you get back to your day, negativity has a sneaky way spiraling out of control. Combat this cycle by taking a minute to jot down one thing for which you’re really grateful. Looking for a more advanced challenge? Find a reason to be grateful for something that makes you miserable, because it’s ultimately teaching you an important lesson. “Things that cause you stress present challenges, which teach you important skills like patience, resilience, and strength,” says Dr. Datillo. “With practice over time, you will begin to find appreciation for even the not-so-good things.”
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