Today marks the first day of Mental Health Awareness Month—and I think we can all agree that means something a little different this year. Americans report increased feelings of loneliness during this period of social distancing; WFH scenarios have lengthened the workday from 9 to 5 to 9 to… whenever; and then, of course, there’s the existential stress that weighs on us as we deal with the uncertainty created by this global pandemic. It’s never been more important to take the best possible care of our mental well-being, but with many of our normal self-care routines suddenly impossible, it’s hard to know where to begin.
That’s why we partnered with the app Happy Not Perfect, founded by Well+Good Changemaker Poppy Jamie, to create the Mental Wellness Challenge. This May, we want you to do just one small thing every day (think: meditations, “happiness workouts,” pre-scheduled “dream time,” and more) to help support your mental and emotional well-being during these stressful, challenging times. After all, small steps lead to big benefits in the long run—and you might just have a meet-cute with one of these strategies that results in a practice you can hold onto for a lifetime.
Below, you’ll find a mini-challenge a day from a cohort of experts, including clinical psychologist Sophie Mort, PhD (who goes by “Dr. Soph”), psychotherapist and shaman Laury Naron, and hypnotherapist Daniel Ryan from Happy Not Perfect.
The Happy Not Perfect team also put together some special content just for us that will live in the app’s brand-new Mental Wellness Challenge course. To access it, simply download the Happy Not Perfect app on your phone, create a profile, then search for the Mental Wellness Challenge. (You’ll find it featured in the “Most Popular” section.) All month long—starting on Day 1 with a special message from Poppy Jamie—you’ll find supplemental meditations and exercises to help keep you on track.
Plus, if you sign up for a monthly or yearly membership to Happy Not Perfect in May using this link on your phone, the app will donate 50 percent of your subscription fee to the National Council of Behavioral Health’s COVID-19 Relief Fund. This organization supports community mental health providers on the front lines so that people requiring mental health and addiction services during this time get the care they need. It’s a “get what you give” moment for mental health, and we’re so pumped to spend the next 31 days working on our mental fitness with you.
Ready to start the challenge? Here’s what we’ve got in store for you this month:
Day 1: Complete your first Happiness Workout
A happiness workout doesn’t require dumbbells, resistance bands, or any of those WFH gym accessories you’ve accumulated in the last couple of weeks. Instead, this exercise improves your mental fitness by walking you through eight simple (and fun!) steps. First, you’ll take the pulse on how you’re feeling (stressed? Good? Anxious?), then the app will guide you through some breathing exercises, a satisfying coloring game, and more to deliver you to a more happy state in under 10 minutes.
In the app: Open the Mental Wellness Challenge course in the Happy Not Perfect app to get a deep dive into the science behind the Happiness Workout from Poppy Jamie herself. Just select the “Well+Good x HNP” block to get started; your session will then go through 10 more blocks in the app as you go through the workout step-by-step with Poppy.
Day 2: Find your “anchors of normality”
The word “normal” has become tinged with nostalgia these days and Dr. Soph says there’s a reason why. “Our life has been tipped upside down. Everything that’s happening around us is creating a sense of uncertainty, which is activating our survival response,” she says. “When the brain is in survival mode, and it’s panicking about what’s happening, it’s looking for anything it knows so that it can go: ‘Okay, maybe it’s not as bad as I thought.'”
Give your brain that reassurance by choosing three to four things you used to always do during a regular day or week (these are called your anchors of normality)—and make them a must. It could be as simple as making sure to always shower in the morning because that’s what you usually did before work, or making time to practice yoga like you did pre-COVID-19. (Just make sure that these habits are still appropriate for social distancing measures, to ensure you’re not putting yourself and others at risk.) Add them to your daily to-do list or set calendar reminders if you have to.
Day 3: Check in with your feelings
In order to take care of your emotional health, you have to first be able to identify and understand your emotions at any given moment (which isn’t as simple as it sounds). In order to do that, you need to set aside a few minutes every day to check in with yourself.
“What I’ve been doing is I check on my frequency,” says Sonyia Richardson, PhD, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. “I set an intention to exist at a high frequency for the day,” meaning that she’s at a state of peace and calm; when she notices that her frequency lowers and she starts feeling stressed, chaotic, or fearful, that’s when she knows to check in with herself and assess what’s going on.
Ryan suggests the following exercise to help make that action more concrete: “Step one, take a deep breath. Step two, notice if you’re talking to yourself. Is the quality of the talk positive or negative? Is it stress-inducing or stress-relieving?” he says. Then, step three is to check in with your body and listen to it, Ryan says.
Why? Your mental health can impact how you feel physically, says Dr. Richardson. “Your emotions and your thoughts control your body,” she says. Stress puts your body into a “fight-or-flight” mode, which kickstarts a chain of physical reactions designed to help you respond to threats, like an adrenaline boost and increased blood flow. That’s why when you’re stressed you might feel tension in your shoulders, or a rapidly increasing heart rate, or even gastrointestinal issues—it’s your body’s reaction to stress or other emotions. “Your body is, every moment, responding to what’s going on in your head,” she says.
Listening to all of these cues on the reg will help you be better in touch with how you’re doing—and help you better shape your self-care needs.
In the app: Open the Mental Wellness Challenge in the app and select the “Take Control Of Your Emotions” block for some more insight from Dr. Soph about why checking in is so important for better emotional health.
Day 4: Identify your coping styles
There are three types of coping that people turn to during difficult times—problem-solving coping, emotional coping, and avoidance coping—and knowing your go-to style can help you suss out the tactics that are helping you versus the ones that are hurting you.
“If it’s problem-solving focused, that’s where we think we can actually make some kind of change [to the stressor],” says Dr. Soph. For example, if your recent credit card bill is way higher than expected, you may find comfort in writing up a new budget to accommodate it—you have control over that situation.
The second type of coping, emotional coping, is what you turn to when you can’t necessarily take action to change a situation but instead want to change your emotions. This can look like leaning on your support networks of friends and family to feel better, says Dr. Soph, or writing down gratitude affirmations, or just playing with your pets—all of which can help improve your mood and help you better deal with a situation.
Last is avoidance or bypassing, where you deal with a situation by creating habits like self-blame that don’t ultimately serve any purpose. Dr. Soph says to be on high alert for this style of coping, as it can be ineffective and potentially harmful.
“Your coping style is something that you develop depending on your childhood experiences,” Dr. Soph says. You can identify yours by monitoring the knee-jerk reactions you have when you feel out of sorts. If your first go-to on a stressful day is to go for a run or eat a cookie, you likely tend to gravitate towards emotional coping. If you’re all about writing a to-do list to help you prioritize when you’re struggling against multiple work deadlines, you’re probably more of a problem-solving coper. Knowing your patterns will help you create healthier ones (or at least find more tactics that truly work for you).
Day 5: Make an “eco map” of your social resources
When things feel really tough, it can be hard to know who in your life you can depend on for support. That’s why Jack Saul, PhD, is a strong proponent of eco-mapping, or making like a cartographer and creating a visual representation of your support network. Nurses are often encouraged to use this technique to track those who care about their patients, but in your case, you can whip out colored pencils, paper, the works, and go about drawing a map of your connections.
Mine, for example, would feature a stick-person me floating in a pink bubble, connected to a bubble containing my boyfriend, then my extended family, work-family, and various other pals. When you feel like your mental health feels off-balance, you can reach for your artwork to see whose voice is going to spark the most joy in your life. And, on the opposite side of things, this will help you remember who might benefit from your support.
Day 6: Schedule in worry and dream time
“Worry time is amazing,” she says. “Most of us have this kind of free-floating anxiety. Our brains are negatively skewed, so worries arise all the time.” But, she says, we should instead try and set aside one, 10-minute slot per day where we can worry as “wildly” as we normally would. Write your worries down in a list so it’s something you can see—which will help you see what is something in your control versus what isn’t, and what actions (if anything) you can take to mitigate those worries.
To keep yourself from spiraling, end your worry time with a containment exercise, psychotherapist Lia Avellino instructed at a recent Well+Good TALKS event. “I envision a container, any container—a coffin, a box, a bag—and I actually envision where I want to place those worries,” she said, “really orienting to the fact that it is my choice to revisit those worries.”
Meanwhile dream time, says Dr. Soph, helps us see promise in the future—a nice change of pace, since we normally only seek anxiety there. “Mostly, we’re stuck in this kind of anxious-worried state, not really making much time to freely dream about ‘future me.’ When you start thinking about what you want in life, your brain starts—without you needing to pay conscious attention to it—looking for ways to meet that need,” she says.
Avellino said that she often uses her dream time as a pick-me-up in the afternoon. “In a time where reality feels so intense, there’s so much that we can access through imagination,” she said. Dream time is a space where you can really let your imagination go wild.
Day 7: Tweak your space to make it more joyful
When clutter and other forms of mess are a mainstay in your living space, it can increase your stress levels and make it harder for your brain to focus or even remember things. So take today to do a big cleanup of your digs—and make some upgrades to invite some joy into your home, since we’re going to likely be here for a while longer.
Naron suggests reaching for new plants and new colors. “Colors are energetic, and so if you have the wrong colors around you, you’re going to end up feeling jumpy, or sluggish, or in some way not in your best energy flow,” says Naron.
At the Well+Good TALK, designer and author Ingrid Fetell Lee also suggested incorporating nature into your surroundings as much as possible—even if you can’t get outside. “Bring greenery in,” she recommended. “Bird song is another way you can bring that in, or natural scents.” (Hello, bird sounds playlist on Spotify.) These kinds of actions can help soothe your anxious brain and help jazz up your space at the same time.
Day 8: Empty the overflowing stress bin in your mind
As part of your “worry time,” you can try this exercise from Happy Not Perfect to help you feel more in control of the stuff that’s on your mind. Ryan says you can think of this kind of exercise as a meditation metaphor: Picture an empty trash can in your mind, collect your worries there, and then imagine them burning up or being emptied out and thrown away. Cathartic, no?
In the app: This is a key step of the Happiness Workout—just open the app and select “Happiness Workout”on the home page to do it yourself.
Day 9: Call a close friend you haven’t talked to in a while
Connection is crucial for mental well-being, but it’s harder to achieve while we’re all stuck at home. But that’s all the more reason to make the effort to reach out, says Dr. Soph. “The more we can connect with other humans, the better we’re going to feel. So in place of being able to go to someone’s house and have coffee, we have to connect with people we know and love online,” she says. All the better if it’s someone you have a lot (like, five years-worth) of life to catch up on.
Day 10: Choose your go-to meditation
Meditation might feel like old news in 2020, but there’s a reason why mental health experts continue to sing its praises. “[Practicing] mindfulness is helping you to center yourself,” says Dr. Richardson. “Especially during a time where we’re using so much technology, our brains are so overstimulated. Meditation is allowing you to center yourself and slow your brain down and focus on some words, phrases, deep breathing.” Think of it as your brain being on fire, she says, and mindfulness and meditation helps put out the flames and brings you back to normal.
Contrary to popular opinion, meditation doesn’t exclusively involve sitting on a pillow with your eyes closed; the practice can take many different forms (like mantras, deep breathing, or prayer), and no one method works for everyone, says Dr. Richardson—so you have to experiment with a few different things in order to find what works for you. “For me, my meditation is reading devotionals. Every morning I make sure I have 30 minutes of reading before I can check social media or emails,” she says.
“Even when you find what works, have mercy with yourself,” Dr. Richardson adds. “I might say I have to have 30 minutes of meditation just so I’m very intentional, but it might be 15 minutes and that’s okay. If you want it to be a daily practice, have some grace and mercy with it.”
In the app: Load up the Mental Wellness Challenge in the app and select the “A daily meditation practice” block for an easy, simple meditation.
Day 11: Make a to-do list for your day or week
Got a stressful week ahead? (LOL, of course you do! We all do!) Write it out—it’s a classic problem-solving coping mechanism that really works. “The human brain can only manage holding a certain number of pieces of information at once,” explains Dr. Soph—and so when there’s too much going on, we can quickly become overwhelmed. “The moment we write it down, we give our brain a break. We’re not holding everything in mind,” says Dr. Soph.
Seeing all your tasks in words lets you tackle each item without having to play a mental game of “Hmmm, am I forgetting something?” And that will save your brain a ton of energy in the end.
Day 12: Hit your reset button
When things are feeling particularly stressful or anxiety-inducing, it’s easy to spiral and have your entire day thrown off the rails. But as with a computer, sometimes we need to pause and hit a reset button to get us back on track. “When we reach a level of stress that is so intense we feel like we are spinning, imbalanced, or have a physical reaction like nausea as a result, the best thing we can do is ground ourselves,” wellness expert and Reiki master Serena Poon previously told Well+Good. And the easiest way to do that is to re-connect with your breath.
Naron recommends trying this resetting breathing exercise during times of extreme overwhelm. “It’s called heart-brain-coherence practice and it’s quite phenomenal,” she says, and it’s designed to soothe and calm your brainwaves (and thus, your glitching brain). Plus, it only takes three minutes. Here’s how to do it:
- Put your hands on your heart space. If you’re wearing a necklace or something that hits the center of your chest, you can also just focus your attention on the sensation of that.
- Slow your breathing down to half its usual pace by elongating both your inhales and exhales. Imagine that you are breathing into your heart instead of your lungs.
- Once your heart and breathing feel in sync, think of something—a loved one, a place, an activity—that puts you in a state of gratitude. Now, hang out here as long as you like.
Day 13: Sign up for an online class with your friends
Tons of people are flexing their learning muscles through online classes in the era of COVID-19, but you don’t have to hit the books alone. “The beauty of doing any class is that we’re engaged, we’re learning, and we’re given a sense that we’re doing something,” says Dr. Soph. “When we do that with people, the benefits are two-fold. Afterward, you have something to talk about.” Hello, social connections, goodbye, talking in circles about the news cycle.
Day 14: Set limits for your news and social media consumption
Take it from someone who ended up locking herself in a closet and crying when her boyfriend dared play The Daily while cooking dinner: More news right now is not better. “We are intrigued and anxious right now, feeling like we need to know what is going on so we can be prepared so we can create more certainty,” says Dr. Soph. “Over time, though, the uncertainty about what is happening in the world creeps in and we look for more news. This starts a vicious cycle,” she says, which can ratchet up stress and anxiety levels.
Be kind to yourself and set hard limits to how much time you spend on news and social media (ideally 10 minutes or less per day). Apps like Freedom, In Moment, and AppDetox can act as your screen-limiting sidekicks.
Day 15: Do a “feelings check” with your partner, roommate, or close friend (whoever you live with)
Staying in close quarters with people without many breaks can strain even the strongest relationships. But navigating your needs as well as those of the people you live with right now requires open and honest communication.
To do this, Dr. Soph recommends using the STOP technique. “All it means is that multiple times throughout the day, you say the word “STOP’ to yourself. ‘S’ means stop, ‘T’ means take three breaths, ‘O’ means observe what’s here, and ‘P’ means to decide how you’re going to proceed,” she explains. Today, set your timer for at least five STOP moments for you and your partner/house-mate(s) to see what feelings are playing in the background as your moods ebb and flow.
In the app: Get some more help from Dr. Soph by opening up the Mental Wellness Challenge in the app and selecting the “Build better boundaries” block. Your quarantine relationships will thank you.
Day 16: Get 30 minutes of movement today
There are lots of mental health benefits of exercise, from reducing stress to improving your mood, but Naron says her favorite is that it makes her develop a relationship with her breath, which in turn supports her general mindfulness practices. Think of 30 minutes of movement as a shortcut for becoming one with the right here, right now. So go ahead: Try that YouTube yoga class, sweaty slider workout, or dance cardio routine.
Day 17: Make a “small wins” list
With so many things going wrong or being put on hold right now (from raises and promotions to weddings and vacations), it’s easy to feel down about your day-to-day life. That’s why Dr. Soph is all about celebrating even the smallest victories to promote happiness and positivity.
“We always overlook the small win. We’re always looking for things like, “Did I get a new job? What grade did I get on that piece of work?” We’re going for bigger, bigger, bigger,” she says. “The small win is the thing that can give us those small boosts throughout the day. They’re the things that are often linked to our values, roles, and our goals.”
Let’s say you’re trying to work your way up from running one mile to running two—that can count as your small (but mighty!) win of the day. Things like cooking a healthy lunch or taking a dance break can also land in this bucket. Remember: Promotions aren’t the only things worth celebrating in life.
Day 18: Follow the two-hour rule for better sleep tonight
Getting good sleep is one of the best ways to combat stress, but when you’re stressed out, it’s pretty hard to fall asleep. To combat this cruel Catch-22, Dr. Soph says it’s important to abide by the two-hour rule—aka a two-hour minimum buffer on eating big meals, working out, and using any kind of screens before going to bed. It sounds simple, but following this habit (as well as prioritizing other stress management and sleep hygiene techniques) can help lay the foundations for a better night of sleep every night. So no more watching old episodes of Friends while you fall asleep, okay?
In the app: Hungry for more smart sleep tips from Dr. Soph? Open the Mental Wellness Challenge in the HNP app and select the “Sleep hygiene” block.
Day 19: Create a shared digital photo album with your friends
This exercise is all about bringing togetherness to a time when we’re far, far apart from many of the people we love, says Dr. Soph. “This gives you an opportunity to say, ‘Do you remember that thing?!’ It creates these really normal moments where you’re connecting to important parts of your identity, and getting those lovely oxytocin boosts that you do when you make a connection with a friend,” she says.
Take a trip down memory lane by soliciting photos from a college trip, wedding, family reunion, or other fun milestones from your closest friends to make a shared album everyone can enjoy—you might be surprised at what fun shots people unearth from their cloud storage. (Here’s how to create a shared album using the Apple Photos or Google Photos app.)
Day 20: Practice visualizing your happy place
If you’re not into making your mind a blank slate during a traditional meditation session, visualization might be more your speed. “Visualizations can be such a core component of meditation because it has a way of dominating the other senses,” says Ryan. In other words, if you’re picturing that balmy, sun-kissed beach in the Caribbean in your mind, little stressors naturally melt away because your visualization requires the utmost focus. Plus, it allows you a temporary escape from your current surroundings, says Dr. Richardson.
For today, think of one of your very favorite destinations, close your eyes, and try to picture it and imagine yourself there. What does it look like? Sound like? Smell like? Paint a picture in your head, and let your worries float away for a little while.
Just note that this isn’t for everyone, says Dr. Richardson. Some people might feel grief visualizing a place they love that they know they won’t be able to visit anytime soon due to COVID-19. If that happens to you, she says, that’s okay, just bring yourself back to the present and try another practice for today instead.
In the app: Open the Mental Wellness Challenge course in the app and select “The creative visualization” block for a helpful how-to to put this into practice.
Day 21: Make a donation to those in need right now
When the whole world feels out of control, it’s easy to feel powerless. Exert some control—and do some good—by giving back in some form to a cause in need right now. “Some research studies show that the more that you give, the higher you report your life satisfaction,” says Dr. Soph. “You’re doing something that’s outside of you… that shifts from this very self-oriented way of thinking to ‘Ah! I’m making an impact on the world and maybe I’m a good person.'” In other words: Giving back is good for you and humanity at large.
During COVID-19, you may consider giving what you can to The American Red Cross, Planned Parenthood, Feeding America, Direct Relief, or another organization of your choice that’s helping your community get through this crisis. And remember: 50 percent of new subscriptions to Happy Not Perfect for the month of May are being donated to the National Council of Behavioral Health’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, so if you like what you’ve been doing here so far, sign up for a subscription! It’ll do good for you and the world.
Day 22: Expand your recreational horizons
Everyone is baking bread right now—and Dr. Soph says that’s a huge win, psychologically speaking. “We know that hobbies promote good mental health. And, in part, it’s because hobbies are often creative. They get you out of your head—where your to-do list and other stressful thoughts might dominate—and into something new that doesn’t often have any pressure,” she says.
Day 23: Breathe through your stress
In moments of high stress, Ryan is a huge proponent of taking three big breaths. Throughout the day, we tend to use kiddy-pool breathing (it’s super shallow, y’all), but deep breaths interrupt this pattern. “Once we start taking a couple deep breaths, our central nervous system begins to respond immediately,” says Ryan.
Almost as soon as we start breathing more deeply, we’ll start to feel calmer and more relaxed. So if there are only three items on your to-do list today, make them: 1. breathe, 2. breathe, 3. breathe.
In the app: Put Ryan’s tips into practice by selecting the “Three deep breaths” block in the Mental Wellness Challenge. You’ll feel calm and centered in no time.
Day 24: Take a walk
Walking meditations are no joke: They let you make the body—not the breath—the focal point of your mindfulness practice. And, during a time when many of us feel a little bit stir-crazy, taking a present-moment walk around your neighborhood (keeping six feet of distance from others, of course) or even in laps around your yard or house may feel a bit more approachable than hopping on a cushion.
In the app: Open the “Walking meditation” block in the Mental Wellness Challenge course and you’ll find a guided meditation led by Jamie herself. Let’s get strolling, everyone.
Day 25: Write a letter to a stranger
Whether we realize it or not, says Dr. Soph, we get a certain level of satisfaction from meeting someone new. Now that we’re all inside, the chances of making new acquaintances have greatly diminished. Enter, the good, old-fashioned pen pal to help you simulate a similar kind of social interaction—plus, you’re extending that experience to someone who might need connection even more than you right now. Some worthy options: the Write a Prisoner program, which helps keep inmates connected to the outside world during their incarceration; Soldier’s Angels, which solicits letters for U.S. military members without family; Love for the Elderly, which collects letters to send to people in senior communities around the world.
Day 26: Face your stressors with the “Emotional Freedom Technique” (EFT)
No, we can’t go get a massage or acupuncture right now. But there are some bodywork-style techniques that you can incorporate into your at-home self-care practices, like EFT. EFT involves tapping on specific acupressure points along your face, torso, and hands to release negative energy and thereby reduce stress. Try it out for yourself today with this 30-second technique from Reiki master Kelsey Patel.
Day 27: Pick one small space of your house to clean
As mentioned earlier, tidying up has been linked to myriad benefits, from better sleep to increased focus. But researchers also believe that repetitive acts like cleaning can help reduce stress and anxiety, because it helps people exert control.
Take this as an excuse to tidy up a small, manageable spot in your home—maybe organizing the pantry or finally folding your laundry. Emphasis on small—don’t expect to master a deep clean in one day. “We should always break tasks down into smaller parts,” says Dr. Soph. “When I think about cleaning the whole house I feel overwhelmed and immediately put it off for next week, or to a time when I can do it in one go. When I think about cleaning one area, the tension in my brain decreases. It feels manageable, and I can be realistic about getting it done today,” she says.
Day 28: Try a letting go meditation
One of the hardest things about our current situation is that there are a lot of things out of our control. Those things are understandably scary and stressful, but for the sake of your mental health, you need to get in the habit of letting go of those worries as best you can.
Obviously that’s easier said than done, but Dr. Richardson has an exercise that she uses herself that can help you get the job done. She says to herself, Is this thought helping me or hurting me? and If this thought is not helping me, do I need it? If the answer is no, “I mentally file that [thought] away in a filing cabinet, because I can’t do anything about it,” she says. Those thoughts stay in those mental filing cabinets unless it’s necessary, and then she actively pulls it out again and refers to it.
In the app: Get more help putting this idea into practice by selecting the “Let your stress go!” block in the Mental Wellness Challenge course and following along with the meditation.
Day 29: Crack yourself up
You know those rare days when you’ve belly-laughed so hard that you feel like you did a really hard ab workout? Well, that kind of cathartic cackling actually has a lot of legitimacy for stress relief. Your simple task today is to find something that makes you LOL (from this video to the new Middleditch and Schwartz special on Netflix) and let yourself lean into the humor.
Day 30: Embrace deep relaxation with a virtual sound bath
Sound baths are a classic holistic practice involving various ambient sounds that stimulate your brainwaves to encourage deep relaxation. “The sound hits the human brain in some of its most wonderful ways, playing off our natural love and inclination towards music,” says Ryan, who’s a big fan of combining sound-based meditations with other modalities like hypnotherapy. Today, give your eardrums a nice long soak with a sound bath from the HNP team—and see how your brain feels in the afterglow.
In the app: Select the “Spring” block in the Mental Wellness Challenge course to enjoy a seasonally-themed sound bath.
Day 31: Pick the practices you want to keep up all year
Day 31! You did it! We knew you could. Now, it’s time to decide what mental exercises you’ll take with you into June, July, and beyond. Not everything will work for everyone, but you should consider May a win whether you added 15 new practices to your mental health tool kit, or just one mind-changing ritual.
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