This May, we’ll be exploring various aspects of mental health in a new series called “How Do I Deal?” As we navigate Mental Health Awareness month during COVID-19 this year, we feel like this current moment in time requires us to go a few layers deeper as we learn how to manage all the grief hope, whiplash, fear, anxiety, and sadness we may be feeling in this moment and beyond.

By the GNI Team

“How do I deal with my mental health before it’s a problem?”

We get this question, well, a lot. And the truth is, sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. Your mental health is an extension of your physical health, which means there are some things you can control and some things you just can’t plan for. We asked Kalisha Smith an Alma therapist and licensed clinical social worker about healthy habit-building, the importance of routines, and why cognitive behavioral therapy could be the answer you’re looking for.

1. How can I build routines focused on maintaining good mental health?

Making sure you have a good routine in place is the first step — this can look like a daily to-do list or finding other ways to maintain a sense of normalcy especially now as we live through a pandemic. Examples can be penciling some time in to destress or limiting the amount of information you’re taking in on any single day. You should feel informed but not to the point of overwhelm.

Scheduling time for exercise is a big one. If you’re used to going to the gym, find ways to workout or do yoga at home. It’s important to prioritize self-care and acknowledge how much physical health can affect our mental health. It’s important to make sure you’re moving, but it’s also important to be mindful about what you’re eating and drinking, keeping your three well-balanced meals and hydration in mind.

2. What’s most important for maintaining good mental health — creative exercises, movement, or meditation? Is there one you recommend above the others?

It all depends what each person aligns with. I personally think adrenaline is a great tool to destress and take your mind off of things and also to manage anxious feelings you may be having. But things like journaling and doing a brain dump can also help cope. Gratitude journaling is a really effective proactive measure. It’s important to try things out and know which combination works best for you so you know what to turn to to feel your best.

3. What is cognitive behavioral therapy and is it something people can practice at home?

Yes, definitely. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is being able to recognize your feelings, your thoughts, and your behaviors, and how those three things work together every day.

It’s asking how your thoughts affect your feelings or how your feelings affect your behaviors? Taking time to reflect on that is important. If you’re feeling happy then your behaviors will reflect that. If you’re feeling down, your thoughts might be negative, and your behaviors might soon follow by not taking care of yourself or starting to see depressive symptoms.

That’s why trying to build more positive thoughts can help you build positive feelings and behaviors, too. My personal mantra is “I’m in control of my thoughts, my feelings, and my behaviors; therefore today I know I’m going to have a good day, I’m going to feel good, and I’m going to behave in a manner that will allow that mindset throughout the day.

4. What’s the best approach to recording these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to become more aware of them?

That’s where journaling comes in. If you want to practice something like this at home, it’s helpful to get a piece of paper and make three columns, one for your thoughts, one for your feelings, and one for your behaviors, then take time throughout the day to record in each of those columns in moments when you start to feel anxious.

If you want to address that you’re having a panic attack, acknowledge that you were feeling anxious, and your thoughts started to get overwhelming. You might need to feed yourself with more positive thoughts so you can begin to feel more positive and your behaviors can align with that.

This is one approach, but can practice CBT for habit-forming too. If your desired behavior is healthier eating and you want to feel good alongside that, the next question needs to be about how you can create positive thoughts that lead to these positive feelings and this positive routine (a behavior).

5. Is it possible to build a coping muscle over time so you’re better equipped to tackle moments that may be a little tougher?

Something that I think can be helpful is building a coping skills toolkit. People often feel stuck or overwhelmed when they don’t have a plan in place to help them deal with tough things that may come up. In the world we’re living in now, it’s important for us to try to put coping mechanisms in place because any day, anything can happen; and you want to be able to manage through that.

Being prepared in advance can mean knowing what makes you feel good so you know what to turn to in moments of hardship. It could be running, going for a walk, puzzles, journaling, watching a TV show, calling a friend, going to therapy, a meditation app, or listening to music. It’s important to identify these things in advance so you’re prepared when you need them most.

How are you prioritizing your mental health right now? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below! 👇

Kalisha Smith, LCSW fuses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with solution-focused therapy to evoke change, improve self-understanding, and see results in the form of growth, peace, and perseverance. Learn more about Kalisha and the Alma community of therapists here.

Image by @catalonjenna.