The pandemic has had many effects on our overall health. Perhaps now more than ever it is imperative to address the social-emotional and behavioral health needs of our population. “Making mental health and wellness a priority is something that Brown Medicine’s leadership has always believed in and practiced,” states Tammy Lederer, SHRM-CP, PHR, chief human resources officer at Brown Medicine. “Long before the pandemic hit, we encouraged employees to practice mindfulness at work, go for mid-day walks and take breaks, and avail themselves of our Employee Assistance Plan resources to manage stress, burnout and overall health. If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s the importance of focusing on self-care. Mental well-being starts with that.”
Healthy lifestyle behaviors can significantly enhance our ability to cope with stress, connect with others, improve concentration and mood. The brain is a powerful, complex organ that, like other organs in the human body, needs balanced energy to function at its prime. Focusing on sleep and food quality and increased movement help with the energy balance and functioning of cognition and health. “Manageable and achievable changes to improved lifestyle can greatly help with concentration, perception, purpose and well-being,” states Dr. Cerissa Blaney, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Brown Medicine’s Division of Primary Care who is also an instructor in clinical psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University’s The Warren Alpert Medical School. “Decreasing alcohol, increasing hydration, choosing quality energy balancing foods, increasing exercise, and planning social activities are key to help cope with stress and improve quality of life.”
Here are some ways to improve your health and well-being, and to decrease stress:
Stay physically active:
Find something fun to do or plan it with people you enjoy. Yoga, tai chi, stretching, and a walk outside even just to breathe fresh air can do wonders. “When stressed, taking a few moments for a quick break, stretch or walk outside can help improve blood flow, focus and creativity,” comments Dr. Blaney. “Physical activity often contributes to improved confidence and enhanced mood with its effects of serotonin.” Cardiovascular exercise and increased blood circulation have been shown to boost brain functioning and prevent memory loss by creating new brain cells and strengthening the hippocampus which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Actively working on stress management can help to support your body’s immune response. Learn how to recognize stressors, problem-solve things within your control, avoid or alter situations that can be stressful, and identify helpful thoughts. Reframing unhelpful thinking, limiting avoidance strategies such as emotional eating, overuse of social media, alcohol and substance use are alternative ways to improve stress. Finding meaning and using humor and laughter can be effective coping techniques that can lower blood pressure, quickly change one’s thoughts or mood, and make you feel better.
Social support and connection is essential to well-being. Volunteer for a cause you care about, connect with someone by email or letter, and spend time with others whether virtually or safely in-person. Long-term or chronic stress, depression and loneliness can impact the immune system and may affect how the body responds to infectious pathogens. Surrounding yourself with supportive people is but one way to bring more positivity into your life.
Schedule an appointment with yourself to do what you like or want to do. This can be as simple as a five-minute break from cleaning, a half-hour lunch break offsite from work, or scheduling an entire weekend away, for example. It can also be necessary to take advantage of extra time to rest or sleep to recharge your brain for optimal health. Set boundaries when you can, identify values and things important to you, and work toward planning activities and behaviors that are consistent with your values.
Begin and end each day with thoughts about three things you are grateful for. Keep a journal of these things, or just simply say them to yourself. Saying “thank you” and “I appreciate you” are phrases that not only make others feel supported and happy, but can make you feel better, too. Psychology research shows that gratitude is associated with greater happiness, leading to improved health, effective coping mechanisms and stronger relationships with others. Consider ways to bring gratitude into your workplace or relationships in addition to self-compassion.