The pandemic has led many of us to feel powerless and helpless. But the reality is that, even though this is a difficult, devastating time, we still have quite a bit of control. In honor of Mental Health Awareness month in May, here are 45 small things you can do right now to feel better—all of which will have a significant positive impact on your mental, emotional, and physical health.
1. Manage how much negative information you take in. California clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., suggests limiting your news intake to 15 minutes a day so you’re informed but not triggered.
2. Validate your feelings. Instead of judging your emotions, accept them and be gentle with yourself, says Sarah Nunnink, Ph.D, a psychologist and trauma expert in San Diego. Let yourself cry and move through your grief, she says.
3. Roughly outline what your day will look like. “Structure is medicine for chaotic feelings and making your own schedule can be a very grounding,” says Danielle Sangalli, a marriage and family therapist in Fishkill, N.Y.
4. View this time as a surmountable challenge. “If you try to tell yourself ‘This is an incredibly challenging time that requires me to bring my A-game and lean on my patience, resourcefulness, and resilience,’ then,” says Howes, “you’re going to feel more energized and in control.”
5. Add play to your day—whether you have kids or not. Blow bubbles. Use a coloring book. Play a board game. Draw silly stick figures.
6. Boost your breathing. “Most people take short, shallow breaths into their chest,” which “can make you feel anxious and zap your energy,” says Noor Pinna, a mental health counselor and transformation mindset coach in Kingston, N.Y. She suggests this simple practice: Inhale through your nose, letting your belly fill with air. Exhale through your nose. Place one hand on your belly, and the other hand on your chest. “As you breathe in, feel your belly rise. As you breathe out, feel your belly lower. The hand on your belly should move more than the one that’s on your chest.” Repeat three more times.
7. Keep your phone out of reach—or use it to look at images and apps that uplift you.
8. Set specific, measurable daily goals. According to Nunnink, this might be anything from aiming to complete five slides of your PowerPoint presentation to writing for an hour.
9. Stay hydrated. Drinking water boosts energy, brain function, and physical performance.
10. Keep one space clutter-free. Every morning therapist and mindset coach Kate Crocco, LCSW, makes her bed, puts away clothes, and clears all surfaces in her bedroom. “This way if I need a break from the toys or dishes in the sink, I close my door, look around, and instantly feel at peace seeing everything away.”
11. Savor your first sip of coffee or your first bite of breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Slowly and mindfully notice the texture, temperature, and taste of your food.
12. Think effectively (instead of positively). This means “acknowledging challenging emotions that are present, and reminding ourselves that we have choices in how we respond,” said Erin Haugen, Ph.D, LP, CMPC, a clinical and sports psychologist in Grand Forks, N.D. For example, if you’re a triathlete like Haugen, you might tell yourself: “I’m frustrated that the pool isn’t open, and I’m responding by working on strength training that will help when I’m back in the pool.” Or, “I’m anxious about when we’ll return to the office, so I’ll focus on what I can control, like reaching out to current clients.”
13. Take on a tiny creative project. Write a daily haiku about your feelings. Doodle your breakfast. Send thank-you notes to loved ones.
14. Prioritize sleep. Go to bed and get up at the same time.
15. Wake up in a serene, safe way. For instance, use an old-school alarm clock and set it to a beautiful, inspiring song.
16. Use your values to dictate your day. One of Haugen’s values is being helpful, so she carves out time each day to give a webinar, assist with administrative tasks at work, or do something else that helps others.
17. Tell a trusted friend how you’re really doing—and listen with compassion to them, too.
18. Add fun to frustrating tasks. Listen to light-hearted podcasts or audiobooks while tending to the overflowing piles of dishes and laundry.
19. Change your clothes accordingly. Haugen suggests dressing in work clothes like you’re heading into the office and putting on comfortable clothes when you’re done. “That can help create that mindset that we’re working versus relaxing.”
20. Have a ten-minute dance party with your family (or your pets!).
21. Write down how you’re feeling and how you can improve or maintain that feeling. For example, if you’re feeling tense or anxious, explore why (“I watched too much sad news today”), and record what will help: “I’ll replace news-related stuff with a feel-good movie.”
22. Make your favorite comfort dish—or try a new recipe.
23. Read a chapter or just a single page of a book that uplifts, interests, or inspires you.
24. Change up your scenery by taking a drive and listening to your favorite music or podcast. Driving symbolizes “moving forward and is a great way of getting unstuck,” says Sangalli. You don’t have to go far: Park by the town pond and read, savor the silence, or call a friend.
25. Turn to mental escapes if you don’t have a car. Sangalli suggests “giving the mind something beautiful and unique to think about and look at,” such as: books, artwork, movies, or images of different landscapes.
26. Shift your focus. Currently, your attention may be pulled in many different places. Nunnink suggests refocusing your mind by setting an intention—like “I’m going to focus solely on work for the next hour.” When your mind naturally wanders off, gently and without judgment, invite yourself to return to your intention, she says.
27. Connect to one person per day over text, video chat, a phone call, email, or social media.
28. Separate different activities at home. For smaller spaces, Haugen suggests subtle switches, such as sitting on a different side of the table when you’re working versus eating; and clearing the table of work items—like your laptop and headphones—when you’re not working. “Giving yourself different visual cues can help tell your brain that you’re doing something different,” she says.
29. Practice your favorite stretches for five minutes, or find new ideas on YouTube.
30. Meditate for one minute. Listen to a guided meditation, or simply close your eyes and focus on your breath.
31. Find teachable moments. Crocco suggests regularly asking yourself these questions: “What is this teaching me about myself, my family, my kids, my values, my world right now? How can I turn this into an opportunity for growth? How can I start looking for opportunity in every situation rather than only a setback?”
32. Create a rejuvenating ritual out of bathing. Add bubbles and Epsom salts, burn your favorite candle, and play relaxing music, Howes says.
33. Reassess your social media. Unfollow or mute any accounts that sink your mood or spike your anxiety.
34. Seek out humor. Try funny parenting, distance-learning, or working-from-home memes, or books and movies that always make you laugh.
35. Create a special ritual. Eat lunch as a family; do child’s pose to candlelight on most nights; read scripture in the mornings.
36. Carve out 20 minutes to reconnect with your partner. It could be anything from watching your favorite show to having a heart-to-heart.
37. Use compassionate self-talk. Such as “I’m having a hard time, and I’m not alone. I’ll get through this.”
38. Journal each day. It helps to organize your jumbled feelings, vent without upsetting others, and have a keepsake from a tough time in history,
39. Stop comparing yourself to others. Having a mantra can help: “I’m doing the best I can,” or “I am doing enough.”
40. Extend compassion to your family, friends, and co-workers. When you falter, make amends, figure out what went wrong, and aim to do better next time.
41. Name one thing you’re grateful for. According to gratitude researcher Robert A. Emmons, even though we might not feel grateful during a difficult time, we can choose to have a grateful perspective.
42. Communicate your needs to your family. Such as: “I need ten minutes to myself, and then we can figure out what’s for dinner”; “I need three hours in the morning to work; what do you need?”
43. Question your thoughts. Is it helpful? Would I want my kids talking to themselves in this way? What is supportive and helpful?
44. Take quality breaks. Instead of checking Facebook again, stretch your legs, inhale a pleasant scent (like calming-inducing lavender), or massage your neck.
45. Recognize what you are doing in a day. Like tackling work tasks, teaching your kids, managing a household, managing your stress all amid a global pandemic.
Ultimately, the best approach you can take right now is to honor your feelings and take care of yourself—whatever that looks like for you.