A recent Cleveland Clinic and Parade survey shows many of us are struggling with mental health in the wake of the pandemic. But with only so many hours in a day — coupled with work and other responsibilities — how can we find time to recharge and refocus?
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
The answer: taking small windows of opportunity for self-care throughout the day is becoming more and more important. Psychologist Kia-Rai Prewitt, PhD, breaks down some of the survey statistics and ways we can improve our everyday mental health bit by bit.
Why is mental health important?
More than one-third of all survey respondents rated their current mental health as average or low, citing struggles with anxiety, depression and anger. Respondents who said they rarely or never engaged in activities to improve their mental health said that being too busy or caring for a loved one were often barriers to taking care of themselves. And nearly a quarter of respondents didn’t know where to begin in taking care of their mental health.
“Some people just don’t realize their mental health is an issue,” says Dr. Prewitt. “Some folks may feel chronic pain or have headaches or get colds pretty often, and they’re not recognizing that some of these physical symptoms might actually be related to anxiety, depression or trauma.”
Mothers are struggling the most
One in three mothers, or 32%, said they never or rarely spent time improving their mental and emotional health. And almost half of mothers, or 42%, rated their mental health as average or low. While it’s certainly important to make sure the kids are alright, it’s crucially important to prioritize your own mental health, too.
“I talk to a lot of women who are used to being caregivers and putting themselves last,” notes Dr. Prewitt. “If your mental health is a value for you, then really taking care of yourself is going to be important to be able to sustain those caregiving relationships.”
Dr. Prewitt compares mental health to putting on your oxygen mask in case of an emergency on an airplane: You have to take care of yourself before you can help others. If you don’t, you run the risk of hurting yourself and the ones you’re trying to care for.
“If you’re feeling depressed, anxious or worried about things and you’re not managing your stress, you’re probably going to have less patience, you’ll feel more exhausted and more drained,” explains Dr. Prewitt. “You’ll probably have more difficulty sustaining positive relationships and keeping up with daily responsibilities because you’re not taking care of yourself.”
Ways to improve your mental health every day
The journey to improving your mental health doesn’t have to be taxing. You can do small things every day to improve your mood and increase your ability to reflect on your path forward. Here are a few things you can do to pivot in the right direction.
Carve out small mental health breaks throughout the day
Claiming a full mental health day sounds like an easy solution, especially when you’re overwhelmed with work and responsibility. But carving out a whole day isn’t always possible, and for some, this might cause additional stress. In fact, 7 out of 10 Americans believe taking shorter breaks throughout their day is more beneficial than one half-hour lunch or one-hour break.
“We’re not always going to accomplish everything that we set our minds to do at the beginning of the day because things come up,” acknowledges Dr. Prewitt. “It’s important to know that in addition to your work tasks, it’s also a priority to take a break and recharge yourself.”
Instead of letting tensions build, Dr. Prewitt suggests taking several five- to 10-minute breaks throughout your day to help relieve stress, depression or anxiety. You can do this by taking a five-minute walk around the block, doing a 10-minute meditation or practicing a guided imagery exercise.
“Even standing once every hour for a few minutes can help with circulation,” says Dr. Prewitt. “If you’re giving yourself these little breaks throughout the day, I think it can help sustain your energy and contribute to a more positive attitude.”
Participate in restorative activities
You might want to cut out binging on those crime show dramas. While you may love high-strung activities or a good heart-pounding adventure, you want to find ways to relax the tension you’re feeling by doing solitary activities that provide restorative solutions. Of the respondents who took the survey, 63% said they felt an improvement in their mental health when they read a book and 48% said they felt the same when lighting a candle. But there are other small things you can do, including:
- Breathing exercises.
- Listening to quiet music.
- Going for a walk in the woods or around the block.
- Sleeping in.
- Taking a bath.
“Think about it in these terms: We all have 24 hours in a day and we’re not going to get any extra time,” says Dr. Prewitt. “So, think about where you can give yourself permission to take time for self-care when maybe you’re not doing that.”
Set aside time for self-care
Yes, that’s right — treat yourself. On the surface, this sounds like an indulgent activity, and it can be, but the best self-care routines are purposeful, productive and planned out.
“A lot of times, moms might not ask for help. Instead, they put their head down and get done what needs to be done,” notes Dr. Prewitt.
Even if you need to set aside 30 minutes at the start or end of your day to do something you love that’s relaxing and peaceful, you should communicate that need and build it into your daily rituals.
Self-care can look like a lot of things: a spa day, lunch with a friend, a quiet night without the kids. But it can also extend to approaching daily activities with mindfulness. Take your dinner for example — are you rushing through cooking and eating so you can get it out of the way, or are you taking your time to cook foods you love and savor the flavors? Mindful eating can easily be built into your daily routine, and that’s one small example of self-care.
“Eating can be an enjoyable experience,” Dr. Prewitt says. “If you make time to savor what you’re eating and you enjoy what you’re eating, it can help your mood, too.”
Ask for help when you need it
You’ve often heard that communication is key to strong relationships, but that’s also true when it comes to the relationship you have with yourself. If you have a partner or friend you trust, it could be beneficial to share some of the struggles you’re having and physically get those worries out of your system. Doing this can offer clarity. Sometimes, pent-up emotional stress can complicate additional issues in your relationship with your spouse and others, so it’s important to keep those lines of communication open when you’re feeling safe to do so.
And if you feel like you can’t share details about your mental health, there are different kinds of therapy that might be helpful as you work through some of the issues you’re dealing with.
“When you start to feel overwhelmed or you start to feel like you can’t manage day-to-day activities, or you’re regularly thinking negative thoughts about yourself or other people, it may be time to ask for help or talk to someone about what’s been going on,” encourages Dr. Prewitt.
Source: A joint online survey by Cleveland Clinic and Parade of 2,012 Americans, 18 years of age and older, living in the continental United States, completed between March 18 and 29, 2021. The margin of error for the total sample at the 95% confidence level is +/- 2 percentage points.