Emotional exercises to improve your mental health and combat anxiety

Juli Fraga, Psy.D., is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco.

As the pandemic continues, so does the mental health crisis. Many of us are struggling with grief and trauma triggered by the coronavirus, as well as stressors such as mass shootings and climate change. With so much suffering, there is a greater need for therapy, but many psychotherapists, myself included, cannot meet the growing demand.

When new patients contact me, I help those in crisis find emergency care and connect others with counselors or group support. But when capital “S” stressors like unrelenting anxiety, debilitating depression and insomnia roar loudly, some patients want more immediate help. This might explain why many potential patients ask me, “What can I do now to improve my mental health?”

One possible solution, says clinical psychologist Emily Anhalt, is to add “emotional training” to your self-care regimen. “In the same way that exercise prevents high blood pressure and heart disease, emotional fitness can be a proactive stance toward managing stress,” says Anhalt, co-founder of Coa, a gym for mental health

In Coa’s virtual classes, Anhalt and his team teach exercises called “emotional push-ups,” which are small ways to work every day. “The purpose is to strengthen your mental health muscles so you’re in a better position to face life’s challenges,” he says.

Self-care tools can be helpful, especially when barriers such as insurance plans with high deductibles, high co-pays, and living in remote areas can make accessing or accessing mental health care difficult . And while the pandemic isn’t solely to blame for the shortage of therapists, it’s certainly made things worse, says Vaile Wright, senior director of health innovation at the American Psychological Association.

This is why mental health counseling is so hard to find right now

With too few mental health resources, we need innovative ways to make psychological care more accessible, he says. If you’re waiting to see a therapist, can’t afford mental health care, or have recently finished therapy, emotional exercises are a way to strengthen your psychological muscles. While these workouts aren’t meant to replace individual or group therapy, Anhalt says they can promote resilience and help you feel empowered.

Here are some expert-backed exercises to get you started.

Overwhelmed? Schedule a “worry date.”

Understandably, the increase in global confusion is affecting our mental health. Wright says the near-constant cycle of “bad news” and discussions on social media can heighten our feelings of worry and overwhelm.

Researchers claim that worry has a cognitive component, which is why ruminations often stimulate recurring worrying thoughts. One way to deal with this anxiety is to schedule a “worry date.” “Set a time in your daily calendar to worry, obsess, and ruminate,” suggests Anhalt. During this date, take 10-15 minutes to write down your problems.

In his book, “Cards Against Anxiety,” mental health educator and author Pooky Knightsmith says that dating with worry can prevent that feeling of anxiety from turning heads and taking over.

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Angry with a loved one? Practice the “self-reflection bend.”

When you’re frustrated because your partner went to a concert without a mask or a co-worker stole the spotlight, it’s natural to see the annoying party as the problem. But another approach is to use the opportunity to learn about yourself, says Anhalt.

Feeling hurt, upset, or angry about someone else’s behavior may reflect something we don’t like about ourselves. To examine this possibility, Anhalt suggests practicing an exercise he calls the “self-reflection bend.” This bend uses the “3 J’s, which stand for Join, Jealous and Judge” to guide you.

Ask yourself if the other person’s behavior is something you also do (join), envy (jealous), or criticize (judge). For example, if you are upset with your friend for being selfish, you might realize that you have been behaving in the same way. Putting the focus on our actions allows us to take responsibility, says Anhalt.

When it comes to building close relationships, research shows that self-awareness can increase cognitive empathy, which is our ability to understand another person’s emotions from their perspective.

Are you feeling down? Making friends with hard emotions.

As humans, we are wired to avoid pain. When uncomfortable emotions such as anger or sadness arise, we may try to distract ourselves from feeling bad. We can scroll through social media, have an extra glass of wine, or binge on Netflix. These tactics are called “defenses,” which are thoughts and behaviors that prevent us from feeling the unbearable. But when we rely solely on defenses, we avoid feeling our emotions, which hinders our ability to process them.

When upsetting emotions arise, try to make friends with your feelings. Start by naming your emotions, a technique psychologists call “affect labeling.” You can also become a detective by exploring where your feelings appear in your body. For example, I ask my patients, “Where do you feel this emotion?” and “What could he be trying to tell you?” The goal is not to alter the emotion, but to bring awareness to how it feels in the moment.

It is natural to feel happy and sad at the same time. This is when it can become a problem.

A 2018 research review states that “focusing on our feelings, without trying to change them” can help ease anxiety. This “in-the-moment” mindset is what Dialectical Behavioral Therapist Marsha Linehan calls “radical acceptance,” and it’s a way to prevent pain from lingering. Many people assume that radical acceptance makes change difficult, but this liberating stance can accompany transformation, says clinical psychologist Jenny Taitz.

Anxiety shakes? Exercise curiosity.

About 32 percent of American adults showed symptoms of an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder in the week before Aug. 8, the Household Dust Survey showed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevention of Diseases. For a smaller percentage of people, anxiety symptoms are a mental illness such as generalized anxiety disorder, which affects about 3% of Americans, or social anxiety disorder, which affects more than 7% of the general population.

If you want to disarm your anxiety, adopting a curious mindset can help. When fear and uncertainty surround us, we are often quick to ask, “Why is this happening?” explains psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer, author of “Unwinding Anxiety” and medical director of Sharecare. “The mind gets stuck on that ‘why’ question because we think finding out the answer will solve our anxiety,” explains Brewer. But in reality, this mindset can make us feel helpless and trapped. To get out of this rabbit hole, try entering the “anxiety-free zone,” recommends the neuroscientist.

How to make friends with your inner critic

A grounding exercise is to sit down, look at your feet, and ask, “Which foot is warmer than the other?” That question helps spark curiosity, Brewer says. This wonderful feeling can also open the mind to possibilities, allowing us to see our situations in a different light, research shows. “When anxiety throws us for a loop, replacing ‘Why is this happening?’ with ‘What’s going on?’ it can get us out of the anxiety-laden “why zone,” says Brewer.

Mental health exercises can teach us to better manage our worrying thoughts and upsetting feelings. These workouts can also help us think about our discomfort in a different way. “Symptoms like anxiety and depression are the body’s alarm system,” says Anhalt. “By trying to understand them, we can discover the root cause of our suffering.”

If you’re looking for additional mental health exercises, Wondermind offers a free newsletter with mental fitness tips, Coa offers a free 15-minute emotional fitness class, and Liberate offers wellness classes to help people cope with stress and anxiety exhaustion

We welcome your comments on this column a [email protected].

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