In the past year, more than ever, Americans have dealt with exponential amounts of stress, depression and loneliness. Issues such as COVID-19, job loss, economic challenges and personal issues have accelerated the emotional challenges that make life more complicated and complex.
Although some of these matters are outside your control, there’s positive news.
“Few things are more important than how we feel emotionally day to day, including how we feel about ourselves,” says James E. Maddux, Ph.D., senior scholar at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “Good mental health consists not just of the absence of anxiety, loneliness, depression and stress but also of a sense of positive well-being — the sense that I am valuable and worthwhile person and that my life has purpose and meaning.”
Maddux says that the key is whether a person views these day-to-day challenges as a constant struggle or as something to value, look forward to and learn from.
“The way you deal with the challenges you can control and how you approach them can make all the difference,” he says. “We know from decades of research that loneliness can be detrimental to mental and physical health. For this reason, one way to improve both is to spend time on a regular basis with people we enjoy spending time with.”
Extroverts and introverts have different levels of need for companionship and alone time. “However, even the most introverted people need a few close, intimate relationships with other people,” he says. “The most extroverted and social person requires some alone time to recharge. The risk is going to the extreme in either case.”
Finding a trusted friend or family member to use as a sounding board, someone who will be candid yet sensitive to feelings, is an excellent way to deal with issues. Talking through a problem can help break the cycle of trying to figure out a solution on your own.
Exercise, just getting moving, can be another way to cope with daily stressors. “Exercising is an excellent mechanism for managing stress,” Maddux says. “Taking a walk, meditating or doing yoga can positively influence your outlook.”
According to a study published by the American Depression and Anxiety Association, exercise leads the way in suggestions for dealing with stress. Findings show that nearly 30 percent of health care providers recommend walking, followed by 20 percent who suggest running. Eleven percent cite yoga as a good strategy for stress relief.
“The relationship between regular physical activity and good mental health is one of the strongest of all relationships,” Maddux says. “The research on this topic has been accumulated for decades and demonstrates with near certainty that regular exercise can not only improve the physical and mental health of people who are already relatively happy and well-adjusted but can also be an effective treatment for anxiety and depression.”
Stressors can come in many forms from family pressure to work demands, dealing with health conditions — your own or those of a loved one — or simply trying to take care of everyone around you without taking care of yourself.
“One of the most important words in the English language is ‘no,’ but it’s also the hardest one to say, especially to a loved one or an important person in your life,” he says. “However, if you can learn to say ‘no’ to avoid getting overly committed, you’ve taken an invaluable first step in managing your controllable stressors.”
If these issues become seemingly insurmountable, Maddux suggests seeking professional help.
“A sense of purpose in life and a sense of gratitude for the positive aspects of your life are so easy to forget and ignore when you’re down in the dumps,” he says. “However, realize that you can have control over the things that are holding you back. Exercise, meditation, getting better control over your schedule and nurturing your relationships with friends, family and co-workers can help you improve your mental well-being.”
Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who specializes in travel, gardening, personality and feature writing. She is also a photographer and accomplished sailor.