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Why it's more important now than ever to have a mental health check-in practice

Hand holding a brain model #mentalhealth

One in five Americans experience mental illness each year. Maybe you don't suffer from a chronic condition yourself, but the widespread chaos and uncertainty caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic are leaving more and more of us feeling scared, anxious and stressed at much higher rates than usual. People quarantining alone may be feeling lonely and isolated, while families quarantining together under one roof may be feeling a lot of tension.

As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. My boyfriend's family is doing a challenge to avoid talking about anything coronavirus-related for one week. In our house, debates on the subject certainly can get heated. My brother can't stand it and proposed that we try our own boycott. He was met with responses of "Okay fine, you pick a topic then. We'll talk about whatever you want." And he could only laugh and say he didn't have any ideas.

I get it. I'm sick of fighting over the dinner table about the government's response to the crisis, how much longer it will last, whether public health or the economy is more important, etc. etc. I'm sick of eagerly looking forward to group conversations with friends only to be disappointed that it only revolves around the personal impact of the virus. But the thing is, there's nothing else to talk about. Everything that we are watching or doing to keep busy is in one way or another still directly tied to the fact that we no longer have control over our lives and we need to distract ourselves in the meantime.

People want to retain "normalcy" in their interactions as much as possible, but there is nothing normal about these times. We have to change our outlook.

Whether you are obsessing over the latest news headlines, or pretending like they don't exist, you are missing the point. We are collectively going through what will hopefully be a once-in-a-lifetime global crisis that has disrupted all aspects of daily life. Why aren't we talking about the bigger picture? And by that I mean how it's making us feel?

Think about all of the people you've spoken to in the last few days, whether you are lucky enough to be with them in person or you're closing in on your 100th Zoom call. Are you really connecting, or just making small talk? Digging deeper, or pushing each other's buttons? Looking out for each other, or putting your head in the sand until it's over?

I've started listening to podcasts again more regularly and there are a few that resonated with me over the last week as I've been thinking more about how this pandemic is taking a toll on our mental health and what we can do about it. I'm folding in some advice from the experts below in the hopes that it helps anyone else trying to maintain sanity right now.

It's time to break down the barriers surrounding mental health and make it a regular part of everyday conversation. Here are my suggestions on navigating this process:

--Look inward. Maybe you're throwing yourself into work so you don't have to think about what's really going on. Or maybe you're regularly getting lost in a dark hole on social media. Do yourself a favor and take a time out to either journal or record a voice memo of what you're feeling and what you think is causing that. As the days blur together, it's easy to get stuck in your own head. You may be fine one day and in a funk the next. Check in on yourself daily to keep tabs on how you are coping and what may be triggering difficult emotions.

--Separate thoughts from circumstances. Kara Loewentheil, host of the UnF*ck Your Brain podcast, has some really great insight into why we so easily unravel upon reading too many news reports. She emphasizes the distinction between an objective and neutral statement such as, "An epidemiologist named X made prediction Y about something that might happen," and your subsequent thoughts about that (This will never end, the world is over, I'm going to die, etc.). Not everything that you are reading is necessarily true, but you are having a reaction to it that you are believing to be true. Remember to focus only on the facts!

--Pay attention to what's under the surface. In my own quarantine family, I've seen all kinds of behaviors. You're raising your voice because you are desperately clinging to what you read in the news. You're lashing out with hurtful remarks because you're angry that you can't hang out with your friends. You're demanding that I stop reading headlines aloud because you can't stomach the reality that this may not be over soon. In these moments, we must pause to take stock of what's really going on: these are signals of anxiety and fear that too often erupt into the wrong conversations if we take them personally.

--Project the calm you want to maintain. According to professor and author Dr. Brené Brown, we mirror what we see from others when it comes to cadence, tone and volume. And contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as an inherently "calm person" -- calm is something that you choose to practice. Take deep breaths and steady yourself before engaging in what could be a volatile conversation so the person you are speaking with follows your cue.

--Ask the hard questions. The next time you have a disagreement or pick up on someone else's mental distress, express a genuine interest in things from their point of view. Get to the heart of it with questions like Why are you shutting down? How are you feeling right now? What kind of comfort are you seeking? If you're catching up with a friend or family member far away, don't just ask what they've been up to, ask how they're really doing.

--Flip your emotions on their head. On a recent episode of Brit + Co's new podcast, organizational psychologist Adam Grant gave a great piece of evidence-based advice on how to manage anxiety. While many people may already know that one of the worst ways to deal with anxiety is telling a person to "calm down," the reason behind this is that anxiety is such a high-intensity psychological response that can't simply be turned off like a switch. What you can do, however, is turn that anxiety into a different kind of high-intensity emotion that is more positive. Where you can, try to channel your fear into excitement.

--Use a numeric system. Dr. Brené Brown created a family gap plan in her home. Each person evaluates their energy levels as a percentage and they have rules in place for how to handle situations where the collective sum falls short of 100. This can be a great exercise for checking in on your mood as an individual, couple, family or team. Assign a number to how you are feeling, and talk about it. If you're at a 20%, where could you use some help? Can you be there for someone else who is struggling?

With all the pressure swirling around social media to use this time in quarantine most effectively, it remains to be said that it is not my intention to tell you what you should or should not do to get through this. But not addressing what you are feeling in one way or another can have devastating consequences. Explore what works best for you based on your relationships and communication style.

Maybe one of the good things that comes out of this whole mess is that we learn to open up and talk about our feelings more, sit with our discomfort instead of pushing it away and embrace being vulnerable.

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