The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on our collective mental health. We’ve adjusted how we live life in many ways — from small habits like never leaving the house without hand sanitizer, to more significant changes, like missing out on lifetime celebrations. These changes have indeed impacted how we think and feel about ourselves and our world.
Most of us understand the idea of mental health, but this year for World Mental Health Day we asked Alexis Lyon-Claus, LMFT, behavioral health manager at Dignity Health Mercy Medical Group, to help explain behavioral health and share advice on what you and your loved ones can do to continue to navigate your mental health journeys through the pandemic.
Behavioral Health for Yourself
So what exactly is behavioral health, and what makes it different from mental health?
“Many people use these terms interchangeably, when actually behavioral health is broader and encompasses mental health,” said Lyon-Claus. “Behavioral health looks at the connection between various actions or behaviors, as well as the overall health and wellness of the body, mind and spirit.”
Have you ever noticed how refreshed you feel after taking a nice walk, even if you didn’t feel like going in the first place? Or the feeling you get when you cross a task off your to-do list? Those are small yet practical examples of how certain actions impact your thoughts, emotions and even physical health. Acknowledging the impact of your behavioral health can be used to help manage a variety of mental health struggles like anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
It can be difficult to identify when to start implementing behavioral health tactics while struggling with your own negative thoughts and feelings. Lyon-Claus has some tips for when you catch yourself in these difficult situations.
Move Your Body
“Whether it be walking, gardening, cycling, yoga, or whatever is available to you, movement is great for the body and mind. Many people struggle to get enough physical activity, especially with so many of us now working or learning from home and living a more sedentary lifestyle. Challenge yourself to take a lap around the neighborhood each day or do some stretching between meetings.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
“Daily movement also improves sleep for many people, and getting enough sleep each night is a very important part of self care,” said Lyon-Claus.
To improve your sleep schedule, try going to bed and waking up at the same time each morning, including the weekends, and limiting your phone use in bed. These habits are shown to improve your quality of sleep, which impacts all aspects of our health.
Countdown With Your Senses
Another helpful way to incorporate behavioral health is to implement the 5 senses countdown technique. If you’re experiencing anxiety or stress, lay in bed and identify five things you can see; four things you can physically feel; three things you can hear; two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Taking the time to ground yourself in the present by identifying tangible, real things can help get your mind off your anxiety. That’s what behavioral health is all about; doing things and taking actions that can strengthen the connection between your mind, heart and body.
Behavioral Health for Others
Being familiar with behavioral health not only helps you help yourself, but it allows you to recognize and provide support when a loved one is struggling with their own mental health.
“Some common signs that a friend or family member may be struggling include; pulling away or withdrawing from their usual activities and community, unusual difficulties at school or work, extreme mood fluctuation, or significant changes to sleep or eating habits,” said Lyon-Claus.
Another common warning sign of deteriorating mental health that is often overlooked is a sudden increase in risky behaviors, like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or abusing substances. According to the CDC, the pandemic has contributed to an increase of substance use. If you notice any of these signs in a loved one, reach out and offer a listening ear without judgement.
“Reassure them that you are there for them and care about them. If the problem becomes persistent and is having a significant impact on their day-to-day life, encourage them to talk with a therapist or their primary care provider,” said Lyon-Claus.
Oftentimes, people don’t have an outlet to sort out their difficult feelings, and having a trusted person in their circle to vent to without feeling judged can be a tremendous help. Lyon-Claus suggests to just listen — don’t immediately offer advice or reprimand your loved one for the things they’re struggling with.
This World Mental Health Day, take the time to learn more about the behavioral health resources available in your community. Ask your primary care provider if you have any concerns about your own mental health and how to help those around you. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming others, visit a local emergency room for evaluation, or call 911 if you think there is an immediate safety risk.