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Maintain your mental health during a wild year

mother and daughter meditation

Twenty years from now when 2020 is a chapter in the history books, we will be able to say: “I remember that year. It was wild.”

Right now, though, stress levels are skyrocketing thanks to a global pandemic, a faltering economy, and racial injustice. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, which was conducted in June, 72 percent of Americans say this is the lowest point in the country’s history that they can remember.

Another survey conducted in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a marked increase in the number of people who said they are dealing with anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide. These numbers increased rapidly with the onset of the pandemic, and are likely higher now.

To add insult to injury, a main source of comfort has turned into a major stress point.

“Just when we need each other more, we are being forced apart through social distancing. A lot of people are overwhelmed right now,” says Cari Michaels, a University of Minnesota Extension educator in the Children, Youth & Family Consortium. "Our social connections provide a foundation for our mental health and wellbeing."

Despite difficult circumstances, Michaels said it is possible to flourish by focusing on our self-care and social connections. 

Self-care

Self-care is the practice of taking an active role in protecting, or improving, your own health, wellbeing and happiness. There is no one right way to accomplish this.

woman drinking hot chocolate by bonfire
For some, time outdoors in nature — including during winter — improves mental health.

Chelsea Williams, an Extension educator in health and nutrition, encourages people to find out what works best for them in four distinct areas:  

  1. Find an activity that calms your central nervous system and enables you to relax, such as listening to music, being in nature, or mediating.
  2. Do something that creates positive, long-term benefits, such as exercising, eating nourishing food, getting regular sleep and setting boundaries. “It’s okay to say no to what doesn’t fulfill you,” says Williams.
  3. Engage in activities that bring you inspiration, a sense of innovation, and reflection, such as painting, reading, writing, or building something.
  4. Seek out social connection with physical distance.

Williams stresses the importance of accepting, rather than suppressing, your emotions. “Accept your feelings in the present moment, as they are, without questioning them.”

Caring collectively

Collective care is the idea that we have a shared responsibility to take care of each other.

Williams says this concept is often found in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) communities. “Individual wellbeing is centered in community wellbeing,” she explains. 

Jamaican patties or Mexican empanadas
Is it better to give or to receive something hot to eat? Both are part of collective self-care because what is good for one is good for all.

Williams saw the concept in action following the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man who died while being arrested and pinned to the ground by a White police officer. His death sparked riots throughout the United States.

There was a “need of essential resources like food and household products after local stores were damaged,” Williams says. “We saw community members come together to gather donated items and deliver them to families in need. There was little hesitation, and a lot of quick, meaningful action.”

Williams also experienced the healing power of collective care on a personal level.

“As a Black woman from a multi-cultural family, I was deeply affected by the murder of George Floyd. I had immense sadness. My normal self-care strategies were not working. I didn’t have energy to make a meal for myself, to sleep through the night, or to really process this event on my own. My family recognized my inability to take care of myself. They brought me to their home for a meal, and we processed it together.”

Collective care – focusing on the health and well-being of others – helps strengthen both individuals and communities.

“Taking care of the people we love can be a way of caring for ourselves,” Williams says. “It reminds me that I am not alone and am part of a community.”

Michaels agreed, stating simply: “When I am engaged with people, I am happy.”

For more information on self-care during times of stress, visit Taking care of yourself under stress. Resources, including videos, are available in English, Spanish and Somali.

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