Taking Care of Your Mental Health in 2021

Photo of article contributor, Lisa Ragan

The importance of our mental health has risen to a new awareness during these topsy turvy times of COVID-19. Many of us have found ourselves worrying about our loved ones, our jobs, our communities and experiencing intense feelings of sadness or despair. Know that it’s natural to feel sad, anxious, overwhelmed, fearful, depressed, or even angry during these challenging times. It really is okay to not be okay right now, but how do you know if your worries or sadness have gotten to the point of needing outside help?

As someone who lives a life of recovery from PTSD, I get to practice taking care of my mental health every day. PTSD can include symptoms of depression and anxiety among others, and I have had the opportunity to manage both in my life. Folks right now are okay one minute and then maybe watch the news and suddenly find themselves feeling anxious or irritable or sad.

You can always check in with your doctor if you’re concerned, but some of the signs of depression can include:
• Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, tearfulness, even a sense of emptiness
• Changes in sleep, including insomnia or sleeping way more than what’s typical for you
• Change in appetite, whether increased or reduced, that has resulted in weight gain or weight loss
• Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all activities that you used to enjoy, including hobbies, sports, sex
• Tiredness and lack of energy where even small tasks seem to take extra effort
• Feeling worthless or guilty, even fixating on past failures or self-blame
• And finally, depression can include thoughts of suicide or death.

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of harming themselves or others, call the statewide crisis line 24/7 at 855-274-7471.

Depression doesn’t have to include all of those signs, but if a person is experiencing some of these for more than two weeks, then it’s something you want to pay attention to. You can consider talking with a professional therapist or maybe checking things out with your PCP to see if medication might help. You can also take an online confidential screening at the Mental Health America website.

In addition, you can seek out peer support. Find a group of people you can connect with who have experienced some of the same feelings and support one another. Or check out one of Tennessee’s 45 Peer Support Centers. Knowing you are not alone can make all the difference.

Figure out what works for you to reduce stress in your life. I get outside and go for a big walk as often as I can and research has shown that exercise is effective at reducing depressive symptoms. I have also found that yoga and meditation help me significantly. Take some time to think about what will work for you and then make a commitment to doing it on a regular basis.

For some of us, our anxiety levels are pushing the ceiling. Symptoms of anxiety can include
• Feeling wound-up, restless, on edge, extra irritable, or even super tired
• Brain fog, your mind going blank, inability to concentrate
• Muscle tension
• Sleep issues – having a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep, or maybe not feeling rested when you wake up

So, what can you do about those anxious feelings? You can always contact your doctor or a professional therapist, and the Mental Health America website has screenings for anxiety, too. In addition, you can:
• Limit your exposure to news and social media. Americans love to be in the know, but sometimes it can be too much. It’s okay to watch the news or scroll social media but pay attention to how it makes you feel and make adjustments as needed.
• Make a real commitment to taking care of your body.
• Do some deep breathing. In through your nose…..and out through your mouth. Just taking 10 deep breaths can do wonders for your mind and body.
• Consider your nutrition and how it affects you. For example, I have to limit caffeine or I can get shaky and irritable.
• Exercise your body and prioritize healthy sleep.
• Not surprisingly, alcohol and drugs are not recommended ways to cope with anxiety. They can actually make things much worse in the long run. If you need help with substance abuse, call the Tennessee Redline 24/7 at 800-889-9789.
• And we need to relax. If you find you usually have a packed schedule, make a commitment to also schedule in activities you enjoy that help you relax.
• And finally, you’ve got to be very deliberate about connecting with others right now. It’s just not happening as naturally as it used to, so we’ve got to make it happen. Talk with someone you trust and find a way to get and give support.

If you think your symptoms are getting serious, reach out and ask for help. Help is available and it does get better. Your body and your mind will thank you.


Lisa Ragan is the Director of Consumer Affairs and Peer Recovery Services for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.