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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

How to Protect Your Mental Health in Tough Times

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How to Protect Your Mental Health in Tough Times

If you’re not protecting your mental health right now, you’re either struggling or a superhero. Even before the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in things, there was plenty to stress about.

Concerns about everything from dirty dishes to climate change can affect your mental health. Just remember: You control your mental state. You may not be able to solve all of life’s challenges, but you can keep them from getting to you.

Safeguarding your mental health isn’t just about keeping your stress levels in check, either. For yourself and others, it’s critical for a healthy, productive life.

Why Protect Your Mental Health?

You protect your mental health in tough times for the same reason you wear a life preserver when you get in the water: Not only does it keep you afloat, but it ensures you’re able to help others who rely on you.

What should you do when the waters get choppy? Strap in. Maintaining your mental health in tough times helps you:

Cultivate Resilience

Resilience is the ability to get back up after you get knocked down. If you let the small things get you down, you’ll struggle to rise to life’s actual challenges. Protecting your mental health ensures you’ll be able to face whatever comes your way.

Stay Productive

When you can’t get something off your mind, it’s practically impossible to do your best work. You know what it’s like: You fidget and stress, but you still can’t seem to focus on the task at hand.

A key step in protecting your mental health is being able to let go. You can’t change everything from your desk, so stop worrying about it for the time being.

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Create Stability For Others

Who relies on you? Your spouse? Your parents or siblings? Your loved ones worry about you, just like you worry about them.

Even if you aren’t financially supporting someone, your stability affects their stability. If your mental health is a mess all the time, it’s going to be tough for them to live their best life.

Of course, knowing your mental health matters and actually protecting it are two different things. You need ways to stay strong, no matter what’s happening in your life.

How to Protect Your Mental Health

Protecting your mental health starts with a simple commitment: to separate your internal state from what’s going on around you. Here’s how to do it:

1. Talk it Out

The first and most important step to protecting your mental health? Speaking up.

Opening up to friends and family about your mental health challenges isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, it proves you’re strong enough to show others the not-so-perfect parts of your life.

Need an easy way to start the conversation? You could say:

  • “I want to share something with you.”
  • “I’ve been thinking about…”
  • “Can we talk about…?”
  • “I’ve been struggling with…”

Any one of these will allow an easy in to a conversation you need to have.

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2. Shrink Your Screen Time

Tempting as it is right now, spending hours each day on social media isn’t good for your mental health. At best, you’ll distract yourself from what matters; at worst, you’ll internalize all the bad news and anger online.

Young people are particularly prone to this, but they’re not alone. A friend of mine got her daughter a Gabb phone, which is a safe phone for kids[1] that helps limit screen time. After I got my niece one, it made me think about how much I need to limit my own screen time.

I haven’t swapped out my smartphone, but I have put boundaries on how I use it. I limit myself to two hours of surfing per day, with a hard stop at 9 p.m. I don’t touch it again until I leave for work in the morning. Consider doing something similar to get yourself away from your screen.

3. Avoid Drugs and Alcohol

Another lesson I’ve learned about maintaining my mental health? Avoiding drugs and alcohol is key.

A few years ago, I got in the habit of pouring myself a glass of wine after a long day. It sure helped me unwind from the stresses of work, so I figured it was worth the health risks.

What nobody told me, though, is that alcohol makes anxiety worse. A few hours after having a drink, I noticed I’d get stressed out. Cutting back helped me get back to my normal self.

4. Don’t Neglect Your Diet

Have you ever heard medical experts call your gut “your second brain”? The reason is that the gastrointestinal tract has more nerve endings than anywhere in the body apart from the brain.

Every bite you take affects those gut nerves. Nutritious foods — the fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean meats your mother likes to talk about — nurture it, while unhealthy ones upset it.

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Cook meals at home whenever you can, and keep an eye on your snack intake. Even if you’re eating salmon and broccoli for dinner, binging on processed snacks at night could be messing with your mental health.

5. Stay Active

Your physical and mental health are more connected than you might realize. Regular exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety as effectively, in some cases, as medication[2].

What type of exercise is best for mental health? Opt for cardio, but realize that anything is better than nothing. Whether you like to swim, run, row, or lift, get some fresh blood to your brain.

Don’t let your current fitness level be a barrier. When I was looking at new ways to exercise, I was looking at what a lot of busy entrepreneurs do to work out. I randomly came upon a site where Mark Cuban got a new e-bike and figured I would try one out. Within a few weeks, I was cruising for miles while listening to my favorite podcasts. It’s become one of my favorite times to learn while staying active.

6. Give Yourself a Break

Although perseverance is admirable, you have to cut yourself some slack when times get tough. Taking breaks is critical if you want to keep going for the long term.

Because I struggle to take breaks, I use the Pomodoro Method: I buckle down for 25 minutes, after which I give myself a five-minute break. There’s no right or wrong approach, but you do need a system.

How should you spend your breaks? Do something that rejuvenates you, such as:

  • Reading a book
  • Calling up a friend
  • Taking a bath or shower
  • Taking a nap
  • Going for a walk

7. Get Outdoors

Speaking of going for a walk, there’s no better way to get some headspace than to get outside. There’s just something about the smell of fresh air and the feeling of sun on your skin that melts stress.

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Pair this tactic with others in this list. For outdoor exercise, you could go for a run around the neighborhood. Leave your phone inside, or stow it in your pocket while you’re enjoying time outside.

Although the outdoors can be a great break from work, it’s also a great place to work remotely. Most managers won’t mind you knocking out proposals from a picnic table.

8. Lose Yourself in a Hobby

Sometimes, an hour in the sun isn’t enough to take your mind off what’s bothering you. In that case, try diving into your favorite hobby.

Practicing a hobby helps you get into a “flow” state, which is when you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you lose track of the world around you. That mental break can be just what you need to get some perspective.

As with exercise, what the hobby is isn’t as important as your ability to stick with it. If you don’t have much time or money to spend, good options include:

  • Drawing
  • Hiking
  • Reading
  • Dancing
  • Cooking
  • Gardening
  • Knitting
  • Writing

9. Ask for Help

In rare cases, you might not be able to protect your mental health alone. If you’re feeling outgunned, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional. Although they mean well, your family and friends simply can’t provide the level of support a mental health expert can.

Remember, there are resources out there to help you get through tough times. Talk to your doctor, or reach out to one of the following helplines:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline: 800-662-4357
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline: 800-950-6264

The Bottom Line

Whatever you’re going through, remember: Your mental health matters. Whether you’re weathering a pandemic or just trying to organize your day, protecting your mental health is imperative in order to stay productive and happy. Make time for yourself and do what you have to in order to conquer stress.

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More Tips for Mental Strength

Featured photo credit: Eye for Ebony via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Gabb Wireless: 5 Ways to Regain Control Over Screen Time
[2] National Institutes of Health: Exercise for Mental Health

More by this author

Kimberly Zhang

Kimberly Zhang is the Chief Editor of Under30CEO and has a passion for educating the next generation of leaders to be successful.

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Published on October 15, 2021

Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

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Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

When you think of anxiety, several scenarios may come to mind: the endless tossing and turning of a restless night, dread over potential future events, pandemic-related overwhelm, or full-blown panic attacks. Even if you’re not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you’ve likely experienced anxiety symptoms at some point in your life. In these situations, you might feel a queasiness in your stomach, racing heartbeat, excessive sweating, chest tightness, some tension in your jaw/neck/shoulders, or worrisome thoughts as you prepare for the worst possible scenario. But does anxiety also make you tired?

After experiencing these symptoms, you may indeed feel fatigued. The sensation could fall anywhere on the exhaustion spectrum, from feeling like you just ran a marathon and need to sleep for two days, to just a little worn down and wanting a quick nap to recover.

Below are 7 ways anxiety zaps your energy and how to restore it.

1. Stress Hormone Overload

Anxiety can make you tired via overloading your body with stress hormones. The “fight or flight” response is a key connection between anxiety and fatigue. In fact, this process is made up of three stages: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. Anxiety triggers our body systems to go into high alert. This is a natural, involuntary reaction that developed in the human brain for survival.

When humans lived with the real, imminent threat of being attacked by a predator, it made sense for our bodies to spring into action without much preparatory thought. Such dangers are rare in modern times, but our brains continue to respond in the same way they did thousands of years ago.

The hormones and chemicals that flood our bodies to prepare us for safety can both affect and be affected by several body systems, and this interaction itself contributes to exhaustion. Adrenaline and cortisol are the two most notable hormones to address here. First, adrenaline is sent out, tensing the muscles and increasing heart rate and blood pressure in preparation to run. Later in the stress response, cortisol is released, enhancing the brain’s use of glucose. This is one of our main fuel sources, so it’s no wonder this contributes to fatigue (see #2).

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You can regulate baseline levels of these stress hormones by regularly practicing yoga, breathwork, meditation, and/or engaging in aerobic exercise.[1] It’s easier to lean into these routines for relief during stress when you’ve already mastered using them during times when you feel calm.

2. Elevated Blood Sugar Levels

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), which is shown to be associated with anxiety in diabetic patients.[2] Many people who experience hyperglycemia report feeling tired all the time regardless of their quantity or quality of sleep, nutrition, or exercise.

Although this connection has shown more prevalent and prolonged effects in diabetics, it also occurs with nondiabetics exposed to psychiatric stress.[3] In fact, for all people, the natural stress response elevates blood pressure and heart rate as well as cortisol levels, all of which increase blood sugar levels.[4] This means that anxiety causes a double-hit of exhaustion related to blood sugar fluctuations.

Instead of reaching for comfort foods like chocolate during times of stress, take a calming walk around the block. Gentle movement alone is a great stress reliever that incidentally also helps to regulate blood sugars.[5]

3. Negative Mindset

Anxiety can also make you tired because of repetitive negative thinking (RNT), which is a common symptom of anxiety. RNT involves continuous thoughts via rumination (dwelling on sad or dark thoughts focused on the past) and worry (angst regarding the future). Some researchers argue that having a longtime habit of RNT can harm the brain’s capacity to think, reason, and form memories.[6] While the brain is busy using its energy stores to fuel negative thought patterns, the energy available for these other more productive endeavors is thereby reduced.

Negative thoughts can also disrupt or prevent healthy sleep patterns, keeping our minds racing at night and effectively wreaking havoc on daytime energy. (See #7)

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Reduce these patterns by reframing your feelings over anxious thoughts. Instead of staying stuck on “what if,” focus on what you can do in the here and now. What activity can you engage in for five minutes (or more) that brings you joy? What are you grateful for, no matter what’s going on around you?

4. Digestive Issues

It’s common for people to experience both intestinal and mental issues simultaneously. This suggests a strong connection between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is known as the gut-brain axis.[7] Simply put, what happens in our digestive tract (and as a result of what we eat) affects the brain and vice versa.

The gut microbiota is a complex population of GI tract microorganisms. When its balance is altered, the body can develop conditions that affect the gut-brain-endocrine relationship. The endocrine system produces and manages adrenaline, for starters. And the gut bacteria’s production of feel-good hormones (serotonin and dopamine—see #5) ties into this relationship as well.

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors are also found in gut bacteria. GABA is a natural brain relaxant that makes us feel good by helping the body to unwind after a stress-induced neurotransmitter release (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline). When GABA activity is low, it leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mood disorders. These are just a few of the manifestations that demonstrate how gut bacteria influences behavior. All of these contribute to feeling both physically and mentally tired.

You can minimize the symptoms of depression and anxiety by keeping your gut microbiota balanced with probiotic-rich fermented foods. Yogurt with live cultures, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, miso soup, and tempeh are great foods to include in your diet.[8]

5. Depression

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Research continues to indicate a complex relationship between depression and decreased serotonin—a key neurotransmitter for regulating mood and feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Anxiety is also a direct symptom of serotonin deficiency. Serotonin helps with healthy sleep, mood, and digestion.

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Serotonin is produced in the gut, almost exclusively, at an estimated 90 percent. However, a small quantity is also produced in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that is pivotal for transmitting energy balance signals. This small cone-shaped structure receives and relays signals transmitted via the vagus nerve from the gastrointestinal tract. It has a central role in mediating stress responses, regulating sleep, and establishing circadian rhythms. It senses and responds to a myriad of circulating hormones and nutrients, directly affecting our mood and energy.[9]

Dopamine is another mood-boosting neurochemical that is depleted in depression. It creates feelings of alertness and wakefulness and, when the body is operating normally, is released in higher amounts in the morning (allowing for daytime energy) and lower at night (preparing for healthy sleep). Stress is one factor that can deplete dopamine, thereby leading to depression, sleep disorders, and fatigue.

Studies show that dopamine levels in the brain can be elevated by increasing dietary intake of tyrosine and phenylalanine.[10] Both of these amino acids are naturally found in protein-rich foods like turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, peas, lentils, and beans.

6. Breathing Problems

Breathlessness and anxiety are closely linked, and this is one of the ways anxiety can make you feel tired. Anxiety can lead to shallow breathing, which can cause shortness of breath while feeling breathless can exacerbate anxiety.[11] It’s a vicious cycle that often leads people to take rapid and shallow breaths, breathing into their upper chest and shoulders.

This type of breathing minimizes oxygen intake and usability. Despite comprising only two percent of the body, our brains consume 20 percent of the body’s oxygen supply. Oxygen is fuel for both mental and physical tasks. When breathing patterns compromise healthy oxygen levels, this can cause considerable fatigue.[12]

End the anxiety-fatigue cycle with focused breathing exercises. It’s important to practice this regularly while you’re not experiencing anxiety or stress, as this will help you to be prepared should a moment of breathless anxiety hit unexpectedly.

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There are several different styles of breathing exercises. There’s an easy one to try, called “Resonant Breathing.” Simply breathe in slowly through your nose as you count to five, then exhale for a count of five. Repeat this for a few minutes. It’s helpful to bring your awareness to any tension, deliberately relaxing your neck, shoulders, and jaw in particular.

7. Sleep Issues

Most of the elements we’ve already discussed inherently tie into sleep issues, which is often the reason why anxiety can make you feel tired. But it’s important to note that this is not always a directly linear cause-and-effect process. Much of it is cyclic. If we don’t get enough quality sleep, we increase our risk of excessive cortisol production, elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels, depressed mood and mindset disorders, and dysregulation of appetite/craving hormones that affect our digestive health.

Sleep is obviously the number one antidote to feeling tired as a result of anxiety. But at the same time, many of these elements—including anxiety itself—lead to less-than-restorative sleep. We can improve our energy levels by addressing each element discussed here, as well as taking a proactive approach to our sleep health.

One simple habit to help recalibrate your circadian rhythm for healthy sleep patterns is to get outside in the morning. Sunlight exposure in the early hours of the day regulates melatonin production, helping us to feel sleepy at night.

You Don’t Have to Live Your Life Anxious and Exhausted

Times of extreme stress, like driving in heavy traffic or nerve-wracking situations like public speaking, can easily induce an anxiety response. Even “normal” everyday stressors, like feeling overwhelmed with work and home responsibilities, can build up to anxious feelings over time.

Our bodies’ response to stress and anxiety affects many of its functions in complex ways. When we unravel the interconnections of these processes, we can see how each part plays an intrinsic role in contributing to fatigue. By addressing each element individually, we can make simple lifestyle changes that resolve anxiety and diminish the ways it makes us tired as a result.

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More Tips on Coping With Anxiety

Featured photo credit: Joice Kelly via unsplash.com

Reference

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