Your thoughts play an essential role in your mental health and emotional well-being. When you engage in pessimism, cynicism, or negative self-talk, this can trigger unhelpful emotions and even mood states like fear and anxiety. It works the other way as well. When you focus on grateful thoughts and positive self-talk you can activate expansive emotions like joy and inspiration, and even change your heart rhythm, brain waves, and immune strength.
Mental health begins with learning how to manage your thoughts and emotions through mindfulness.
Mindfulness helps you avoid making disempowered choices, especially when you're feeling tired, cranky, hungry, lonely, triggered, scared, or irritable. Everyone feels these emotions from time to time. What’s important is to pause, and not act out when you’re in these emotional states because your brain will often give you bad advice to make choices that cause you to feel worse.
Below, you’ll find a list of common pitfalls and how to avoid them when you're feeling upset, anxious or depressed. Practicing the items on this list will allow you to improve your ability to be mindful and gain command over your thoughts while also practicing self-care instead of self-harm.
1. Don't assess your life, yourself, and your relationships. People are naturally inclined to start listing everything that’s going wrong in their lives or looking back on the past and ruminating with a negative lens. While it might be tempting to do this, it’s not productive, and it only adds to the pile. When you’re upset, anxious or depressed, this impairs your judgment and makes you lose perspective. This means you’re more likely to engage in catastrophic thinking, black and white thinking, or general negative thinking. These thought patterns can make you feel worse, and they also reinforce the depression and anxiety.
What to do instead: Take a sheet of paper or post-it and write yourself a reminder to NOT assess your life when you’re feeling low, even if you really want to. Also write down a reminder that your feelings and thoughts aren’t permanent, even if they feel that way. Post this note on your mirror or someplace where you’ll see it. When you notice that you’re beginning to asses your life, remind yourself that this is not a productive time to do this and that it’s something you will come back to when you’re in a more balanced state of mind.
2. Avoid isolation. While it's important to spend time alone, especially if you're an introvert, isolation means you're taking it to an extreme. Isolation can trigger depression and anxiety. Spending too much time alone will make you feel worse because it leaves a lot of room for negative thinking and rumination.
What to do instead: If making plans with people seems exhausting, remind yourself that it’s natural to want to avoid people, but that you’ll feel much better after spending time with others. Make sure to spend time with people who are uplifting, positive, and compassionate. If you don’t want to spend time with people you know, sign up for a class, a weekly Meetup event, or something along those lines to get you out of the house, and out of your own head.
3. Avoid being sedentary. Stillness, rest, and relaxation are helpful, but sedentary lifestyles have been linked to depression. It's important to move your body even if you don't feel energetic or motivated.
What to do instead: Commit to moving your body at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days per week, even when you don’t want to. Set a recurring alarm on your phone as a reminder to get up and move around. Dancing, going to the gym, a brisk walk, or just about any activity that engages your body will help you to release stress and increase positive brain chemicals.
4. Avoid taking out your anger on other people or yourself. Irritability is a common symptom of depression and anxiety. It’s appropriate to experience the full range of your emotions, but it’s not healthy to act out from your emotions. Avoid yelling, argumentative confrontations, snapping at people and any form of violence, including self-harm (binging and/or purging, cutting, and negative self-talk).
What to do instead: Find a healthy and non-destructive way to release pent-up emotions. This way you can express yourself without causing any damage. You can experiment with releasing anger through exercise, therapy, drawing, daily journaling, or artwork.
5. Don’t make any major life decisions. You might feel motivated to make a drastic change in your life and sometimes this can lead you to make positive changes (like exercising or getting help). However, if you find that you’re contemplating bigger decisions, especially permanent ones, it’s best to hold off until you’re feeling better. This includes refraining from making major purchases, ending relationships, or writing angry emails.
What to do instead: If you’re feeling drawn to make an important life decision, write it down and set an alarm for 2 weeks - 2 months in the future where you’ll be reminded to review this decision and reassess. If you’re still feeling anxious or depressed, give yourself more time, or consult with a therapist, coach, or trusted friend before making any final decisions. This will help you to avoid making disempowered choices that can have a lasting effect on your life and the lives of others.
6. Avoid inflammatory foods. Research suggests that the foods we eat can have a direct impact on our mental health. Inflammatory foods, such as refined sugar, dairy products, and alcohol can contribute to inflammation in the gut, which sends inflammatory signals to your brain and can trigger anxiety and depression.
What to do instead: Drink plenty of water every day, about half of your body weight in ounces to avoid dehydration. Eat anti-inflammatory foods, such as salmon, green leafy vegetables, walnuts, and peas. To learn more about the connection between the gut and mental health and get more ideas for anti-inflammatory foods, click here to read a previous blog post on this topic.
Keep in mind that everything you’re not really supposed to do is probably exactly what you’ll want to do when you’re feeling cranky, anxious, or depressed.
Remember that there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re not the only one who feels this way. Be compassionate with yourself, and challenge yourself to experiment with these tips and stick with them, even if you don't feel better right away. Over time you'll build your internal strength, resilience, and your mindfulness skills. This will help you to spend less time engaging in unhelpful thoughts and behaviors and to recover more easily if you do wander into that territory.