Dr. Barling's Blog

Creating Mentally Healthy Habits During Unpredictable Times

Being a mindful, intentional person is the only way to truly shape our world by shaping our own habits. Empowerment is the result of recognizing that we can, in fact, influence the course of our lives through intentionally directing our responses.

In a previous post, I talked about how in unpredictable times, our usual ways of going about living are significantly changed. In my blog, “Your Mental Health in These Unpredictable Times”, I lay out the groundwork to help cope with uncertainty The resulting anxiety of losing our usual ways of going about living can become overwhelming, leaving us feeling at the mercy of our increasingly threatening world. Our typical ways are our habits that help us structure our daily lives and can provide us with predictability and security. We are habit seeking creatures. When faced with unfamiliar circumstances, we begin  to establish new habits (i.e., mindless default responses that save us from having to analyze every situation). At the heart of developing new habits is the process of replacing a mindless, default action with a deliberate, intentional alternative action.  

Now, more than ever, we can benefit from focusing on creating mentally healthy habits. We live in a world that is extremely stressful. Here are some areas that we can explore developing some new habits that help us cope.

Perspective is Everything

Paying attention to our thoughts and emotions is essential to maintaining our mental health. When we articulate our thoughts and feelings, we become clearer in our self-understanding. This increased clarity helps us realize our point of view of the world and can identify ways in which we can alter our point of view that can decrease our experience of stress. This is not as complex as it may sound.  

Two good ways to articulate our thoughts and feelings are to journal or to verbalize them to a trusted other. Let’s say that from my journaling this morning, I notice I’m focusing a lot on my fears and worries. To change this, I decide to structure my next journaling session by focusing only on gratitude – listing all the things I’m thankful for in my life. This can cause a healthy shift in perspective. Being mindful of our thoughts can help us construct and maintain a perspective that promotes our health. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind:

  1. Express gratitude everyday. Devote five minutes a day to being grateful.
  2. Maintain a balance of our negative, worrisome thoughts with positive, reassuring thoughts.
  3. When we feel out of control, remind ourselves we DO have influence. That is, while we can’t control our situation, we can always influence it (or our reaction) to some degree. Search for our influence and power.
  4. Remind ourselves that we are NOT going crazy, despite being overwhelmed with fear, anger, and anxiety at times. Remember:these are unprecedented threatening times (pandemic, social injustice and political strife, natural disasters, growing hate and violence). Much of what we experience now is, in fact, “normal” reactions to  highly “abnormal” circumstances.
  5. Limit our exposure to news media. Research shows that as our consumption of daily news increases, our anxiety and experience of threat also increases. Too much exposure contributes to a perspective that the world is nothing but a frightening place filled with threats. It makes it quite difficult to maintain a balanced perspective that includes hope and optimism.

Staying Connected

In my practice over the years, I have frequently seen that the care and concern of those who love us helps us get through difficult times. Research has consistently shown that emotional support from others serves as a buffer against the negative effects of stress. In these very stressful times, maintaining, and even strengthening, our relationships with others is a great way we can protect our mental health. One huge benefit of current technology is that it allows us to stay connected to our friends and family members, regardless of where they live.  Listed here are but a few of the ways we can intentionally maintain our connections:

  1. Make a list of distant friends who you’ve not spoken to in some time. Reach out to each one via text or phone call. Pick one to connect with every other day.  
  2. Say “hello” or “have a nice day” to at least one stranger each day.
  3. Families can have virtual gatherings on a frequent basis. This is a way to experience the positive feelings that go with getting together with our loved ones.
  4. Touch our children 50 times a day. Touch is a powerful way to convey affection, comfort, and security.
  5. Touch our intimate partner 25 times a day. Utilize the power of touch.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does give some ideas of how we can avail ourselves of the inherent comfort and support from others.

Maintain Wellness

Our immune system attempts to protect us from infection and disease. It can be said that we have a “psychological immune system,” which functions to protect and enhance our mental health. The recommended actions already mentioned serve to enhance our psychological immune system. Factors that enhance our physical immune system also benefit our mental health. Developing the following habits can improve both our physical and mental health:

  1. Move your body. Increasing our physical activity on a daily basis reaps significant benefits. Research shows exercise produces mental health benefits in addition to the physical benefits. Make a plan to gradually increase your physical activity a little each day.
  2. Pay attention to what we put into our bodies. Intentionally increasing the nutritional value of what we eat contributes to our physical and mental health. Try to incorporate more nutrient-dense foods into your eating habits.
  3. Develop a regular, restorative sleep cycle. Research is increasingly adding to our understanding the importance of sufficient sleep to our physical and mental health. Try to go to bed and rise at about the same time each day. Quality sleep on a regular basis is the main function of a consistent sleep routine.

New Rules Means New Habits

Being a mindful, intentional person is the only way to truly shape our world by shaping our own habits. Empowerment is the result of recognizing that we can, in fact, influence the course of our lives through intentionally directing our responses.


– Dr. Barling

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