Managing your mental health in 2021

Ronald Fisher, behavioral scientist at IDOR, shares tips and activities to exercise emotional balance in the next year

Managing your mental health in 2021

Ronald Fisher, behavioral scientist at IDOR, shares tips and activities to exercise emotional balance in the next year

As this year is coming to an end, one thing is clear: this year has been a challenge for the best of us. As a society, we have faced enormous challenges to keep ourselves and loved ones safe and keep life ticking as best as it is possible. We have learned many lessons along the way, including that social distancing measures can be effective in reducing viral spread in the current COVID-19 pandemic, as demonstrated in countries like Singapore, NZ or Australia. But what has also been clear is that the pandemic and the many different challenges that come with the infections, the loss of loved ones and even those restrictions that keep infections down have increased our anxiety, mood changes and stress regardless of where we are. Stress levels have peaked similarly in Brazil as they have in some countries that have been rather more successful in containing the pandemic. What is clear is that we need to take care of ourselves and pay attention to these mental health problems that are surging everywhere.

This requires urgent attention because of the strains on mental health providers which are struggling to provide adequate support for people in need. Although there are many self-help guidelines available online, via social media, or as apps and channels, it is unclear how effective these are. Unfortunately, the mental health sector is not well regulated and many products have not demonstrated efficacy or safety for their users. For this reason, our team conducted a systematic review of all the evidence-based practices that were available in the early stages of the pandemic. We specifically focused on quantitative summaries of evidence-based practices that can be used by individuals at home or in confined physical environments during social distancing and quarantine. In order to get the best guidance, we only included evidence that used carefully designed control groups and restricted our search to those studies that tested the effectiveness of these practices to manage anxiety, depression and stress.

Overall, we found that a number of self-directed practices that have been developed in the clinical psychology and psychotherapy domain and are based on established therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are safe and effective, even when used without supervision or guidance. New emerging practices associated with mindfulness, positive writing exercises focusing on blessings or gratitude, doing light physical exercises at home or listening to music also can help people to feel better and are safe even if people are more stressed and anxious. In regards to smartphone apps, the picture was rather mixed and we cannot clearly recommend specific apps based on available clinical data that has been carefully peer-reviewed.

In order to help people in our communities, we selected some of the best practices that can be done at home and we explain these exercises in our videos on this site. More information, including our full study and a more extended list of resources and exercises can be found here:

Some of them are based on ancient wisdom and philosophical practices from the oldest civilizations, others are derived from the latest neuroscience research on how our brain and body work together. All of these exercises have been shown to be effective in general. They are geared to help you cope with some of the stressors we are still facing, even with the vaccines arriving soon. Because, you cannot control the

future, you cannot control the virus, how your government is managing what is going on all around you, how the world economy is doing. There is no magic switch to immediately change your feelings and get rid of overwhelming fear, your sense of depression or anxiety. But you can control what you do – right here and right now. This is all that matters, and this is what can help you.

Watch the videos and take some notes, if you feel like. All of them have been shown to work safely to help you get over your low mood and reduce your worries and anxieties. Some of these activities might seem simple, some of them might seem exotic. Feel free to try the exercises if you think they might be helpful to you. Not all of them will be your cup of tea. Try them out now, see how they feel and then give them a try another time.

However, we also found that these self-directed practices are not as effective as when supervised and guided by a trained mental health professional. Therefore, we can recommend people with some concerns about their mental health to watch these videos and try out some of these exercises, but if things do not improve, you will need to find professional help. It is absolutely natural to struggle when times are uncertain. But together we can get through this and grow with our experiences.

Written by Ronald Fischer, behavioral scientist and researcher at IDOR.