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By Korin Miller
There are so many strategies for cultivating a solid sense of mental health (Rethinking your social-media relationship! Scheduling a girls' night! Journaling!) Still, figuring out what tips really work and what’s just noise is a highly personalized and hardly simple process.
Since nobody knows what's what when it comes to mental health quite like the people who preach it each day, we asked therapists to weigh in. Here, the experts share which tools they personally reach for on a regular basis in order to help keep their own mental-health game strong.
“We all have anxiety and things we worry about, but worry is thought garbage,” says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perlman School of Medicine. “There is no correlation between worry and outcome,” she adds, and it’s important to remind yourself of that fact when you start to stress.
When Dr. Gallagher finds herself worrying about something, she tries to put herself on the following thought path: Can I solve this problem? And what can I do about it, if anything? “If I can’t do anything about it, I can’t worry about it,” she says. “There’s no point.”
The app Stop, Breathe & Think is a go-to for Tamar Gur, MD, PhD, a women's health expert and reproductive psychiatrist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “I use it almost daily,” she says. The app offers a few minutes of targeted, guided mediation based on emotions you’re feeling in that moment, and Dr. Gur fires it up when she gets to work, before tackling her long to-do list. “I use it to energize and ground myself,” and also sometimes to unwind before bed. She even encourages her kids to use it.
When anxiety creeps up on you (it can and it will), Dr. Gallagher recommends thinking about the worst that can happen in order to stay in control of it. When she was planning her outdoor wedding, for example, she knew bad weather was in the realm of possibility. “I took myself down the road of if it was bad, the wedding would be gross, and people might hate me and tell others I should have been more conscientious,” she says.
But she eventually realized that she’d still be married, and that was the whole point. “Sometimes taking yourself to the end of your fear or anxiety helps you realize that even if the worst thing happens, you’ll survive it,” she says. “It’s unlikely the worst will happen anyway.”
Though meditation sounds like a fairly obvious means of boosting mental health, if you don't plan for it in advance, squeezing in a session can prove tough. That’s why for David Klow, LMFT, author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist, it's simply routine.
“In the morning, I will take 30 minutes to do centering, grounding, and energy meditation practices,” he says. And before he leaves work for the night, he sits in his office for 15 minutes and “clears out” the stress from the day using meditation. “Doing this in the office, right after the sessions have ended, can be the most helpful while the work is still fresh,” he says. Finally, Klow does another 30-minute meditation before bed “to wrap up the day and get prepared for a restful night of sleep.”
When you, say, don't hear back from a friend after you text them, it's easy to let your mind spiral and assume something negative is the cause—like that your friend is mad at you. But next time this happens, don't jump to conclusions. Think of other possible explanations. “Instead of a friend not responding to a text because they’re mad at me, I think that maybe they’re having a busy day," Dr. Gallagher says. "Plus, if they are mad, they’ll need to tell me at some point.”
Regular exercise can boost both physical and mental health, but if you're not able to dedicate as much time or intensity to your sweat sesh as you'd like, still try to be good to yourself. “You have to understand that you’re doing the best you can,” says psychologist Kathryn Moore, PhD. “I practice self-compassion and realize that I have to listen to my body. If I need to sleep a little later instead of going to a 6 a.m. workout class, that’s okay.”
It’s important to allow yourself some flexibility around your exercise routine so that you don’t feel shame or guilt if things don’t work out, Dr. Moore says.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in a great book or show—and that can heavily influence your emotions. That’s why licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, has a “no sad entertainment” policy for himself. “I prefer not to see entertainment that portray real life drama, sad stories, and negative endings,” he says. “I deal with that every day. I don’t invite it into my personal space.” Of course, different genres affect everyone differently, but if you tend to feel bummed out after watching a sad movie or anxious after reading an intense book, it’s a thought worth considering.
“I can’t say enough good things about deep, cleansing breaths,” Dr. Gur says, adding that a deep, purposeful inhale followed by a prolonged exhale is helpful when something really irritates her. “It helps me take a moment to at least approach the situation calmly and with more grace."