Juli Fraga, Psy.D., is a psychologist with a private practice in San Francisco.
When new patients contact me, I help those in crisis find emergency care and connect others with counselors or group support. But when capital “S” stressors such as unrelenting anxiety, depleting depression and insomnia roar loud, some patients want more immediate help. This might explain why many prospective patients ask me: “What can I do now to improve my mental health?”
One possible solution, says clinical psychologist Emily Anhalt, is to add an “emotional workout” to your self-care regimen. “Just like working out prevents high blood pressure and heart disease, emotional fitness can be a proactive stance toward stress management,” says Anhalt, the co-founder of Coa, a gym for mental health.
In Coa’s virtual classes, Anhalt and her team teach exercises called “emotional push-ups,” which are small ways to work on yourself each day. “The purpose is to strengthen your mental health muscles so that you’re in a better position to face life’s challenges,” she says.
Self-care tools can be helpful, especially when barriers such as high-deductible insurance plans, high co-pays and living in remote areas can make mental health care difficult to afford or access. And while the pandemic isn’t solely to blame for the lack of therapists, it’s certainly made things worse, says Vaile Wright, the senior director of health-care innovation at the American Psychological Association.
With too few mental health resources, we need innovative ways to make psychological care more accessible, she says. If you’re waiting to see a therapist, can’t afford mental health care or have recently finished therapy, emotional exercises are one way to strengthen your psychological muscles. While these workouts aren’t meant to replace individual or group therapy, Anhalt says they can promote resilience and help you feel empowered.
Here are some expert-backed exercises to help you begin.
Overwhelmed? Schedule a ‘worry date.’
The uptick in world turmoil is understandably rattling our mental health. Wright says the near constant “bad news” cycle and social media discussions can heighten our feelings of worry and overwhelm.
Researchers state that worry has a cognitive component, which is why ruminations often spur on troubling thoughts that play on repeat. One way to cope with this distress is to schedule a “worry date.” “Set a time on your daily calendar to worry, obsess and ruminate,” Anhalt suggests. During this date, take 10 to 15 minutes to jot down your woes.
Annoyed with a loved one? Practice the ‘self-reflection push-up.’
When you’re frustrated because your partner went to a concert maskless or a co-worker stole the spotlight, it’s natural to see the annoying party as the problem. But another approach is to take the opportunity to learn about yourself, Anhalt says.
Feeling hurt, annoyed or angry with someone else’s behavior might reflect something we dislike about ourselves. To examine this possibility, Anhalt suggests practicing an exercise she calls the “self-reflection push-up.” This push-up uses the “3 Js, which stand for join, jealous and judge” to guide you.
Ask yourself if the other person’s behavior is something you also do (join), are envious of (jealous) or criticize (judge). For instance, if you’re annoyed with your friend for being selfish, you might realize that you’ve behaved the same way. Putting the spotlight on our actions allows us to take responsibility, Anhalt says.
When it comes to building close relationships, research shows that self-awareness can increase cognitive empathy, which is our ability to understand someone else’s emotions from their perspective.
Feeling down? Befriend tough emotions.
As humans, we’re wired to avoid pain. When uncomfortable emotions such as anger or sadness arise, we may try to distract ourselves from feeling bad. We may scroll through social media, drink an extra glass of wine or binge on Netflix. These tactics are called “defenses,” which are thoughts and behaviors that keep us from feeling the unbearable. But when we solely rely on defenses, we avoid feeling our emotions, which hinders our ability to process them.
When upset emotions arise, try to befriend your feelings. Start by naming your emotions, a technique psychologists call “affect labeling.” You can also become a detective by exploring where your feelings show up in your body. For example, I ask my patients, “Where do you feel that emotion?” and “What might it be trying to tell you?” The goal isn’t to alter the emotion, but to bring awareness to how it feels in the moment.
A 2018 research review states that “focusing on our feelings, without trying to change them” can help ease distress. This “in-the-moment” mind-set is what dialectical-behavior therapist Marsha Linehan calls “radical acceptance,” and it’s one way to stop pain from persisting. Many people assume that radical acceptance hinders change, but this liberating stance can escort transformation, says clinical psychologist Jenny Taitz.
Reeling with anxiety? Exercise curiosity.
About 32 percent of U.S. adults showed symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder in the week before Aug. 8, the Household Pulse Survey showed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For a smaller percentage of people, anxiety symptoms are a mental illness such as generalized anxiety disorder, which affects approximately 3 percent of Americans, or social anxiety disorder, which affects closer to 7 percent of the general population.
If you want to disarm your anxiety, adopting a curious mind-set may help. When fear and uncertainty strike, we’re often quick to ask, “Why is this happening?” explains psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer, author of “Unwinding Anxiety” and medical director of Sharecare. “The mind latches onto this ‘why’ question because we believe that uncovering the answer will fix our anxiety,” Brewer explains. But in reality, this mind-set can keep us feeling helpless and stuck. To climb out of this rabbit hole, try to enter the “anxiety-free zone,” the neuroscientist recommends.
One grounding exercise is to sit down, look at your feet, and ask, which “foot is warmer than the other?” This question helps spark curiosity, Brewer says. This wondrous feeling also can open the mind to possibilities, allowing us to see our situations in a different light, research shows. “When anxiety throws us for a loop, replacing ‘Why is this happening?’ with ‘What is happening?’ can pull us out of the anxiety-laden ‘why zone,’ ” Brewer says.
Mental health exercises can teach us to better manage our worrisome thoughts and upset feelings. These workouts may also help us think about our discomfort in a different way. “Symptoms like anxiety and depression are the body’s alarm system,” Anhalt says. “By trying to understand them, we can uncover the root cause of our suffering.”
If you’re looking for additional mental health exercises, Wondermind offers a free newsletter with mental fitness tips, Coa offers a complimentary 15-minute emotional fitness class, and Liberate provides wellness classes to help people cope with stress and burnout.
We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.