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Tips to Improve Your Mental Health in 2020

Embrace the Slow

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2020 has not turned out like anyone expected.

Sure, we may have expected some upheaval this year. I know I did. After all, I knew we had a big election coming up, with a nation polarized around highly charged emotional issues. I expected drama. I expected to see friends and family post things on social media that would stir the pot.

I even expected I’d have to take proactive steps to safeguard my mental health, like disconnecting from social media for a while, limiting my news intake, and possibly blocking or snoozing some of my connections who habitually share more politics than puppies – because by now we all know watching cute puppy videos are a way better use of our social media time than reading political opinions.

In any case, I was ready.

Then 2020 threw us the mother of all curveballs: the coronavirus pandemic.

By now, you’ve probably read or scrolled past a thousand articles about how to cope during this stressful year.

Most of them are about how to counter the psychological effects of the nationwide slowdown associated with shelter-in-place orders, social distancing, and restrictions placed on large gatherings like concerts, sports events, and even personal and family events like weddings, birthdays, and plain old backyard cookouts.

This article is not about crafty ways to counter the slowdown.

In fact, this article is all about the opposite: embracing it.

In my book, that’s the best way to deal with 2020.

Don’t fight it.

Go with it.

Time to Slow Your Roll

People who know me might be a little surprised to hear me say something like “Embrace the Slow.”

I’ll explain, and in a moment even the people who know me will get it.

The reason my friends might be surprised is that I’m a direct, no-nonsense, cut-straight-to-the-point type person. I don’t mince words and I don’t waste time with frivolity. When I see problems, I like coming up with proactive steps to solve them. I typically create a system to implement the steps I devise in a simple, straightforward manner that maximizes the chance of success and minimizes the chances of getting off-track.

An action plan with steps usually means efficiency.

Efficiency usually means speed.

But not this time.

This time – for your mental health – my action plan (steps included) neither increases speed nor prioritizes efficiency. Well, the result actually is more efficient that the alternative, but that’s a lucky byproduct, not a goal.

So – why go slow?

In 2020, learning to slow down is directly related to two primary skills in both Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that we teach our patients at our treatment centers.  The first skill is acceptance, we have to accept things as they are, not as we wish them to be. The second skill is mindfulness, we need to try to be present in the moment instead of caught up in the past or fears for the future.  This year, that’s more important than ever. We want to hurry up and get past this pandemic. We want to hurry up and open businesses. We want to hurry up and get our kids back to school. We want to hurry up and get this election over with.

Hurry, hurry, hurry.

I mean, I get it: I’d love for all this to be over ASAP, myself. But the fact is, we don’t get to decide. Forces beyond our control are making us wait. We can’t change that. And when we try to force things, we make things worse, which means more waiting, which turns into more frustration, which has a negative impact on our mental health, and we’re back to square one – probably more stressed than when we started.

So, instead of pushing against the very real need to wait, I say take advantage of the need to wait – because otherwise, you’re banging your head against a wall, and that hurts.

Now for the big question: how do I slow down?

Here’s how I think you should do it.

Five Ways to Slow Down for Your Mental Health

  1. Slow Food. This tip is about how you make and eat your food. I’m not advising you to jump on the slow food bandwagon. I’m asking you to use the extra time you may now have at home to prepare, consume, and clean up after dinner. I’m saying cook your food slow: rather than buying canned tomatoes for spaghetti sauce, buy fresh tomatoes and stew them yourself. It takes hours – and peeling them takes time, too. Instead of garlic power, chop fresh garlic: that’s time consuming. Slow cooking is also a way to reconnect with your family and friends. Get them involved. Get them cooking with you. Spend the day making a great meal, then when you eat, take your time. Linger over dinner. And finally – get everyone to help clean up. Put on some music, don’t rush, then have fun doing the job until the job is done.
  2. Slow Hobbies. This tip is about going back to basics and learning, relearning, or enjoying things that have enhanced the human experience for generations. I’m talking about reading bound books, writing with a pen and paper, and drawing or painting with hand-held implements on actual pieces of paper. Reading books is a valid hobby: I recommend doing it outside. Writing with a pen on paper is a valid hobby: I recommend setting aside time every day to either write a poem or journal your thoughts and feelings. Drawing and painting are valid hobbies: if you think you have no skill for it, then this is the perfect time to get an instruction book or watch a YouTube video on it, take the time, and learn the basics. You may progress from pencil sketches to watercolor to painting oils and acrylics on canvas: you never know until you try.
  3. Slow Exercise. This may seem contradictory, because so much exercise these days seems based on advertising pitches like “Just 29 minutes a day melts the fat away!” It seems every new exercise trend is really about tricky ways to spend less time exercising. Here’s what I say: take long slow walks around your neighborhood. Pack a lunch, go to a state park, and walk all day if you can – slowly. If you order takeout, consider walking to the restaurant to pick it up. Also, tai chi is slow, by definition, as are many styles of yoga. Bottom line: instead of exercise that emphasizes speed and reps getting to that burn as fast as possible, go in the other direction. Exercise slowly. And okay, if you must be intense about your exercise, doing ten pushups very slowly is very hard: give it a shot and see how many pushups you can do going down on a ten count and back up on a ten count. Think you can do your normal 25?
  4. Slow Travel. This is the opposite of having TSA preclearance and splurging on an all-inclusive somewhere fancy. This doesn’t involve planes or resorts. The ideal slow travel is the iconic RV trip that’s etched in our collective consciousness: a tour of our national parks. We know not everyone has the time to take a month to drive to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or Yellowstone, but you can drive to the closest state park and do some light car camping. Then go to the next one – which is probably not too far away. You can plan a three-day weekend around destinations within a two-hour drive. I recommend stopping along the way to check out funky antique shops, try some local barbecue, and talk to locals.
  5. Slow Learning. I’m all for learning things fast. The apps that teach the basics of a foreign language in weeks? Love ‘em. They’re great. However, there’s also something to be said for taking the long way around when learning a new skill. You take the time to master the basics before moving on to the next step. You develop skills step-wise, without rushing, making sure you get one skill right before moving on to the next. You have a goal in mind, but the real mental health benefit is in the process, not the product.

I want you to focus on that last point. Think process, not product. Slowing down means you’re not in a race. You’re doing something for you, for the sole purpose of enhancing your life and finding joy exactly where it always is: in the present moment. You may find that joy in the kitchen with your kids while making a big Tuesday afternoon meal worthy of Thanksgiving, or you may find it walking down a wooded trail slowly enough to notice a 200-year-old arrowhead peaking through the dirt. If you slow down, I guarantee you’ll find a type of joy that improves your mental health.

Carry These Lessons Forward

When we do make it past 2020 and all the challenges it has thrown at us, I want you to keep the things you learn by slowing down close at hand. When 2021 rolls around, you don’t have to jump back to warp speed automatically just because you can. If you like the slow, you can keep the slow. You can make a lesson for your kids by planting a garden – in any year. You can make a party out of cooking dinner – any day of the week. You can make a good book last forever. If you learn to exercise slowly, then the chances are you’ll stick with exercising – because it relieves stress rather than creates it. And if you practice slow learning, I bet the skill you learn will last for years – because you took the time to learn it the right way.

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