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There’s never been a better time to create a mental health toolbox

A conversation with Help & Hope organizers took a serious turn recently as those on the call spoke freely about the challenges and stress they’re facing in their professions. Not only are the numbers of those needing help up, they said, but the severity of mental health-related problems they’re seeing has made their jobs even more difficult, even more stressful.

The strain is having an impact on them to the point where several spoke candidly about how they are reaching out for help from their peers in mental health or similar fields. One practitioner who has three decades of experience said, “I don’t spook easily and I’m telling you we have a serious situation.”

“I have a lot of tools in my toolbox but I’m also pulling a lot of tools out of my toolbox,” she added.

That statement made me think that now is a good time to revisit the idea of a wellness toolbox on this blog and how important it is to have one at the ready when you are feeling anxious or stressed in your life.

Toolboxes can be extremely useful in tough times. The trick is to try the tools out when you’re not in crisis in order to find the ones that work best for you. Then, put them in your toolbox for easy access when facing challenges.

The actual toolbox can be whatever works for you, from a written list that you keep by your bedside, a reminder or notification you send yourself on rough days, or an actual box with images that remind you of the calmer states these activities create.

We’ve addressed useful tools in the past, but this time, I wanted to go a little deeper and offer more evidence-based practices; so I turned to a book Rick Hanson put out during the height of the COVID pandemic, called ‘The Anxiety First Aid Kit: Quick Tools for Extreme, Uncertain Times.”

Hanson, you may know, is a psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, who in 2020, came together with eight mental health practitioners to offer useful practices for people to cope with their anxiety.

The book is broken into four sections, each of which is filled with calming techniques:

  • Finding Calm Right Away;

  • Facing Worry and Anxiety;

  • Advanced Relaxation Skills; and,

  • Super Effective Strategies that Take a Little More Time.

I highly recommend it for its wealth of practices, many of which can be done in brief breaks throughout the day. I got my digital copy through my library’s Hoopla site and was able to start reading immediately.

Here’s a quick description of a few tools recommended in the book to get you started.

Noticing that you’re alright in the moment.

This simple technique works to calm the sympathetic nervous symptom, which includes the brain’s reliance on low level anxiety designed to keep us safe. This “default setting of apprehensiveness...wears down well-being, feeds anxiety, and depression, and makes people turn away from the things that matter to them,” according to the authors.

Instead, they suggest noticing that you are basically all right in the moment throughout the day.

As you perform your daily tasks, say to yourself - out loud or silently - I’m alright right now. By repeating it enough, you can help build a stronger sense of well-being into your brain and body.

Put your worries in a lineup

This technique applies to those times you find yourself worrying about nothing in particular.

Here, the authors recommend writing down your worries to determine if there is an actual problem that you’ve encountered (and not just general anxiety) and if so, then if there is something you can do to change things. Reaching that level of clarity through writing lets you act on the problem or acknowledge that you’re experiencing chronic worry.

Take in the Good

This strategy is similar to the gratitude practices that people have begun doing where we write down three things we are grateful for each day. It’s basic training for helping your brain be more positive.

As the authors say, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” To shift that perspective, look for the good in yourself and your day and turn that good into positive experiences and feelings. Over time, the small differences created by these shifts will add up.

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