Tips for managing your mental health during difficult times

February 10, 2021
Catherine Monk, PhD
Catherine Monk, PhD, Professor of Medical Psychology in the Departments of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Psychiatry at NYP/CUIMC

For many of us, the present time is a difficult one. The combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, political upheaval, systemic injustice and inequality, and the distance we are currently forced to place between ourselves and others has taken on toll on our collective mental health.

If you feel you are struggling with your mental health, here are some tips from Catherine Monk, PhD, Professor of Medical Psychology in the Departments of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Psychiatry and Director of Women’s Mental Health @Ob/Gyn on managing your stress during the present time.

Specify your feelings.

When we say we’re stressed, what do we mean? The umbrella term “stress” is a useful word that captures how many of us feel. In some instances, however, labeling our feelings and experiences more specifically may be helpful in order to figure out ways of managing these feelings.

When we use specific terms like frightened, demoralized, sad, anxious, frustrated, guilty, lonely, or bored, we can more easily connect events and actions to the different feelings to identify the root causes, and identify a path forward.

In practice:

  • If we feel frustrated and demoralized because of X, we might engage with politically active people who are working toward change.
  • If we feel distracted, we may need down time to refuel.

Connect your present feelings with the past.

Intense emotional experiences often become associated in our lives. Reflect on a time in your life when you felt similarly to how you feel at present. Identifying past feelings that may be connecting with the current ones can help you sort through what part of these emotions are from the past, and what from the present.

Change your behavior to change your mood.

When we’re stressed, it can be hard to make mentally and physically healthy choices for ourselves, and it can be difficult to get motivated to do anything. That is why sometimes engagement in the behavior needs to come first, and the change of mood will follow. This is known as behavioral activation.  

When you are feeling pretty good, make two lists – one of the things you can do right now that would give you enjoyment or release, and one of the tasks that would feel good to complete. In making these lists, you make a contract with yourself to do one of those things when you are feeling down.

Tips for success:

Be specific and realistic in making your lists. Your first list can include things like listening to a piece of music, re-reading a book, or talking to a certain friend. Your list of tasks can be things like organizing your closet – but break down this task item by item so it feels manageable and achievable.

Embody the qualities you most value.

There are many aspects of our present time that are extremely upsetting, like injustice, violence, hate, and misinformation. The positive values that we esteem and seek out in the world, like respect, decency, and kindness, may seem like they are being drowned out by the terrible and difficult events happening seemingly all the time. We may feel that these values are increasingly hard to come by, or even absent altogether.

One way we can counteract this feeling is by embodying the qualities we most value. Each interaction with other people, like our partners, families, and colleagues is a chance to embody this other way of being and work against what is upsetting and causing despair in what you see on the news and around you. We all have the power to look at ourselves in the mirror, reflect on our behavior, and act with the values we respect.

About Catherine Monk, PhD

Dr. Monk holds joint appointments as a Professor of Medical Psychology in the Departments of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Psychiatry at CUMC and is founding director of Women’s Mental Health @Ob/Gyn, an embedded mental health service in the department. She also is Research Scientist VI at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.