This year has put all of us through the emotional wringer. And if you’re struggling to cope with it all, well, you’re not alone. 

A report released in October by the American Psychological Association revealed nearly one in five adults (19 percent) believe their mental health is worse than this time last year. Unfortunately, that percentage may only increase in the coming months as the pandemic continues to worsen in Colorado and across the country. 

“We’re forecasting a rough mental health winter for a lot of people,” says Justin Ross, clinical psychologist at the UCHealth Integrative Medicine Center in Central Park. The good news: There are simple steps we can take to make 2020 (and beyond) feel a bit more bearable. We asked Ross and two other local mental health experts how Coloradans can best cope.  

If you or someone you know is in immediate crisis, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.

Tips to Cope with Mental Health Challenges

Feel your feelings. Then, track them. First things first: Give yourself permission to feel crappy right now. “What we’re feeling is completely normal and 100 percent human,” explains Ross. “We’re supposed to be anxious and upset and scared and sad when our lives are disrupted on such a high magnitude.” It’s also important to label what you’re feeling, he adds, as doing so can lessen the intensity of your emotions and provide the space you need to actually deal with them. Saying something as simple as “I’m noticing I’m feeling anxious” is a good place to start.

From there, pay close attention to your daily thoughts and actions—a process Ross describes as “tracking” and for which there are apps—to see if you can correlate behavioral habits with mood and thus make tweaks to your routine as needed. “It’s imperative…especially as we enter a colder, darker season, that we’re paying really close attention to maintaining healthy thoughts and healthy daily behaviors,” he says. 

Accept what you can’t control. A big reason for our collective anxiety right now is that many stressors—the pandemic, the election, the recession—are out of our control. And while these circumstances are undoubtedly undesirable, saying things like “This is so awful” and “I can’t cope” isn’t going to help. In fact, that rhetoric will probably make you feel worse, says clinical psychologist Antonia Pieracci, PhD, co-founder of CBT Denver. Instead, try to accept the stressors that are out of your influence (like the fact that we don’t know when the pandemic is going to end) and redirect your energy to things you can control (for example, goals you want to accomplish in the upcoming months). Doing so will help you feel empowered and like you’ve regained agency over your life. 

Practice gratitude. There’s a lot of strong research that shows practicing gratitude can enhance your well-being, says Jenn Leiferman, PhD, director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center and a founder of the Population Mental Health and Wellbeing Program at the Colorado School of Public Health. This isn’t about donning rose-colored glasses, but instead involves reflecting on what’s going well in your world as a way to shift into a more positive mindset. Simple gratitude exercises, like listing three things you’re grateful for everyday, can be really powerful, says Leiferman. 

Find safe ways to connect. Social interaction is critical to our health. “We need other people to function well, to survive,” says Pieracci, referencing research that shows people who have active social lives live longer, are at less risk for dementia, and have better physical and mental health. Connectedness helps protect us during times of uncertainty, adds Leiferman, so it’s important to stay in regular touch with your community right now. If in-person get-togethers aren’t possible because of the pandemic, schedule weekly phone calls, commit to regular Zoom dates, or keep in touch the old-fashioned way by sending letters and photos in the mail. Even going for a walk and smiling at passersby can help, says Pieracci. 

Try something new. Feeling despondent? Start a new hobby that engages your brain, suggests Pierraci. Doing something novel like learning a new language or practicing a new sport can help redirect your attention in a healthy way. It will also keep things feeling fresh and give you something to focus on in the months to come, adds Ross. 

Meditate. Meditation, Ross explains, can help alleviate the physiological symptoms of anxiety, which include elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, and surges of adrenaline and cortisol. Meditation can also help reorient your thoughts, he adds. Don’t know how to meditate? Learn with an app. Ross recommends Headspace, Calm, 10 Percent Happier, and Insight Timer (on which he is an instructor). 

Limit doom scrolling. It’s important to stay informed on what’s going on in the world, but constantly consuming the news can increase feelings of hopelessness, says Pieracci. To strike a healthy balance, set both a time and a source limit for your social media consumption, suggests Ross. For example, commit to spending just five minutes every hour on social media and visit just two platforms during that time. 

Get outside. Spending time in nature can be very therapeutic, and you don’t need to drive anywhere to get your fix, says Leiferman. Go on a walk in your neighborhood, visit a local park, or simply sit in your backyard. While you’re there, Leiferman suggests asking yourself: What are two things I’m hearing right now? Two things I’m seeing? Two things I’m smelling? Turning your attention to your senses can help clear anxious thoughts and center your mind in the moment. 

Exercise and practice basic self-care. Protect your well-being this winter by exercising, eating healthy, limiting alcohol consumption, and getting enough sleep, says Leiferman. Exercise, in particular, can have a powerful effect—Pieracci cites a 2019 study published in Depression and Anxiety that concluded exercising in any form for three hours a week may lower risk of depression. So if you find your mood dipping, sneak in some movement. It needn’t be a full-blown workout; small bursts of activity, like jogging up and down your stairs a couple times, walking your dog an extra mile, or having a dance party in your kitchen, can make a difference. 

When to Get Professional Help & Resources

We’ve all been a little (or a lot) on edge this year. But if your mental health has tanked to the point where it’s interfering with relationships or your ability to perform your job or complete school work, seek professional help, advises Pieracci. You should also talk to someone if you feel like you’re suffering so much internally that you’re barely able to hold things together, she adds. Yet another sign you should connect with a pro is if your mental health has notably nosedived and you just can’t seem to get back to normal, says Ross. 

Not sure where to turn? Consider Energize Colorado, an organization that contracts with therapists (including Pieracci) to offer free and low-cost therapy sessions to people who would not otherwise be able to afford such services right now. Their website also contains links to mental health support groups, a directory of Colorado-based mental health professionals, educational resources, and more. The Happiness Trap is another online resource with free mental health videos and resources, says Pieracci. And the Colorado School of Public Health’s Population Mental Health and Wellbeing website, recommended by Leiferman, contains educational content and links to community resources.