Self-care 101: learn how to prioritize your mental health

Kristin Bergmann, Staff Writer

In all honesty: the past two years were among the worst years of my life. I have always been an anxious person, but the pandemic fueled my anxiety and dragged me into a downwards-spiral. Especially in 2021 I struggled with my mental health so bad that panic attacks and obsessive thoughts were daily occurrences. It felt like I was living on autopilot, doing the same things over and over again. Nearly everything I did felt forced because my own head told me that I don’t have a choice, that I have to do it. I woke up every morning dreading the tasks I had set myself for the day but did them anyway to check them off my list, just to go to bed dreading the next day with the same tasks. I spent my year working out for hours with an empty stomach, depriving my body of food for the illusion of the “perfect body”. I was doing school all day without allowing myself to take a break to breath and unwind. I wouldn’t even go to the bathroom or drink or eat, because I put everything first and myself last. Along the way I lost all my joy, was constantly in a bad mood and started treating not just myself, but also those close to me poorly. If you don’t love yourself and treat yourself kindly, how can you expect to give kindness to others? When 2021 came to an end, I decided that my old, self-destructive habits would end with it. This year, I made it my mission to put myself first and to find joy in the small things every day. The letter board in my room says, “romanticize your life”, and that is exactly what I’m working on. Now you might ask yourself, “how do I romanticize my life?”

Everybody has a different definition of “romantic”, so a romantic life looks different for everyone. For me, it is sunny days at the beach, beautiful sunsets, wine, and tasty food. And, of course, spending time with the people I love. I enjoy morning hikes and evening walks, road trips, long reading sessions and listening to Podcasts. None of these are crazy things, they are a part of normal life. The secret is to enjoy them like you’re the main character in a movie. I started shifting my way of thinking and now I imagine myself on the movie theater screen, even when I’m doing unenjoyable chores like vacuuming or cleaning the bathroom. Doing this helps me manage my stress and keeps me from freaking out when I have a long to-do list for the day.

Romanticizing your life can help improve your mental health, but there are other things I do that have helped me get into a better headspace. First, I visualize my goals. I created a vision board for 2022 by asking myself questions like, “”where do I see myself mentally next year?”; “which activities do I want to participate in that give me a good feeling?”; “which places do I want to spend more time at that make me happy and allow me to relax and enjoy the moment?”; “which people make me happy?” Then I searched the internet for pictures that represent my answers. Finally, I assembled these images, creating one big picture.

Second, I move my body in some way every day. Whether it’s a workout with some yoga and stretches or a walk outside: Movement is healthy for body and soul. I love long walks because I’m not just moving my body, but also getting fresh air and vitamin D. Walking also gives me time to sort my thoughts, which has improved my mental health like crazy.

Third, I try to consciously experience the moment. For the longest time, I was guilty of constantly doing multiple things at once. I would suck in my food like a vacuum while watching Netflix and being on my phone at the same time. This often made me feel overstimulated and my surroundings appear surreal. Now I try to engage in what I like to call “conscious eating” whenever I have time in the morning: I prepare my food and a coffee, put on a podcast, and just focus on eating and drinking. This way, I actively notice the taste of my food and live in the moment. Every task that needs to be done comes after, one by one.

Fourth, I limit my screen time. In the past years, especially during the lockdown, my screen time has skyrocketed. When I was not on my phone, I would still think about what to post next. TikTok sounds, Instagram posts, and Snapchat stories took up so much space in my head that there was barely room for anything else. This year, I’m trying to spend less time on social media and on my electronic devices and spend more time in real life. I go offline at least 45 minutes to an hour before bedtime and read a book. In the morning, I try not to use social media for at least 30 minutes after waking up. Instead, I drink coffee in bed and write in my journal. Something I want to do, but admittedly haven’t done yet, is limiting my screen time in my phone settings. But hey, I am taking it step-by-step!

Lastly, I take myself out on dates. This may sound weird, but it’s one of my favorite things to do. In the past, my plans were too dependent on other people. Whenever my boyfriend or my friends didn’t have time to go out, I would stay home as well. Now I understand that other people’s plans have nothing to do with me. I am my own person and perfectly fine doing things by myself. I love going to museums alone because it’s so peaceful to walk around, look at artwork and just appreciate it. Another idea for a solo-date is sitting down in your favorite café with a good book. I admit, going out to eat by myself is still a challenge for me, because I constantly worry what others might think. But the truth is: nobody cares. Most of the time, people are so caught up in themselves that they don’t think about others too much. Everyone is busy with their own life, they probably won’t notice whether you’re alone or with someone. If you keep this in mind, going out by yourself will be a whole lot easier. Do it for a while and you will see that it helps you develop self-reliance and independence, sort your thoughts, and make decisions without anyone’s interference.

One last thing before this column ends: there is no recipe for instant mental health. Mental health is a journey. Everyone must discover what feels good for themselves, and it won’t always be easy. Change can be hard and uncomfortable. I can’t guarantee that any of my tips will work for you, and you might have to put a lot of work into finding what serves you best. I can promise you one thing though: it will be worth it. And please, don’t let anyone ever make you feel bad or guilty for prioritizing your mental health. Self-love isn’t selfish.