mistagregory, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

November 18, 2020; Poynter and Vox

It’s been especially challenging to maintain mental health during the unprecedented events of 2020. According to Mental Health America, the number of adults in the US seeking help for anxiety and depression skyrocketed between January and September this year. After a summer of racial justice uprisings, a contentious national election, and a continuing pandemic that has caused job loss for millions and claimed over 1.4 million lives globally, the US is in the midst of tumultuous times. And as the winter months approach, some of our coping methods—like socializing with friends outdoors—are about to become even more difficult.

All of this suggests a grim picture for those seeking to maintain their mental health through winter months known for seasonal depression. But there are steps you can take to preserve mental health while addressing the woes of the world.

Turn your focus to community

Research around happiness and overall mental health indicates that shifting your focus from what’s going on inside your head to what’s going on in the outside world can help. The key is to take tangible steps toward connecting with the world outside you, even if it’s just one neighbor or donating time to a nonprofit.

One way to begin this practice is by volunteering. Many nonprofits offering direct services, such as food banks, are experiencing record demand and need as much help as they can get. You can sign up to help cook meals or distribute food, or even complete administrative tasks that overwhelmed staff don’t have time for. If you’re more of the sleuthing type, many local health agencies are seeking volunteers to help with contact tracing in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. In-person volunteering (with appropriate health precautions, of course) can meet community needs while building social connection. And this feeling of connectivity isn’t just good for your heart in a figurative sense: volunteering and the good feelings it fosters have actually been linked to lower blood pressure.

If in-person volunteering with distancing and masks isn’t an option for you, you can still volunteer online. Many nonprofits have pivoted their programs so that volunteers can help out from home. In fact, research suggests that there are mental benefits that come with thinking about and practicing kindness toward others. One study showed that those who volunteered, even by themselves, rated at least one point higher on a 1-10 scale of life satisfaction compared to those who did not volunteer at all. Don’t have time to volunteer, even from home? Making a donation online or doing a contact-free grocery delivery for a neighbor can also foster connectedness.

Practice gratitude

Another practice that can have far-reaching benefits for mental health is to incorporate gratitude into your daily life. In a year where so much has been taken from us, from our loved ones to our economic stability to our social gatherings, it can be hard to feel grateful for anything. Taking a few minutes each day to think about and even write down a few things you feel thankful for can improve your mood in the short-term—and a continued gratitude practice will help you weather future challenges. David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, reminds us that gratitude can also contribute to feelings of connectedness: “When you feel grateful, your mind turns its attention to what is perhaps the greatest source of resilience for most humans: other humans. By reminding you that you’re not alone—that others have contributed to your well-being—it reduces stress.”

Avoid media burnout

NPQ is a news outlet; the news is important. But obsession with the news—and news discussion social media platforms—can actually be a huge detriment to mental health. Experts suggest that doomscrolling, the practice of endlessly scrolling through the news or your Twitter feed in search of ever more content about the bad things happening in the world, overwhelms our cognitive processing functions. This sense of dread can intensify feelings of anxiety and depression.

Maybe you decide that you only need to look at the news once or twice a day—or shift from reading the latest headlines to being an active participant in your community, such as by attending a virtual city council meeting. Whatever boundaries you set, remember that obsessing over breaking news won’t help your brain or your community as much as tuning into community and getting involved will.

Link self-care to community care

Even as many struggle with mental health this year, it can feel hard to choose self-care when so many are suffering, especially when self-care too often is branded as a solitary, selfish endeavor. But self-care and community care can go hand-in-hand. Sure, spending a few hours at your local food bank is a way to give back, but the sense of community connectedness also provides a mental health boost with lasting effects. Finding ways to care for ourselves while helping others ensures that we create communities ready to face whatever challenges arise.—Tessa Crisman