Reviewed By: Barbara Rexer, DSW, LCSW, LCADC, CCS, ICCS, DRCC
After a year defined by a pandemic, job loss and isolation, the impact of COVID-19 on mental health has been clear. The CDC reports that more than 40% of Americans are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, while rates of substance use disorders have skyrocketed. As people seek relief from a wave of external factors, some are finding small improvements in everyday habits. From how much you sit to the way you check your email, habits and mental health are closely related. Your daily behaviors have the power to improve, or worsen, your mood. Here are five common behaviors that negatively impact your mental health and what you can do about it.
Drinking Too Much Coffee
Americans are drinking more coffee than ever, with 64% of people making it part of their daily routine. While that first cup isn’t necessarily hurting your health, you may want to rethink the refill. New studies suggest that too much caffeine increases anxiety and may leave you more worried, irritable or agitated. The mental health impact is particularly pronounced in adolescents and in groups who already struggle with anxiety, such as those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Studies have also shown caffeine to worsen symptoms of a panic attack.
Follow these guidelines to keep your morning ritual while protecting your mental health:
- Limit your intake to 400 mg, or about two cups a day
- If you already struggle with anxiety, consider switching to decaf
- Experiment with less caffeinated beverages, such as green tea
- Experiment with other stress-relief rituals in place of a midday mug, such as breathing exercises or going for a walk
Spending Too Much Time Online
Whether you’re checking work emails or waiting for more likes on your Instagram post, studies show that too much screen time can cause anxiety and depression. Too much social media may also drive addictive behavior. You may not be able to help the onslaught of Zoom meetings, but setting some boundaries can help you control the impact of screen time on your mental health.
A recent Jobsite survey showed that 45% of people check email outside of work hours. A separate poll found that Americans check their phones an average of 58 times per day. Anchored at home without other ways to work or socialize, many people have felt even more tethered to their phones throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Worse yet, without the emotional context of facial expressions or tone of voice, our frontal lobes have had to work overtime to decipher the intent behind our friends’ and colleagues’ words.
All of this means an even bigger impact on mental health than we normally experience from our screen time. Thankfully, preserving your mental health doesn’t require a total digital detox. Follow these guidelines to keep your online activity from hurting your mental health:
- Keep your phone out of your bedroom. Practice unwinding at night without scrolling online, and use a good old-fashioned alarm clock to wake up in the morning. The “blue light” from your phone prevents melatonin production and makes it harder to fall asleep.
- Check email at specific times, rather than ad hoc throughout the day. Use an out-of-office message to set expectations if you need to. For example, after checking email in the morning, let senders know you will see their email after lunch.
- Use your phone as intended: dial a number and talk. You may find you get more done, and you’ll have the benefit of some emotional cues through tone of voice.
- Set an example for your colleagues. Send emails only during work hours when you can, and think twice before sending unnecessary messages.
- Be intentional about your leisure screen time. If you struggle to put your phone down, set a timer or ask a family member to gently nudge you away from your phone.
Sitting for Too Long
The health impact of sitting has led some to call it the “new smoking.” The CDC warns that prolonged sitting can lead to heart attack, stroke, diabetes and even early death. But the impact of this habit goes beyond physical health. Sitting is also connected to psychological distress, depression, and decreased happiness, reports Science Direct. Many studies have shown the link between exercise and mental health, but new research also shows that even moderate movement can lower rates of anxiety and depression. Meditative movement such as yoga or tai chi can even alleviate symptoms of depression. Here’s how to prevent the mental health impact of too much sitting:
- Take a “stand and stretch” break once every hour. It doesn’t need to be long — even one minute of stretching can promote better circulation and boost your mood.
- Pace during phone calls. Using the phone rather than emailing allows you to walk around, and those minutes can really add up.
- Incorporate yoga or other meditative movements into your routine. Starting your day with yoga or meditation can help you become more aware of how your body feels throughout the day, giving you more physical cues to move when you need to.
- Spend some time outside. For many, the mental health impact of sitting is exacerbated by seasonal affective disorder, especially during the winter as the days become shorter. Schedule time for a walk outside to get fresh air and a dose of vitamin D.
This 15-minute office yoga routine can help you move more throughout your day, even if you can’t leave your desk:
Eating Too Much Junk Food
Snacking can feel like a harmless vice, especially during a pandemic, but too much junk food may be negatively impacting your mental health. A recent California study showed a strong connection between diet and mental health across for all ages, genders, races and income levels. Sugar, which drains the body of B vitamins and affects the thyroid, according to Medical News Today, had a particularly big impact, leading to increased rates of depression and anxiety.
Although eating healthy food has become more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, breaking the sugar habit is possible. Here are four inexpensive ways to give your brain the nutrition it needs:
- Get creative with protein. Peas, beans, peanut butter and eggs are all good alternatives to meat that keep you full on a budget, and take little time to prepare.
- Add basic fruits. Practice replacing processed snacks with whole, inexpensive fruits like apples and bananas.
- Drink enough water. When you’re dehydrated, your body can confuse your thirst with hunger. Salty snacks like chips or pretzels can worsen this effect.
- Get enough sleep. When you’re sleep deprived, your body produces a stress hormone called cortisol that leaves you craving starchy carbs like pizza. Before indulging in an extra slice, consider whether your body craves a nap instead.
- Make healthy food easy to grab. Rather than hiding fruit and veggies in the back of the fridge, put a bowl of grapes on the counter so you reach for them first. Better yet, cut up individual slices of apples and oranges so they’re as easy to grab as a bag of chips or pretzels.
Unwinding With Alcohol
Alcohol consumption has increased dramatically during the pandemic. For some occasional drinkers, it has become a daily habit. Although this isn’t necessarily a sign of a problem, making alcohol a habit can impact your mental health before you realize it.
For example, using alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress can actually make your anxiety worse. Moreover, the environment of COVID-19 can lead to sneaky overindulgence. With no reason to drive and an easy exit from the eyes of friends or colleagues by simply leaving a Zoom call or hanging up the phone, alcohol use can quickly cross the line from vice to addiction. Here are ways to address your drinking habit when it starts to impact your mental health:
- Practice replacing alcohol with a different coping mechanism. Try going for a walk, calling a friend, or meditating at the time you would normally have a drink.
- Check in with yourself. Ask yourself regularly how drinking is impacting your life, work and relationships.
- Monitor your stress. Ask yourself if you can change the areas of your life that add stress. This might mean setting boundaries with toxic friends, communicating better with your boss, or temporarily giving up activities or responsibilities that add anxiety.
- Get professional help early. Addressing mental health and substance use in the early stages can help you to prevent serious consequences.
We all need coping mechanisms for stress, but sometimes the habits we cling to the most have unintended effects on our mental health. Understanding the relationship between habits and mental health can help. Likewise, practicing mindfulness and seeking professional help early on can help you identify unhealthy behaviors before they become a problem. If you struggle with substance use or mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression or obsessive thoughts, we can help. Call the number below to learn more about how you can take the first step toward recovery.Have questions about addiction?
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Written By: Sprout Editorial Team
The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.