Mental Health and Wellness

May is Mental Health Awareness month, and providing for our own mental health and wellness is one of the most important things we can do. Teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the United States. The constant outpouring of energy that educators exert everyday can lead to burnout. The additional toll on mental health brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years has exacerbated the issue. That is why we at Rachel’s Challenge have put together this resource list to help you take better care of yourself so you can best support your students when they need it.

We can all be overwhelmed by our emotions at times. Often what seems like the easy thing to do is to try to avoid those feelings in whatever way possible, hoping they’ll just go away. However, when we are unable to process our emotions we can act out or react in a negative way, or the feelings can overwhelm us. That can lead to reacting with an “acute stress response,” which is the way the body rapidly responds when one feels threatened in order to decrease, end, or evade the immediate danger to return to a state of calm and control. 

These acute stress responses are more commonly known as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Most of us are familiar with the “fight,” “flight,” and “freeze” responses, but “fawn” may be a new one you haven’t heard before. To “fawn” means to immediately act to try to please to avoid any conflict in a situation. People may often use this response after unsuccessfully trying fight, flight, or freeze. If you find yourself more concerned with making someone happy who has treated you poorly than you are concerned with taking care of yourself, you may be one who utilizes this response.   

Below are some strategies and tools to help you deal with negative emotions so you can better understand yourself on a deeper level, as well as make it easier to connect and support others, especially your students, when they need it. Please note that Rachel’s Challenge has no direct affiliation with any of the recommendations listed below, but we hope to provide a wide range of options for everyone to find something that they can relate and connect with the most.

Strategies to Support Mental Health and Wellness

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a powerful tool to help bring us into the present moment. It involves quieting our minds to bring attention and awareness to present thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in order to help us accept those same thoughts and feelings without being overwhelmed by them or what’s going on around us. By tuning into what we are sensing in the present moment, we get ourselves out of the rut of worrying or ruminating about the past or having anxiety about the future. It can also increase empathy and compassion for others around us, improving our relationships and developing a sense of connectedness. So, when you practice being kind to your mind in the present moment, you’re not only connecting with yourself more, you’re connecting with others more which leads to a more fulfilling life.

Here are some apps that can assist you in your mindfulness practice:

2. Breathing Exercises

Have you ever noticed how you breathe when you feel relaxed? The next time you are relaxed, take a moment to notice how your body feels. Or think about how you breathe when you first wake up in the morning or just before you fall asleep. Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress and anxiety in the body. When you breathe deeply a message is sent to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Certain bodily responses that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate and fast breathing, decrease as you breathe deeply to relax. The way you breathe affects your whole body. Breathing exercises are a good way to relax, reduce tension, and relieve stress and anxiety – and they’re easy to learn. You can do them whenever you want, and you don’t need any special tools or equipment to do them. You can try different exercises to see which work best for you.

Here are a few exercises you can try right away:

  1. Belly Breathing (also known as Abdominal or Diaphragmatic Breathing)
    1. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
    2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly, below the ribcage, allowing you to feel the rise and fall of your diaphragm.
    3. Breathe in slowly through your nose, feeling your stomach press into your hand, while keeping the hand on your chest as still as possible.
    4. Exhale slowly through slightly pursed lips.
    5. Repeat for 3-5 minutes, or as long as you’d like. 
  2. Box Breathing
    1. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
    2. Inhale for four counts.
    3. Hold the air in your lungs for four counts
    4. Exhale for four counts.
    5. Hold at the end of the exhale for four counts.
    6. Repeat for as long as you’d like.
  3. Pursed-Lip Breathing
    1. Sit in a comfortable position with your neck and shoulders relaxed.
    2. With your mouth closed, inhale through your nose for two seconds.
    3. Exhale through your mouth for four seconds, pursing or puckering your lips as if you were giving a kiss.
    4. Repeat as many times as you’d like, keeping your breath slow and steady throughout.
  4. Resonance or Coherent Breathing
    1. Sit or lie down on your back and close your eyes.
    2. Gently inhale for 5 seconds.
    3. Slowly exhale for 5 seconds.
    4. Continue this pattern for a few minutes.

3. Cognitive Reframing

Cognitive reframing is a way to shift your mindset and adjust the way you look at a person, situation, or relationship, and see it from a different perspective. Reframing can change your point of view, help you validate your emotions, and help you show more compassion. Using reframing techniques can change your physical responses to stress because your body’s stress response is triggered by perceived stress more often than actual events.

As a human being, we can often find ourselves caught in a negative, irrational, or distorted thought pattern. Some of these distorted ways of thinking include:

  • Dichotomous reasoning or All-or-nothing thinking. This is seeing people and situations in terms of either…or, where everything fits in only one of two boxes.
  • Magnification and minimization or Catastrophizing. This is when you imagine the worst in a situation and the negative becomes the focus while the positive gets lost and seems far away. 
  • Discounting the positive or Reverse alchemy. This happens when turning something positive into a negative. 
  • Personalization. This can mean taking blame for things you are not responsible for and/or believing that everything is directed at you.
  • Overgeneralization. This happens when a single example or occurrence is seen as the norm, often characterized by using absolutes like “always,” “never,” “nobody,” and “everybody.” 
  • Moral imperatives. This is when you find yourself using “should/ must/ ought” statements, like you should have done this or you must/ ought to do that.
  • Emotional reasoning. This happens when we mistake our feelings for actual facts.

Thought Diary is a helpful tool to help reframe cognitive distortions. Also find it on the App Store or Google Play.

4. STOPP, TIPP, and the 54321 Grounding Method

Have you ever experienced a situation where your emotions go from 0 – 100 in what seems like the blink of an eye? Probably so. Sometimes when this happens our emotional reactions can make the situation worse. STOPP, TIPP, and the 54321 Grounding Method are all quick and easy tools you can use in the moment to help calm your emotions.

STOPP is a powerful technique that helps you take a moment to notice the feelings going on inside you before reacting to them. It can help you reframe your thoughts and perspective in a situation and not allow your emotions to get the best of you. Watch this short video to see how it works.

TIPP is another technique to help you stop emotional distress in its tracks by taking control of your body’s physiological response and using your body’s chemistry to help change your thoughts. TIPP stands for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced-Breathing, and Paired-Muscle Relaxation. Learn the technique below.

The 54321 Grounding Method uses your five senses to help ground you in the present moment. 

  1. Look for 5 things you can see.
  2. Become aware of 4 things you can touch.
  3. Acknowledge 3 things you can hear.
  4. Notice 2 things you can smell.
  5. Recognize 1 thing you can taste.

5. Journaling

Journaling is a great way to help you unload and untangle thoughts and feelings. By writing down your thoughts and feelings you can become more aware of your interior world, helping you solve problems and process traumatic events. Journaling helps reduce stress and anxiety, improves immune function, keeps your memory sharp, boosts your mood, and strengthens your emotional functions by presenting an opportunity for emotional catharsis and providing a greater sense of confidence and self-identity. Writing by hand also has benefits: it’s scientifically shown to be good for your brain and your mental health  – it reduces stress and anxiety, boosts creativity, improves your memory, enhances your focus, and more! So much of the writing we do in life is for an outside audience, such as work or school assignments and social media posts. So remember, when it comes to a journal, you’re writing for YOU!

6. Gratitude

Gratitude is an excellent way to boost your mood and increase your feelings of happiness. It can also improve your physical health, self-esteem, reduce stress and anxiety, and open doors to help deepen connections with other people. Keeping a gratitude journal, sending a thank you note to someone, or acknowledging someone with a verbal thank you can improve your well-being – so don’t forget to say thank you!

7. Move Your Body

When stress affects the brain, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. So, it makes sense that if your body feels better, your mind will too. Physical activity produces endorphins – those chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers – and help improve your mood and concentration, relieve stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, improve sleep, and boost your confidence and self-esteem. Almost any form of exercise or movement works – walking, running, dancing, cycling, yoga, weightlifting, swimming, going for a hike in nature, and playing sports. Find what you love to do that gets your body moving!

Apps to Support Mental Health and Wellness

Developed by clinical psychologists in close collaboration with leading researchers for those who want to learn about emotional well-being or who suffer from mild-to-moderate mental illness including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and eating disorders.

Developed by leading scientists and experts who’ve been studying evidence-based interventions in the fields of positive psychology, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy, Happify brings you effective tools and programs to help you take control of your feelings and thoughts.

Moodfit provides a comprehensive set of customizable tools to help you learn and focus on what most affects your mood, including daily goals and self care, mood and gratitude journals, mindfulness and breathing exercises, and more!

Started by a black woman and half-Japanese woman who didn’t see themselves and their experiences reflected in mainstream wellness. Their bodies, skin color, financial access, and past traumas often felt otherized. This inclusive self-care kit includes daily meditations, a mood tracker, gratitude log, and self-care courses.

The purpose of the “Safe Place” is to bring more awareness, education, and hope to minority mental health. Not only can the black community benefit from this app, but also mental health professionals, friends, and family, of ALL colors can be better educated on this issue. All races go through mental illness, but we also can experience it differently because of our race and social backgrounds.

Podcasts to Support Mental Health and Wellness

Host Kristen Trumpey, who has a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, wanted to create an accessible podcast that took the high-level scientific journals on the subject and put them in a context that makes sense, allowing listeners to explore a variety of positive solutions and pick something that works for them. It’s about understanding the science behind gratitude journals, dancing in your kitchen, and all the small things that make the good life, well, good.

Based on years of scientific research, The Happiness Lab is about what makes us happy. Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos takes on the misconceptions about what happiness is and shares inspiring stories that make you reflect on what happiness means to you.

From the creators of the Shine App, a podcast about how to take care of your mental health while at work.

Best selling author and wellness blogger Ty Alexander explores ways to take care of yourself and help you become the best you.

With over 20 years studying what brings meaning and purpose to our lives, Brene Brown has learned this, “We are hardwired for connection, and connection requires courage, vulnerability, and conversation.” Listen to conversations that explore how we can connect on a deeper level.

Licensed psychologist Joy Harden Bradford chats about mental health and personal development to help you become the best version of yourself.