As the YWCA’s Human Resources Engagement Generalist, Julia Leavitt is well aware of the stress experienced by women working in the social services field — and in many other careers. Sometimes when working with clients, customers or family, women lose themselves, she says. “To best serve our clients, we need to figure out how to best serve ourselves, and make our wellness and well-being a priority.”
We’ve gathered some mental health tips for the new year. See if a few resonate with you.
Spend more time with support. Look to friends, family — anyone who makes you feel good and can affirm your feelings, Leavitt says. Bonus points if a few can make you laugh. Laughing more helps reduce stress, she says. “Comedic relief always makes me feel so good,” Leavitt says. “Surrounding yourself with positive energy and people can boost a sense of self, and reduce stressful thoughts that might keep me up at night.”
Look to the lunch hour. A midday break can help you recover from the morning’s stress and prevent the buildup of pressure. Some staff watch TV or soap operas, Leavitt says, while she likes to kick off a conversation with a co-worker.
“For some reason, when I talk to another human, I feel like I can wake up again,” she says. “I feel my blood rushing, and I’m pumped for the day.”
Go for a walk. “We’re so often stuck in an office, behind a desk, in front of a screen,” Leavitt says. She heads out to get coffee, but sometimes after reaching the cafe, she feels revived and doesn’t even need the liquid fuel. “It’s important to physically separate yourself from work for a moment to recharge and refocus.”
After all, research has shown that exercise can significantly boost mental health, whether a work-hour walk, team sports, cycling or aerobics. Working out for at least 45 minutes three times a week has the strongest association with your brain’s happiness, according to a study published in The Lancet in 2018.
Get a good night’s sleep. “The earlier I put my head down, the better I feel when I wake up,” Leavitt says.
She loves two apps for winding down at night — an app called Calm that offers sleep stories and guided meditations, and an app called Headspace that offers relaxation prompts. If those are too expensive for this month’s budget, YouTube hosts many free options, too.
After resting, Leavitt powers up with oatmeal or another healthy breakfast option, and takes her dog for a walk. “But I have to make time to take care of myself before I walk the dog,” she points out. “Or the dog doesn’t get a very good walk.”
If you can’t get a good night’s sleep, a trip to the doctor may be in order to rule out underlying problems — because studies have shown that improving sleep improves mental health.
Consider support groups or professional counseling. Some challenges can be difficult to surmount on your own, whether personal or institutional. For example, workplace discrimination or police harassment based on sexual orientation, income, immigration status, race or gender identity (or multiple categories) can cause depression, anxiety and stress, research has found.
Racial discrimination, for example, can negatively impact self-esteem, make you feel like an “impostor,” and cause long-lasting harm, or trauma.
A support group for women you identify with, or other organized support systems, can help with strategies for surviving and thriving in difficult situations. As well, social justice actions may provide a positive outlet, whether you have time to share a post, write a letter or work as an ally to empower women and eliminate racism.
Try more, not less. Sometimes, our brain’s challenge might not be too much stimuli — but too little. To prevent rumination and boredom, retiree and widow Sue Bartlett, 80, fills her days and evenings with two part-time jobs at a bookstore and home décor store. “To keep my mind active, I find an excuse to get up, get dressed and go someplace,” she says. “It definitely helps my mental health.”
She volunteers for the YWCA’s Working Wardrobe program and in a children’s elementary library, and also takes senior individuals on errands. Recent studies have shown that volunteering increases happiness and can lower depressive symptoms.
In the evenings, Bartlett unwinds by going to plays, listening to podcasts, perusing the dictionary to build vocabulary, and transcribing books into Braille for visually impaired readers.
Do what’s right for you. “The way I approach health and wellness is holistic,” Leavitt says. “Basically, whatever makes me feel good, happy and sleep better at night.” Everyone is different — whether recharging by going out with friends for the evening, visiting the beauty or nail salon, or enjoying a home-cooked meal and Netflix.
Each one of us can pay attention to what makes us feel like we’re recharged and ready for the next day (or hour’s) events. That self-awareness helps us “know when to say no,” she says.
“Don’t overthink society’s idea of what healthy looks like,” she says.
YWCA is on a mission to empower women, eliminate racism and strengthen communities. YWCA has been “all in” for women since 1894, and we’re all in for the next 125 years.