depressed boy leaning on a bookshelf

Preparing for the Back-to-School Season: 8 mental health tips and exercises

by Luke Sheldon

It’s back-to-school time! Whether you’re in the middle of your childhood or experiencing your adulthood, many recognize this season for the stress and pressure it brings. As we prepare for the end of summer, it’s crucial to be mentally well-prepared and embrace our new responsibilities, stress-free. I, along with many other committed peers, was privileged to learn valuable and restorative wisdom on mental well-being. This was made possible by LET, a program focused on youth mental health and the intersection of mental health, racism, and other social justice issues. On behalf of all the interns, we’re sincerely thankful for the knowledge we’ve learned and the experiences we’ve had. But we’re not looking to keep that newfound knowledge to ourselves. In this blog, I’m excited to share the top 8 mental health tips and exercises we’ve mastered and used!

#1 Abdominal Breathing:

In the storm of today’s world, taking a couple of minutes to sit down, relax, and breathe is one of the best things you can do. Professionals have crafted and refined the step-by-step guide below for abdominal breathing. Take a moment to try it – you’ll find how effective it is!

  1. Put your hand on your belly. Focus on expanding your diaphragm (pushing your hand out) to breathe in.
  1. Breathe in through your nose for a rough ratio of 1:2 (so if you choose 4 seconds to breathe in, breathe out for 6-8 seconds).
  2. Breathe through your mouth and ensure your exhale is longer than your inhale.
  3. Repeat as many times as you’d like.

#2 Giving Gratitude:

I personally believe happiness and joy boil down to perspective. And so, giving yourself the space to acknowledge the great things you have and deserve can change your life. Even Harvard can vouch for me, with their psychological study findings stating, “Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.” Moreover, gratitude doesn’t invalidate your struggles; it provides a positive perspective to navigate and cope with them. Tonight, before you go to bed, try to think of ten things you are grateful for. Trust me, it’ll leave you feeling better!

#3 RAIN Acronym: 

Below is an excerpt from Ariana DiPreta (EdM, CMPC), who led an insightful and enlightening workshop for us on August 1st. She provides an explanation of the RAIN Acronym. Feel free to give it a read!

R stands for Recognise. 

[R- Recognize] It feels so simple, but the first step of this skill is to name it. What is it that you are feeling? Many of us now are feeling fear and anxiety. Things right now feel so uncertain, which can be scary. But the first step in lessening these feelings is to name them. To call them is to take them!

A stands for Allow.

[A – Allow] I know it sounds counterintuitive, but for us to stop these feelings from growing out of control, we have to allow them to be there. When we try to push them away, they come right back. Let yourself feel the feeling.

I stands for Investigate. 

[I – Investigate] When you let yourself feel the feeling, investigate that feeling in a compassionate, non-judgmental way. For example, if you are feeling fear or anxiety, feel where it is in your body. Is it a tightness in your chest? A shaking throughout your body? And what thoughts are going through your mind about this feeling? Are you worried about the future? Scared about how things are affecting you?

N stands for Non-identify and Nurture. 

[N – Non-identify and Nurture] By non-identify, we mean to allow the feeling to be there but not identify yourself with it. For instance, with fear, it’s okay to let yourself feel afraid and uncertain, but don’t believe or tell yourself you’re fearful. Fear and anxiety are just some of the many feelings we all feel. For nurture, we want to end by doing something kind for ourselves that will help you feel the opposite of the unwanted emotion you are experiencing. So for fear, you will want to do something for yourself that is calming and relaxing. It could be walking with your dog, having tea, listening to music, or telling yourself you are safe and cared for.

So now you have this new strategy, the RAIN skill, you can use when you have a feeling that is unwanted and causing you distress.

#4 Analyzing your five senses:

Ground yourself in the present by practicing this simple exercise:

  1. Find a place to sit down. You will need to concentrate. Please pay attention to your breathing and keep it deep and slow to maintain calmness.
  2. Acknowledge five things around you, anything in your surroundings.
  3. Locate four things you can touch around you.
  4. Three things you can hear.
  5. Two things you can smell.
  6. One thing you can taste.

You’ll notice it gets trickier as you go, but this is to encourage concentration of the mind. By engaging with your senses in this way, you’ll cultivate mindfulness and strengthen your ability to focus.

#5 Staying Active:

Regular physical activity isn’t just to keep your body healthy—it’s also a vital tool to keep your mind healthy as well. Exercise triggers the release of mood-boosting chemicals, reduces stress, and fosters a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Group activities like sports also combat loneliness by socializing with peers, and long-term benefits include improved cognitive function. In short, staying active is a crucial strategy for a healthier mind.

#6 Expressing your feelings through art:

When experiencing stress or other negative emotions, running to a canvas or piece of paper is one the best ways to channel that energy into something rewarding. Studies show that creating art activates the reward and dopamine pathways in your brain, leading to heightened levels of happiness and tranquility. Also, expressing oneself through art is catered for those who don’t have the words to describe their experience or challenges, offering a great avenue for emotional release and self-discovery.

#7 When you find yourself worried:

Below is by far one of the simplest and most useful strategies one can use to ease the anxieties that come from worry. I live by this strategy, it really works wonders!

  1. If you’re worried about a situation, take a moment to jot down the things that are on your mind.
  2. Identify the things that are beyond your control and gently set them aside.
  3. Focus on addressing the aspects that are within your control and take positive steps in that direction.

#8 Three EXPERT tips we learned:

1. Never feel ashamed in reaching out about your mental health and seeking out support from a therapist, trusted adult, or friend. It’s okay to not be okay. We all have our own stories and struggles, and there are people here for you.

2. Friends can provide valuable short-term comfort; however, seeking support from a therapist offers a more sustainable basis for comfort and wellness.

3. There isn’t a correct and fixed way to cope with stress. It’s about experiencing and discovering which one benefits you the most. It may not take a day to figure out your best strategies, it might be a process of trial and error, and that’s okay! That’s the realm where real growth takes place.

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