It’s time for a lifestyle redesign
Improving our mental health starts with acknowledging there’s work to be done
If you’re like me, you’ve probably realized that quarantine has exposed many bad habits and presented opportunities to build good ones in their place. You’ve also likely experienced some mental health challenges along the way as a result of a few uncontrollable lifestyle changes. Self care was important before the pandemic, but it’s even more critical in the new normal when the future of our health, country and many of our careers are at stake.
We can’t control what society will look like a year from now, but we certainly can make incremental changes to our daily routine that will help ease anxiety and put mental health at the center of how we define a successful day, week or month.
Lifestyle Redesign (A concept developed at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy) has long been an area of study for OTs, psychologists and others in the medical field. Here’s USC Chan’s definition:
Lifestyle Redesign® is an innovative intervention approach developed at USC Chan that has been shown to improve health and wellness by preventing and managing chronic conditions through building healthier lifestyles.
In many cases, the approach is used to help rehabilitate individuals suffering from some form of trauma or disability. In others, it’s used to change people’s relationship with addiction by introducing good habits and meaningful occupations. (Fun fact: I nearly double-majored in journalism and occupational science in college, hence my interest and fascination with rehabilitation and mindfulness.)
About two months ago, I decided it was time for a “lifestyle redesign” of my own. My goal was to use the added time I had during quarantine to address any bad habits I carried into the pandemic; find better ways of managing anxiety, health and happiness; and learn a new skill. I wanted this to be incremental change to avoid overwhelming myself and giving up on the process. And perhaps most importantly, I wanted to keep myself as the sole motivating factor in following through with the redesign versus relying on others to validate my progress.
Before we go on, I think it’s important to note that each of our needs and lifestyles are unique to us. I don’t expect that the changes I made will work for everyone, nor do I expect you to agree with all of them. My hope is that in examining the simple and meaningful adjustments I made in my life, you’ll be inspired to make some of your own.
Redesign: relationship with mindfulness
How: Use an app for guided meditation and mindfulness exercises throughout the day
The first thing I wanted to focus on was being more deliberate with checking in on myself throughout the day. Meditation wasn’t something I really considered doing before the pandemic, but quarantine and countless success stories piqued my interest.
I decided to download the Headspace app and incorporate a mindfulness routine to the beginning, middle and end of my day. Headspace made developing one easy with its “The Wake Up” videos, guided meditation courses, and sleep sessions. The app even has a list of workout classes to choose from based on your interests and free time.
After a couple weeks of using Headspace, I began to see a change in my relationship to thinking. Instead of trying to force bad thoughts to go away and desperately trying to find good ones to fill their place, I became more at peace with just acknowledging the thoughts — all of them — and letting each one drift by like clouds in the sky.
There are other apps like Calm and Balance that also provide meditation and mindfulness training, each of them widely loved by their users. Pick which one is right for you and give it a go. Most wellness apps will have a trial period/free option before you have to pay for a subscription to unlock more features.
My advice: Make sure to immerse yourself during the trial period before you commit to one. And when you’ve found the right match, enable reminders within the app to keep you on track.
Redesign: a greater focus on rest
How: Get some glasses, a consistent schedule and a new bed (sort of)
The next thing I wanted to improve was the quality of my sleep. Headspace was a great start to alleviating tension before bed, but it wasn’t the magic cure to morning grogginess, back pains or hot nights.
Some backstory: When the stay-at-home orders went into effect in California, I packed my bags in Los Angeles and drove to my parents’ home in San Diego. Little did I know the decision would lead to me getting rid of my L.A. apartment and becoming a full-time (albeit temporary) resident of “Chateau Mama.” That also meant I’d be back in my childhood room sleeping on my childhood bed for quite some time. End backstory.
The first — and easiest — fix was limiting my interaction with blue light during the day. Yes, the not-so-great light your screens emit. And no, I’m not going to get deep into the science of it.
As a journalist who works with social media a lot, cutting back on screen time was next to impossible. The next best thing was to reduce my exposure to the light itself when using electronic devices throughout the day.
I invested in two quality pairs of blue light filtering glasses: one for use during the day and one for the last hours of the night. Filtering glasses work by limiting the amount of bad blue light that enters your eyes and reducing headaches. These glasses typically have a yellowish tint which helps with eye fatigue — the nighttime pair has a darker, amber tint.
Exposure to a lot of blue light, especially during the evening, can mess with your circadian rhythm and make it harder to fall into a deep sleep. Harvard Medical School literature on the topic does a good job of explaining the problem further:
While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night does so more powerfully. Harvard researchers and their colleagues conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light to exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).
Bottom line: Some of the grogginess I felt in the mornings was directly related to how I manged my screen time, and using blue light filtering glasses helped mitigate the effects of it.
Consistent sleep schedule
My sleep was all over the place. Some nights I’d go to bed around 11 p.m. or 12 a.m.; others, much earlier. Some mornings I’d wake up right before work, while others with two hours to spare.
Most of the variations in my sleep schedule were due to a lake of self discipline, not responsibilities. Once I started sleeping and waking up within 30 minute window for a couple weeks, I no longer needed an alarm or a reminder to go to bed. The consistent sleep schedule eventually became a new habit.
A new bed
As I mentioned, being back home also meant sleeping on a mattress that hadn’t been given a lot of TLC in the last decade. What worked for an occasional weekend trip home was really, really not the best for an extended stay.
Regardless if you’re back at your parents’ house or not, having a good bed system is critical to quality sleep and energy levels. If you have some disposable income to spend on health and fitness, I’d spend it here first. You can always get by without the group workout classes or subscription app services, but not without a decent bed to sleep on.
I wasn’t looking to spend a ton of money on a bed system I wouldn’t be taking with me to a future apartment. So, instead of getting a new mattress, I invested in a breathable mattress topper, bamboo-blend sheets for hot sleepers, a weighted blanket (highly recommend!) and a quality pillow.
The few upgrades coupled with a consistent sleep schedule and blue light filtering glasses made a huge difference in the quality of my sleep and energy levels the next day. I can’t stress it enough: If you don’t prioritize a good night’s rest, other changes you make won’t reach their full potential.
Redesign: incorporating learning into everyday life
How: Train the mind and start coding
Lastly, the rise and grind of local news (especially during the pandemic) was starting to get to me a few months into WFH. Covering COVID-19 breaking news day in and day out was taking a toll on my overall happiness and love for journalism. At times I felt helpless and sought help, only to be greeted by the reality things wouldn’t be changing anytime soon.
Many journalists will tell you that living in the current news cycle 24/7 has led to increased anxiety, problems connecting with other people and even depression. And it’s still not clear what the mental health effects of the pandemic and current political cycle will be for journalists in the months and years to come.
Most of us, news professionals or not, are dealing with a heightened level of work-related stress and anxiety, but we can’t let it consume every moment of our lives. Just because our jobs (or lack thereof) at times are depressing doesn’t mean the rest of the day has to follow suit.
So what do we do with the rest of the day other than drowning in the news or endlessly scrolling through social media? Ironically, the lack of things to do during quarantine has made it possible for many of us to take up new hobbies and learn new skills.
Training the mind
I first wanted to sharpen the skills I already had without it feeling like work. Thankfully, there are apps for that. I decided to invest in an Elevate account to get personalized brain training sessions in the form of games delivered each day to my phone.
Elevate, Lumosity and other brain training apps use games to improve our writing, reading, speaking and math skills. The mind games get harder depending on how you perform, and you can track your progress against other users to see further areas of improvement.
So far, Elevate has been awesome. My quick reading and comprehension is a bit better than it was a month ago, and all my training trends point toward continued growth.
Teaching myself to code
It’s no secret that programming literacy is becoming more important as tech continues to integrate into everyday life. Many kids are now learning to code in grade school. Even journalism programs at universities are offering more opportunities to learn coding for data analysis and interactive content.
I, like many of my journalist peers, never learned to code. But with some job listings now including the skill as a plus, it’s only time before Python has to mean something more than a big snake to news professionals.
I made the first step on my path to becoming programming literate by downloading Mimo (yes, another app) and starting their intro to Python course. Mimo allows you to set a daily goal for the time you want to spend learning code. It can be a little as five minutes or as long as 20.
I noticed that spending a short amount of time each day learning code helped me retain knowledge much better than spending a few hours all at once. I’ve been using Mimo for almost a month and can already see results. We’ll see what things look like in another six months!
Learning to code has reminded me how much I miss academic settings and picking up new skills outside of work. For me, obtaining a new skill was about finding something I’d enjoy that could also benefit me in my career. For you, maybe it’s learning to paint or play the guitar for fun. Pick something and run with it. It could be a huge boost to your mental health.
Hopefully in reading this you’ve realized that even small changes to our lifestyle can lead to big changes with our mental health. It’s important to remember that we’re all on a different life journey, and what’s right for one person may not be appropriate for another. That said, if we make a conscious effort to examine our own lifestyle from time to time, we may realize there’s a lot we can do to better ourselves and, in turn, make lasting improvements to our mental well being.