If you have a broken bone, you know you need to see a doctor. But mental health is tougher to pin down. Since mental health is less tangible, people tend to put it on the back burner. How do we know when feelings of sadness, hopelessness, despair, and joylessness are a real problem?
Experts like Dr. Venus Nicolino argue that mental health deserves the same amount of attention as physical health. As a doctor of clinical psychology, bestselling author, mental health advocate, podcast host, and board member for the innovative mental health app SoundMind, Nicolino knows the warning indicators of mental health issues. “There are signs,” she shares. “Avoiding activities you normally enjoy, isolating yourself, and a feeling of [being] overwhelmed.”
In this guide, Dr. V — as she’s affectionately known — digs deeper into the clues that something has gone awry with your peace of mind, as well as her unconventional but effective tips to turn things around.
Avoiding Activities You Normally Enjoy
Do you usually love to have movie marathons with friends? Or slip on your sneakers to go for a run? If you’ve suddenly stopped doing the things you relish and find yourself in a rut where you sit in bed watching TikTok for hours, you might have a problem.
Everyone needs a sense of fulfillment and purpose in life, and we get that in part from the activities we like. If you’ve stopped going to the movies, knitting, gardening, or playing sports, that could be a sign you need a mental tune-up.
It all starts with loving yourself. “Love yourself — but nobody tells you how. Because it’s impossible to love yourself in the way that you would love someone else,” says the host of the podcast “The Tea With Dr. V.” Self-love and self-care look different for everyone, but there are a few ways you can get out of a rut and appreciate these activities again.
First things first, Dr. Venus Nicolino recommends getting into a better headspace. “Five-minute guided meditation has been super helpful to me,” she shares. “My newest practice is mental lullabies using positive self-talk right at bedtime. I give my mind things to ponder and map out while I sleep. My hopes for the future, gratitude for awesome little moments during my day, and encouragement for what’s possible with my next sunrise.”
You can also try introducing novelty into your routine. New experiences are the spice of life, after all. It’s hard dragging yourself out of your apartment to attend a concert or fly a kite, but these activities can get your brain chemistry back on track.
If that doesn’t work, it’s OK to reach out to a therapist. “I’ve been humbled by how many people I’ve met who reach out for help. I get to participate in the life of another human being. I can’t imagine a higher honor,” Dr. Venus Nicolino says. Working with a counselor can be cathartic; they can help you identify the underlying reasons behind why you don’t love the things you once did.
While COVID-19 made isolation a necessity for safety reasons, Dr. Venus Nicolino believes solitude was a problem long before the pandemic. “Our isolation nation began before the pandemic and worsened with the arrival of COVID,” explains the author of Bad Advice: How to Survive and Thrive in an Age of Bulls–t.
“So many people don’t have a single person they can open up to. It’s a major problem in the U.S. that is devolving into a national tragedy,” Dr. Venus Nicolino says. “A Harvard study found 36% of Americans felt lonely ‘frequently’ or ‘almost all the time or all the time.’ Let that number sink in, and it paints an accurately ugly picture of so many problems in the country today.”
Humans are hardwired for social interaction, so when you don’t interact with others face-to-face, your brain can go haywire. And yes, this can even happen to quiet-loving introverts, so you need to get out of your bubble. “Social capital must be seen as valuable once more. We are not too busy to talk to people, to interact, to see if someone is worthy of our trust. If we are, then we’re busy on the wrong things, things that will bring ruin upon us all,” Dr. Venus Nicolino warns.
Your home is cozy and familiar, but confining yourself is only hurting your mental health. If you’ve fallen out of touch with friends, call them up and schedule a coffee date. You can join groups on meetup.com if you want to make new pals. Research suggests that surface-level connections, like chatting with your favorite barista every morning, can contribute to feelings of connectedness, too, so don’t skimp on the small talk.
Dr. Venus Nicolino warns that a constant feeling of being overwhelmed is a sign that your mental health is in jeopardy. It’s understandable: We’re bombarded with information and decisions all day. But even so, we need to find peace so we can make rational decisions and cope with everyday life. If you feel overwhelmed by even the smallest things, it could be a sign that you need a tune-up.
So, what’s the solution?
For starters, Dr. Venus Nicolino recommends ditching mental junk food. These are the guilty pleasures you indulge in that you know are bad for your mental health, like scrolling on social media or indulging in negative gossip. “I try to avoid letting too much mental garbage inside my head,” Dr. V shares.
To combat feeling overwhelmed, try to create a mental oasis for yourself. Think of this as a retreat for your brain to take a break from worrying, planning, and consuming. Apps like SoundMind, which uses research-backed music therapy to soothe the brain, can help.
As the lead investor in SoundMind, Dr. Venus Nicolino shares that she’s seen amazing results. “We know sound (music) has been correlated with self-esteem and reduced feelings of worthlessness. Thus it enhances resilience, the ability to regain control of one’s life, and the sensation of community connectedness. Binaural beats have even shown promise in coping with PTSD,” she says. “A recent clinical study with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America revealed 64% of participants expressed an increase in feeling interested, active, and excited after using SoundMind for one week.”
You’re in the Driver’s Seat, According to Dr. Venus Nicolino
Mental health is hard to manage because it’s invisible. But you know yourself better than anyone else. “No one is an expert on you. You are the one being, the one experiencing life, feeling your way through this thing,” Dr. Venus Nicolino says. If you see warning signs like avoiding activities, isolation, or feeling overwhelmed, it’s a sign that something needs to change.
Mental health looks different for everyone. “Cookie-cutter solutions aren’t solutions at all. We have to find what works for the individual. Persuading people to keep trying solutions until the right one is found is often the challenge,” Dr. Venus Nicolino explains. It isn’t easy to turn around your mental state, but it’s possible when you find what works for you and commit to a new, healthier direction.