UO experts offer mental health tips for 2022 wellness

illustration of person in lotus yoga pose

Research has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an uptick in depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health conditions. In a recent poll conducted by USA Today and Suffolk University, the vast majority of respondents reported feeling like the country is experiencing a mental health crisis.

As people grapple with how to manage this challenging environment, experts from the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services in the UO’s College of Education have offered some research-based tips for promoting mental health and wellness in 2022.

Set specific goals and track behavior

Jessica Cronce  
Associate professor
Prevention Science Institute

Jessica Cronce“Setting and committing to specific goals are an essential part of successful behavior change,” said Jessica Cronce, who specializes in the prevention of harm from health-risk behaviors like drug and alcohol use. She points to the example of “have fewer hangovers this year,” as a goal that could benefit from some specificity.

Using that same example, she’d suggest to instead set a more focused goal along the lines of: “Increase how often I set a limit before I go out on how many drinks I’ll have, to keep my blood alcohol concentration under 0.06.” She said the specific numbers used in the goal would help avoid the point at which many undesirable consequences associated with alcohol use increase in likelihood.

“Of course, achieving behavior change also requires tracking your behavior through things like noting how frequently you set a safer drink limit, how much you had to drink on nights you set a limit versus didn’t set a limit and what consequences were experienced. Tracking increases awareness of behavior and provides accountability,” she said.

Engage with nature

Zach Farley
Doctoral student, prevention science

Zach FarleyResearch suggests that as little as 10 minutes spent engaging with nature provides myriad benefits, including reduced stress, cognitive and attention restoration, improved mood and well-being, and enhanced empathy and cooperation with others.

People who are unable to go outside or uncomfortable doing so can still get a dose of nature. Intentionally observing nature from a window, such as watching and listening to birds or flowing water, or marveling at how the wind sways the trees, provides similar benefits to going outside, Farley said.

“The next time you go on a walk or need to unwind to restore yourself, consider doing so in open green space, near trees or along a creek, or next to a window with views of nature,” Farley said. After all, nature is the most natural medicine.

Ask for what you need through direct one-on-one conversations

Wendy Hadley
Associate professor
Julie and Keith Thomson Director and Faculty Chair, HEDCO Clinic

Wendy HadleySelf-care is recommended for overall wellness, but an often-overlooked component of self-care is advocating for what you need, said Wendy Hadley, an associate professor of counseling psychology and human services. The best way to do this is through one-on-one conversations, she explained.

“In current times, communication is often fractured by over-reliance on emails or using Zoom or Microsoft Teams for meetings, which can be a challenging medium for discussing emotional topics, especially in group settings. It can be more effective and efficient to convey important ideas to professors, colleagues or family members through one-on-one meetings, or at a minimum through phone calls.”

One-on-one meetings allow for more nonverbal communication like eye contact, facial expressions and body posturing, which are critical tools in helping people listen to others and better communicate their own needs, according to communication research. Hadley also points to the power of using "I statements" to convey feelings and open-ended questions to reflect on the conversation and check-in for clarity.

Focus on behaviors you’d like to change

Nichole Kelly
Evergreen Professor
Member, Health Promotion Initiative Cluster

Nichole KellyJanuary is prime time for diet and wellness companies to pump your feed full of ads, hoping you’ll buy what they are selling. Kelly’s advice?

“Don’t fall for it!” she said.

When setting health goals in the new year, consider focusing on the behaviors you’d like to change and why, and not setting weight-loss or dieting goals.

More than 80 percent of people who lose weight regain it. Those who do manage to maintain weight loss describe their ongoing efforts as exhausting and stressful. Rigid dieting is a risk factor for all sorts of problems, including eating disorders, she said. And, perhaps most importantly, your body size does not dictate your value or health.

“If you want to set a New Year’s resolution, think about what’s important to you,” she said.

That might include long-term health, improved mood and feeling more confident in your skin, she said. And make evidence-based goals, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, moving your body in enjoyable ways, and unfollowing social media accounts that leave you feeling bad about your body.

Give more hugs

Jordan Matulis
Doctoral student, counseling psychology

Jordan Matulis“One of the biggest losses we have experienced over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the interpersonal contact we receive and its mental health benefits,” Matulis said. She explained that while many people have found ways to connect socially and emotionally, there’s been less of an emphasis on the importance of physical touch.

“While U.S. culture often has deemphasized the power of physical touch, in appropriate settings it can have profound effects on our mental health and well-being," she said. "In my area of research, the importance of touch between caregivers and infants has shown to be essential for growth and development and can be used to calm infants’ pain and discomfort. Studies have also shown the benefit to mothers by a decrease in depressive symptoms.”

Matulis points to several studies that have documented the positive physiological effects of physical touch, including decreases in the stress hormone cortisol and increased oxytocin, known as the "love hormone."

“So while maintaining appropriate boundaries to keep yourself safe and at the consent of the other person, be sure to make a conscious effort to hug, hold hands, massage and provide encouraging touches to friends, family and loved ones within your bubbles,” she said.

Engage the asset of creativity

Ellen Hawley McWhirter
Ann Swindells Professor in Counseling Psychology

Ellen McWhirter“To cope with the challenges of this pandemic, I recommend engaging the asset of creativity,” McWhirter said.

A growing evidence base connects the exercise of creativity with pandemic well-being, she said. Best of all, ways to express creativity are limitless, and many are very inexpensive. Drawing, painting, singing, trying a new recipe or learning a new dance can all be done at home, either alone or with others.  

“For me personally this means writing songs and poetry to channel frustration and grief,” she said. “Even when focused on distressing topics, the act of creation brings a sense of relief and agency, even joy.

“Sometimes we get very task-oriented and focus all of our energy on doing what must be done. Finding ways to infuse creative expression into daily living can increase our energy and sense of well-being while we navigate the hardships of this pandemic.”

Call more, tweet less

Frank Mojekwu
Doctoral student, counseling psychology

Frank MojekwuThe COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures have reminded many people of the importance of social connectedness, but some sources of connection are healthier than others, said Frank Mojekwu, a doctoral student in counseling psychology. Mojekwu encourages people to be cautious of the ways social media use can lead to mental health risks.

“Overnight, as our everyday social networks were dissolved in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, we turned to social media to maintain a sense of association with each other," he said. "Although social network sites were instrumental in maintaining connections, these platforms have received scrutiny for their engagement-driven approach to user retention.

"This battle for our attention is perilous because we know that individuals who are experiencing depressive symptoms are more likely to attend to negative internal and external messages. Moreover, depressive symptoms are associated with harmful social media habits that could maintain the symptom. In times of wavering mental health, the best connections to seek out may lie beyond Facebook and Twitter. A call or text to a loved one may be the better option.”

Recognizing your needs is not a weakness; it’s a pillar of strength

Bertranna Muruthi
Assistant professor, Couples and Family Therapy Program

Bertranna MuruthiResearch has shown the pandemic has worsened preexisting racial trauma that continues to damage physical and mental health through chronic and repeated exposure to stress, Muruthi said.

“I encourage students to reach out to peers and other trusted sources of support, seek out mental health services if needed, and make a plan for self-care that includes healthy formal and informal boundaries,” she said.

Although people of color show high resiliency through enacting cultural norms, engaging with their community, and emphasizing spirituality, those factors can proliferate narratives of strength that negate or minimize mental health needs within communities.

“I want students of color to know that recognizing your needs is not a weakness; it is a pillar of your strength,” she said.