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'Smell the pizza,' plus 4 other must-do exercises to develop mental strength during COVID-19

Psychotherapist and international bestselling author Amy Morin says the coronavirus pandemic can take a serious psychological toll. These exercises, however, can help.
Psychotherapist and international bestselling author Amy Morin.
Psychotherapist and international bestselling author Amy Morin.Courtesy of Amy Morin.

We’ve never needed more mental muscle than we do right now.

Between the health risks, social distancing, financial hardships and economic uncertainties as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s no wonder our psychological well-being has taken a hit. In fact, a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of Americans believe COVID-19 has affected their mental health.

The good news is, no matter what storm you’re weathering, there are several things you can do to dig deep and stay strong right now.

Keep in mind that mental strength isn’t about feeling happy all the time or denying natural emotions (like anxiety and sadness). But it is about refusing to stay stuck when your emotions aren’t serving you well. And right now, during a tough time, you have more opportunities than ever to practice coping with difficult emotions in a healthy way so that you can become the strongest and best version of yourself.

I often give these five exercises to my clients to help them regulate emotion, manage negative thoughts and take positive action (the hallmarks of mental strength). They can work during this pandemic for you, too.

1. Smell the pizza.

The anxiety you might be feeling these days can raise your blood pressure and increase stress hormones. Those physiological reactions can heighten your emotional state — and create a cycle of anxiety that becomes difficult to break.

Fortunately, a few deep breaths might be all you need to free yourself from your angst. Studies show that your breathing rhythm affects your emotional state. When you practice slow, controlled breathing, you can calm your brain and your body.

A quick and easy way to slow your breathing is to “smell the pizza.” Here’s how to do it:

  • Imagine you are presented with a delicious slice of pizza. Pretend you’re smelling that pizza. Breathe in deeply through your nose until your belly is fully inflated.
  • Hold that deep breath in for a count of three.
  • Now, pretend you’re cooling the pizza by blowing slowly out of your mouth.

When you notice you’re feeling anxious and stressed out, “smell the pizza” three times. This psychological trick can help you instantly feel a little calmer.

2. Identify three things you feel grateful for.

Whether you currently lack a job or a social life, it’s easy to focus on all the things you don’t have during the pandemic. Practicing gratitude, however, can be the first step in changing your mindset.

You might need to search for simple things to be grateful for right now — like electricity and clean water. But the more you start reminding yourself of all the reasons you have to be thankful, the easier it is to stay positive.

Practicing gratitude is simple. But it can make a huge impact on your life. Research shows that grateful individuals tend to be 25 percent happier than everyone else and that they also enjoy better physical health.

You can say what you’re grateful for aloud, perhaps at a family meal. Or, you can silently identify three things you’re grateful for before you get out of bed every morning.

And if you really want to get the most out of your gratitude practice, then spend 15 minutes writing about the things you are grateful for right before you go to bed. Studies show that it will improve the quality of your sleep. And who couldn’t use better sleep right now?

3. Schedule time to worry.

Even the calmest of individuals are likely to experience a serious spike in anxiety when consuming media updates about death tolls and the economic crisis. Worrying too much makes it hard to function, however. And it does nothing to improve the situation.

Fortunately, you can contain your worries to just 15 minutes a day by scheduling a “worry time.” Although it might sound ridiculous on the surface, a 2012 study found that people who established a “worry time” experienced significant decreases in their anxiety.

So set aside 15 minutes each day to be your “worry time.” When your “worry time” rolls around, sit down and worry your heart out. When the time is up, tell yourself that your “worry time” is over, and move on to another activity.

With practice, you can learn to contain your worries to these 15 minutes. And you’ll reserve your mental energy for more important tasks throughout the day.

4. Argue the opposite.

Get ahold of catastrophic thoughts before they spiral out of control.

Pretend you are having a debate with someone and you’re arguing the other side. What evidence would you use to try and convince that person that things might turn out better than they expect?

Of course, a more realistic outlook might land somewhere in the middle between complete tragedy and total bliss. But arguing the opposite can help you see that your negative predictions aren’t always destined to come true.

5. Line up something fun.

It’s not wonder why many people are down in the dumps during this quarantine. Many common go-to coping strategies aren’t available — like getting together with friends or going to the gym.

Putting something fun in your calendar is a powerful way to combat depression.

Of course, right now, finding something “fun” to do may require some creativity since social distancing has most likely limited your options. But you can schedule simple events, like watching a special movie on Friday night or baking a batch of cookies on Sunday afternoon.

The trick to boosting your mood is actually writing the activity in your schedule. First, you will get a psychological lift when you have something to look forward to. Then, you will get an additional improvement in your mood when you do that fun activity. Finally, your mood will stay elevated for a bit when that activity is over because you'll have created positive memories.

Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, mental strength trainer, and a psychology instructor at Northeastern University. She's also an international bestselling author whose books on mental strength have been translated into 39 languages. She gave one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time and she lives on a sailboat in the Florida Keys.