Connect the Dots for Mental Health

Ohio 4-H decided to focus on mental health during the month of January 2021. Mental health has always been important, but the need to focus on mental health was never more apparent than in 2020.

Throughout the month, members of the 4-H Healthy Living Design Team wrote about different dimensions of wellness. Even though our focus was on mental health, we touched on many other aspects of health– physical, emotional, social, intellectual, environmental, financial, and creative. We presented some background information, suggested strategies to address each area, and shared our own experiences.

If you look back over the month, I think you can see how all the different dimensions of wellness are related to each other. For example, one way to make mindfulness part of our day is to listen when someone is talking to us. In turn, this will lead to better social connections, which will enhance our social health. Social connection creates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. In fact, research suggest that the quality of our social ties might be the single biggest predictor of our well-being. We can reach out to friends when we’re feeling stressed; in turn, we can check in with our family and friends to be the person that they turn to when they need support.

Of course, physical activity helps keep our body healthy. But that’s not all it does. Engaging in physical activity is recommended as a way to manage stress, which addresses our mental health. And even better when we can take that activity outdoors. Then we can practice mindfulness when we take in the sights, sounds, and smells when we’re walking outdoors.

Self-care strategies keep us healthy in many ways: in addition to physical activity, getting enough sleep; eating healthful foods; and making time for fun, learning, and creative activities are things we can do. Some of these strategies may require us to establish better habits to make them a regular part of our lifestyle.

The coronavirus pandemic has been challenging for everyone. It’s easy to think of what we didn’t get to do. However, I think you can probably think of some good things that happened last year. Among my family and friends there were high school and college graduations, weddings, new babies, new homes, new jobs, and other milestones. They may have looked different, but life kept on going. It’s important to pause and recognize the good things that happen every day, no matter how small.  Another way to see the connections is in the COPE with COVID suggestions put forth by Dr. Bern Melnyk, Chief Wellness Officer at The Ohio State University and Dean of the College of Nursing. You can see how these suggestions incorporate aspects of physical, mental, emotional, and social health, as well as gratitude and mindfulness.

Today’s Take-Away: Look for ways to pledge your health to better living. The resources developed for Ohio 4-H Mental Health Month are posted on our webpage. But even though the month is over, we will continue to share information, ideas, and inspiration about healthy living topics throughout the year.

Yours in Health,

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Theresa Ferrari, Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development

Keep Calm and Puzzle On

Puzzles have been around for a long time. But who knew that January 29 is National Puzzle Day! And why not have a day devoted to puzzles – they’re fun. And because they involve focus and concentration, they also serve as stress relievers, which may explain their increased popularity during the pandemic. Even Bill Gates is said to be a fan.

Let’s puzzle on and focus on two favorites of mine: word puzzles and jigsaw puzzles.

Word Puzzles

To say that I like words would be an understatement. I remember doing all sorts of vocabulary builders in elementary school, and I would read books past my bedtime with a flashlight under the covers. Even now I subscribe to Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day. In 5th grade I placed second in a spelling bee and in a fire prevention essay contest. I didn’t really discover I was a good writer until I was in graduate school the second time around. So maybe there’s a theme there….hmmm.

Probably the most well-known type of word puzzle is the crossword puzzle. I found out that Arthur Wynn, a journalist from Liverpool, is credited as being the inventor of the first crossword puzzle, which was published in the New York World newspaper in 1913. Other word puzzles appeared more recently. Mad Libs was created in the 1950s. Word searches appeared in the U.S. in 1968, and now there are many variations.

Jigsaw Puzzles

The precursor to the modern-day jigsaw puzzle dates back to the 1760s in England. Called “dissections,” they were maps mounted on wood and cut apart, as a way to teach children geography. It’s interesting to note that researchers recently completed the first study of the process children use to do jigsaw puzzles. The study revealed that 3-year-olds use trial and error to put them together, but 4-year-olds are able to use information in the picture to complete the puzzle, indicating changes in how their brains process information.

Puzzles and Health – Besides being fun, puzzles have several other health-related benefits.

Intellectual Health: Puzzles demand a level of thought and focus. Spending time regularly working on puzzles improves memory and problem-solving skills. It’s great when fun and learning can be combined!

Studies have found that when we work on a jigsaw puzzle, we use both sides of our brain. Your left brain is logical and works in a linear fashion; it sees all the separate pieces and attempts to sort them out logically. You find the corners and all the straight-edge puzzle pieces first, right? Your right brain is the creative side – it sees the “big picture” and works intuitively. As you study the image and its details, your brain taps into visual-spatial patterns. I would argue the same is true for word puzzles. Although they may not appear so on the surface, word puzzles are about patterns, too – words, after all, are letters arranged in a meaningful way. In exercising both sides of the brain at the same time, we create connections between both sides, as well as connections between individual brain cells. These connections increase our ability to learn, to comprehend, and to remember.

Social Health: Puzzles also offer social benefits. When we work together with someone on a task, we strengthen our social connections. Those interactions keep us socially active, which is important for our mental health. Because jigsaw puzzles are pictures, they can bridge language barriers.

Mental Health: As we connect two puzzle pieces together (you know that feeling!), our brains release dopamine, which has a positive effect on our mood. When you concentrate while sorting pieces by color and shape or you scan back and forth to find the words in a word search, you tune out other distractions, so puzzling helps us keep calm. There’s something to be said for actually touching jigsaw puzzle pieces and using paper and pencil to complete a crossword. It also gives us a break from screen time.

What’s the deal with screen time? Screen time could be the topic of an entire post, but I’ll summarize here. Research has shown an association between time spent using screen media and psychological well-being.  For example, in one study, high users of screens were significantly more likely to display poor emotion regulation (not staying calm, arguing too much, being difficult to get along with), an inability to finish tasks, lower curiosity, and more difficulty making friends. Researchers have yet to establish a causal relationship – it’s a ‘chicken and egg’ thing: Which came first? Did screen use lead to these things, or were people with those characteristics more likely to use screens? And does the type of screen use matter? What else might be involved? We won’t solve that puzzle today, but suffice it to say that too much screen use and certain types of it might be problematic.

Screens and COVID – With remote schooling and socializing, screen time has likely increased during the coronavirus pandemic. It seems like a contradiction: We should connect to people (even if virtually), and yet we are cautioned against spending too much time on screens. Keep up those connections, but it’s still recommended that we take a break from screens when we can.

Today’s Take-Away: I hope that learning about the health benefits didn’t take the fun out of puzzles for you, but instead it gives you an appreciation of how fun, health, and learning are connected.

a page with letters and words

Mental Health Month Word Search

As we are getting close to the end of January and wrapping up our Ohio 4-H Mental Health Month, I created a word search (using the search generator below), using words that have appeared in our posts this month. You can download it here.

Of course, you can take advantage of existing puzzles and word games. You can take it a step further by creating your own. Creating word puzzles used to be a time-consuming task…until the internet arrived. Now there are countless programs and online tools that help you create your own puzzles in no time. These are just a few:

Snow is predicted this weekend; time to keep calm and puzzle on and have a little fun in honor of National Puzzle Day!

Yours in Health,

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Theresa Ferrari, Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development

Continuing to Cope with COVID

It’s no surprise that COVID-19 has increased concerns about mental health. One reason we feel stress is because of the uncertainty of the situation. Is school going to be in-person, virtual, or hybrid? How many times will it change? Will high school graduation be in person or virtual? When will I be able to see my grandparents? Now that we are coming up to nearly a year of wearing masks; changes to home, school, and work; and experiencing restrictions on in-person gatherings, we’re wondering when it’s going to end.

It’s normal to feel stress and worry during a crisis. However, the particulars of the pandemic have taken this stress to another level. In addition to uncertainty, there are several other things that contribute to it. Stay-at-home orders, school closures, and restrictions on activities and gatherings have limited social interactions. Young people have experienced disruption by missing out on life events that are part of a final year of high school and milestones such as graduations. In the process they also missed out on many opportunities important for social development. There is a large body of research that links social isolation and loneliness to poor mental and physical health. What can we do?

Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress

Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, and it is normal to experience a wide range of emotions. We can’t wave a magic wand and make everything return to ‘normal.’ However, there are a number of healthy ways to cope with stress. These recommendations seem so simple, maybe too simple, right? Yet, they are offered over and over again by mental health experts, from well-respected organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Mayo Clinic.

I have categorized the recommendations for coping with stress into Four Cs.

  •  CARE – Take care of your body (and mind).
  • Relax and recharge. Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
    • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
    • Exercise regularly.
    • Get plenty of sleep.
    • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and substance use.
    • Continue with routine preventive measures (such as vaccinations, health check-ups, etc.) as recommended by your healthcare provider.
    • Get vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine when available.
  • CREATE – Make time to unwind to do some activities you enjoy. Creative activities like art are especially engaging. Maybe you will discover a new interest. Some people like to keep their thoughts in a journal. Expressive writing helps people process difficult emotions and find meaning.
  • CONNECT – There are actually three ways to Connect.
    • (Dis)connect – Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. It’s good to be informed, but hearing about the pandemic constantly can be upsetting. A recent study found that one major contributor to anxiety for people of all ages was increased engagement with media. Especially problematic is exposure to conflicting information. Consider limiting news to just a couple times a day and make a conscious effort to spend less time in front of a screen disconnecting from phone, TV, and computer screens for a while. This is challenging when so many aspects of our life are being conducted virtually.
    • Connect – with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. Social connections are important for your overall health.
    • Connect – with your community- or faith-based organizations. While social distancing measures are in place, maintain your connections with organizations through online meetings.
  • CONTRIBUTE – Find purpose in helping the people around you.
    • Support a family member or friend.  Reach out to others to stay in contact, especially if they live alone. If you know someone who can’t get out, ask if there’s something they need. Don’t rely only on social media; make a phone call or write a note.
    • Do something for others. Find ways to contribute to your community. Be sure to follow recommendations on social distancing and group meetings.

Today’s Take-Away: There are many healthy ways to cope with stress. Sometimes even when you practice self-care and coping strategies, stress can overwhelm you. Some mental health situations may call for professional help. You may find this resource My Mental Health: Do I Need Help? from the National Institute of Mental Health helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

If you or someone you know needs to be connected to professional resources, Ohio State University’s Center for Public Health Practice has compiled Mental Health Resource Guides. Go to u.osu.edu/cphp/ohio-mental-health-resource-guides/, find the county you need, and select it to bring up local resources.

Yours in Heath,

Signature

Theresa Ferrari, Extension Specialist, 4-H Youth Development