Elana Monchar, MD, a doctor in the Dept of Psychiatry at Atlantic Health System, shares actionable ways we can take charge of our mental well-being after the unprecedented stress caused by the pandemic.

New Jersey Family: With all the stress of the pandemic—from homeschooling our kids, job loss, being a new mom and worrying about your child’s development— what advice do you have for women to ensure they are taking care of their own mental health?
Dr. Monchar: This is not an easy thing to do. There are a number of things we can try to work on. One is being kind to ourselves and listening to our inner voice. Are you being kind to yourself, or critical or asking too much? Setting a routine and sticking to it, that’s really necessary in a world where we feel out of control. There’s always going to be variations in day to day but if you know this is what your day is going to look like, ‘I’m going to give myself time in the shower before I get my family up.’ That helps us feel calmer. Creating boundaries and spaces for these tasks is also important. Now is my time to work, to be a spouse, a mom or just relax. Create those boundaries.

New Jersey Family: Can getting dressed like you’re actually going to work help too?
Dr. Monchar: Getting dressed is super important. I know for Zoom some people are just getting dressed from the waist up, but try doing full head to toe. Do your makeup if that’s something you do, and hair so that it feels like you’re getting dressed for work.

New Jersey Family: How else can we make sure we’re feeling our best?
Dr. Monchar: The usual things like fueling your body with nutritious, well-balanced foods. Figure out which ones make you feel energized. For example, I know that sweets are not good for me when I’m trying to perform at my best. Prioritize sleep. It’s hard to function at your optimum when you’re sleep deprived. It’s hard when you have teenagers around. It’s important for the whole family to get enough sleep.  No one is in their best emotional state without it.

New Jersey Family: How do you know the difference between feeling stressed and something more serious?
Dr. Monchar: It’s always helpful to talk to someone. When the stress changes your ability to function or changes the baseline of who you are, then it’s time to get help. That’s well beyond the warning signs. When the things that were natural and came easily to you now feel too difficult to do, seek help. It’s not, ‘if I try harder, I can do this.’ Depression and anxiety are not about trying harder. It’s like if I said to someone with Alzheimer’s ‘try harder to remember.’ It’s not that you’re not trying hard enough. Someone who has depression or anxiety can’t necessarily function better without help. The really scary signs are if you’re feeling hopeless, like you can’t go on or if you have thoughts of harming yourself. Reach out to someone you trust to find help. The next step once you have someone you trust is to call your primary care physician or even your pastor. There are national suicide hotlines available too.

New Jersey Family: Can you start this conversation about mental health with your GYN?
Dr. Monchar: As women, we tend to have a better relationship with our GYN than with other doctors. Your GYN will have a list of providers they can refer you to. Given the stressors of this past year a lot of women had put their own health on back burner. Get those physicals and those routine screenings. Some women have pushed off getting mammograms. Taking care of your physical health is also a way of taking care of your mental health. Check in with your doctor and say, ‘I’m having these stomach issues or headaches.’ They’ll help you figure out what to do if that’s the case.

New Jersey Family: Stress manifests in so many ways such as weight gain, lack of sleep, tooth grinding or jaw clenching, and even hair loss or thinning. What should we do if we are experiencing any of these issues? And what can we do before we get to this point?
Dr. Monchar: Stress management is important because it’s always a good idea to prevent these things whenever possible. Incorporating exercise, proper nutrition and sleep can all help. On top of that, try deep breathing. Check in with yourself. Any emotion that’s unwanted – take a deep breath. Talk to loved ones. Therapy has also become more accessible due to telehealth. For some people it’s coloring or kick boxing or going out for a stroll, gardening, baking and cooking. But if you’re baking, make sure you’re keeping it nutritious.

You want to find ways to unwind before the level of stress in your body becomes symptomatic. Once those things develop you may need to speak to a professional.

It’s always a good thing to engage in stress management or self-care. If you have any concerns speak with a mental health provider. It’s not always easy as care givers to acknowledge you need that help. As caregivers we forget the number one person to take care of is ourselves.

New Jersey Family: Making time for self-care and connecting with friends are key to our mental health. How can we do this when we have so much else on our plates?
Dr. Monchar: It doesn’t need to be a designated time. Find the space to make a phone call while you’re making dinner or folding laundry. I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice during the pandemic by calling it social distancing. It should be physical distancing. It’s made people lonelier. We just need to stay physically apart. As more people get vaccinated, these rules are changing.

New Jersey Family: What does self-care look like for you these days?
Dr. Monchar: I’m lucky enough to have other members in my house and just touching them and giving them hugs and kisses makes a difference. Disconnecting from social media helps. I highly recommend that to people. Social media can be an amazing way to connect with others if it’s not just about watching other people. For me, it’s a big-time zapper. Ask yourself if it’s draining or energizing. If you’re just scrolling that’s different than Facetiming or texting with others. In order to connect there needs to be a two-way dialog.

New Jersey Family:  What is your number one piece of advice when it comes to taking care of our mental health as well as our family’s mental health?
Dr. Monchar: My motto is, you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you don’t take the time to refill you have nothing to pour. So, I think that’s the most important thing we can do. Plenty of women say self-care feels indulgent. But until you put your own oxygen mask on you can’t take care of others.

Elana Monchar, MD is a doctor in the Dept of Psychiatry at Atlantic Health System.