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Considering what everyone has been through over the last couple of years, it is no surprise that our mental health has been strained. We anticipated that this COVID-19 pandemic would be over, and we would be able to put it behind us. However, in light of the ongoing uncertainties with the reoccurring variants of the virus, it has us doubting that we will ever get back to our old lives again. However, despite feeling overwhelmed, we can reprogram our brains to focus on the positive future.

Although so much seems out of control, something we can control is lowering our stress level and improving our level of happiness and contentment.

There are strategies to help us learn to let go of our worries and stress, and to develop personal happiness even during challenging times. Armed with these practical strategies, we can learn to train our brains to think differently. We can gain skills for resiliency to use in the face of adversity. Let’s cover a few of these strategies briefly.

First, get in the “happiness zone” as suggested in the 2021 article “Train Your Brain” by Harvard Health Publishing. Think about a time when you were engaged in an activity, and the time flew by. Perhaps your thoughts were immersed in a good book, a favorite hobby or helping a friend or neighbor.

We can dismiss negative or toxic thoughts from our minds without effort and schedule time every day to be in the happiness zone. Pleasurable activities release endorphins in the brain, relaxing our minds and bodies. Plan to engage in one enjoyable activity or project this evening. Give yourself permission to take some time for yourself. When you improve your mental health, your family and friends benefit too.

Next, count your blessings. Gratitude allows us to notice the good things in life. Feelings of gratitude can come from thinking about anything that makes us feel lucky or blessed. Researchers at Indiana University identified benefits to focusing on the positive, shifting us away from harmful or toxic thoughts and feelings in our daily lives. Their research to discover how gratitude may improve mental health found that subjects had lasting effects on the brain after three months of journaling compared to those that didn’t maintain a gratitude journal. The 2017 Greater Good Magazine article on “How gratitude changes you and your brain,” by Brown and Wong, suggested that “practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive” to thinking positively and “improve mental health over time.”

Finally, enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Discovering the joy of those little things around us can ground us in the present, pushing away the negative memories of the past and the toxic thoughts of the uncertain future. Simple pleasures can be a moment like relishing that first sip of coffee or tea in the morning, taking a warm relaxing shower, or smelling fresh clothes out of the dryer.

Research conducted on simple pleasures concluded that the ability for people to succeed in life depends on making progress towards their life goals. According to the 2016 study, “Simple pleasures, small annoyances, and goal progress in daily life,” in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Nicole Mead and others found that pleasurable experiences offset daily irritations, restore happiness and motivate individuals to reach their goals.

Remember, practice makes healthy habits. For these strategies to be effective, they need to be practiced regularly. That means daily. After months of listening to unsettling news about the pandemic, our brains are on high alert and require some time to reprogram to think positively. Using a new strategy may be a challenge at first, but once you have established a mindfulness routine, you’ll notice the benefits and look forward to it each day.

There is no single strategy that works for everyone. However, everyone can start by creating a toolkit of ways to balance life’s stressors and live a more satisfying life.

Jacqueline Amor-Zitzelberger is a Penn State Extension educator in Clearfield County.

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