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Aspen Public Radio is talking about mental health. We started this discussion with a focus on the collision of pandemic depression and seasonal depression. However, mountain communities have specific mental health issues, including higher rates of suicide, and we're continuing the conversation to examine how we can develop better overall community mental health habits as we navigate through the pandemic and beyond.We’ll be talking with local experts, but the Aspen Public Radio newsroom also wants to hear directly from our listeners. We encourage you to contact us with any questions, comments or stories by emailing news@aspenpublicradio.org and putting "Mental Health Project" in the subject line.

High Risk At High Altitude: Finding Ways To Improve Your Mental Health While ‘Living In Limbo’

Tim Mossholder

Many people feel like the last several months have completely turned their world upside down. From shutdowns, to civil unrest, to new rules popping up all the time, to a seemingly unending presidential election, people are run down.

“I think the theme that we hear the most is the stress of living in limbo,” said Michelle Muething, executive director of Aspen Hope Center. “Nobody knows what tomorrow holds.”

Muething, a trained cognitive behavioral therapist, explained that the lack of control people feel right now has made things more disorienting.

“I think that’s where a lot of stress is coming in for people, is they don’t have that ability to just dip into autopilot and shut off for a minute,” she said.

She recommends people find activities that allow them to engage that function.

1. Use old standbys

Meuthing said people should first gravitate toward what feels the most “natural” for them. Someone who enjoys listening to music should lean into that more, while someone who uses painting as a coping mechanism should focus on creating their next work of art.

“Jump to something that’s … almost subconscious.” Muething said. “If those things aren’t working, do the polar opposite.”

2. Try something new

If you normally listen to loud music, try something that’s calming and quiet, she suggested. If you’re a fan of calm, quiet music, try out some melodies that are more up beat. If you have never touched a coloring book in your life, maybe now is the time to sit down with your markers or crayons. If you’re a fan of reality TV, watch a movie with a script.

“If you normally walk, and you find that your mind is running, try something different. Try a bike ride, or weights. Grab something at home and do push ups,” Muething said.

3. Take a moment for yourself

She also recommended putting “pauses” in your day as a way to help quiet your mind.

“One of the things that was always hard for me as a mom, as a therapist, as a wife, as an executive director, as a daughter, as a sister, [then] tell me to do an hour of yoga a day … you have to plan,” Muething said.

But it doesn’t take as much planning to add one-to-five minute pauses into the day. Muething said these “sense exercises” provide moments of reprieve.

“You’ve gotta take your brain from all this crazy chitter-chatter and hyper vigilance, and you got to dip down into calm and quiet.”

Muething said these “pauses” can happen while you’re washing your hands -  you can focus deeply on the warm water cascading onto your skin.  You could grab a cup of coffee and focus on the warmth of the mug while taking 10 deep breaths, in and out. You can use this breathing exercise while waiting at a red light as well.

“It is truly about lowering your heart rate with your deep breaths,” she said.

Muething said these pauses help her, and her clients, remind themselves that they can get through the next few hours; then they can repeat the exercise.

Aspen Public Radio is spending the next few months talking about mental health with local experts. It’s challenging, in general, living in an isolated, rural mountain community, but the last few months have made things harder. We also hope you will participate. Please send us your questions or comments to news@aspenpublicradio.org and put “Mental Health Project” in the subject line.

Ariel was the News Director for Aspen Public Radio from 2020 - 2021.