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5 Thought Exercises for Managing Mental Health Symptoms

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The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a mental health crisis alongside it. As early as June of 2020, the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collected data indicating that many people were experiencing mental health challenges due to the pandemic. In that study, 31% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, and 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days.

The capacity to find meaning and hope during times of adversity and mental stress is a major factor in resilience, the ability to “bounce back” and experience personal growth after traumatic events. Finding a sense of meaning and purpose in traumatic events can also protect against developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This article will cover five thought exercises and activities you can use to explore potential sources of meaning, hope, and courage as you navigate your way through the mental health challenges posed by the pandemic and life in general.

The below thought exercises and activities have been helpful to my clients in my mental health counseling work:

1) “Imagine that you wake up tomorrow morning and find that something you’ve been worrying about has actually happened. What is the smallest, first thing that would have to happen to give you a dose of positivity and hope for a better future?”

Think of times when your fears have come true, then pinpoint the first thing you experienced that gave you the courage to continue. This exercise can be helpful when you’re feeling overwhelmed or discouraged. One of my clients was once overcome with depression after a breakup. I gave him this question to think over, and he returned the following week with the news that he had laughed for the first time in a couple of weeks while listening to a podcast during his commute. During typical times, this wouldn’t have seemed like much. Yet, in the depths of his depression, it was significant. This exercise reminded him that there were as many small sources of joy in his daily life as sources of discouragement.

2) “Think of your favorite movie, and think of your favorite character in that movie – this character has a story motivating him or her, and of course, the story would be different without this character. Imagine a movie script of your life.  What moves your character along in the story of your life, and what unique role do you have to play in this story?”

While a prisoner at Auschwitz during WWII, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning about finding hope in the most hopeless circumstances. In this book, he encouraged readers to ask what life wants from them rather than what they want from life. This question has benefitted my clients and can help you identify what motivates you deep down and what role you see for yourself in life. Relating this question to your favorite movie can be an enjoyable and relatable way to explore this challenging question.

3) “Consider some of the losses you’ve experienced, and ponder what these losses have taught you about what those things were worth. Consider the meaning which this worth holds.”

Consider a couple forced to postpone their wedding because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the unfortunate case for many people worldwide. What might the loss of this planned event teach them about its worth to them? Perhaps they would answer that they found meaning in looking forward to demonstrating their affection for each other. It may be a potent source of hope to explore other ways to show that affection and they may ask themselves the empowering question of “why would I let this pandemic stop me from showing my partner how much I love him/her?”

4) “Write a letter from your future self, 3, 6, or even ten years from now, to your present self.”

This exercise may help you think about how you would like to regard your life and consider the challenges you may have to deal with along the way. For example, “In the future, I would like to be able to look back on my life and say that I….” This exercise can also help you fine-tune and discover your short or long-term goals and explore your values and sense of identity.

5) “Fill in the sentence: ‘OK, [blank] is happening and I feel [blank] because [blank]… This gives me the opportunity to [blank]'”.

This question can help you to feel validated in your emotional responses to stressful events. It can also help to reframe these events as opportunities or challenges you can overcome. For example, I once discussed with a teenage client their frustrations at having their diary read by their brother. We did this exercise together in session. The client ended up walking away feeling encouraged. This allowed them to express to their brother their feelings regarding personal boundaries and the lack of respect they felt. My client and I covered this in previous sessions, and this stressful event gave them the right kind of motivation to finally verbalize their feelings and challenge their brother in a mature way.

I hope that the above thought exercises prove helpful to you during periods of overwhelming hopelessness. Use them as an aid to find sources of strength or encouragement during challenging times, or ask a mental health counselor about them.


About the Author: Christopher Krueger graduated with a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology in 2017 and worked as an outpatient mental health therapist and substance abuse therapist. Christopher currently works as a behavioral health crisis intervention therapist for Baltimore Crisis Response, which operates a mobile crisis team hotline: 410 433-5175.

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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