The pandemic has forced us out of our regular flow of life, to say the least. More of us have been working from home than ever before, and the term ‘places to be, people to see’ has taken on an entirely new meaning this year – the place to be has been home, and the people to see have generally been seen through a screen.
While the situation has been, and continues to be, tough on us all, I see it as an opportunity to cultivate a better normal. How? By beginning to embed some mental wellbeing practice into our daily routines, before the old norm of ‘life getting in the way’ takes hold on us once more. Becoming aware of your physical and mental wellbeing, and taking steps to nourish them out of survival mode and into thriving mode, could be the greatest gift you give yourself as part of your own ‘new normal’, so I invite you to read on to find out what I’ve learnt and see if it serves you.
I’m a survivor of over 15 years of depression, and I can tell you, this pandemic has been pulling every trick in the book to get me to revisit that mental state, and I know I’m not alone. Current government data shows that over 4 in 5 adults are concerned about the effect that Covid-19 is having on their life right now, with nearly half reporting high levels of anxiety, and charities such as Mind revealed earlier in the year that over 20% of adults with no prior mental health challenges said that their mental health is now poor. I feel fortunate to have learned my way through the mental health difficulties in my life, and I strive to pay forward this gratitude for a happier life by sharing the techniques that have helped me survive, and move towards thriving. Practicing them regularly enabled me to rebuild myself after dropping out of university, and I went on to complete my degree with a 2:1 last year, so who knows what they can do for you?
Coronavirus – A Personal Wake-Up Call
In mid-March, I came down with an illness, closely matching the description of Covid-19 (testing was not available to me at the time). It was one of the most difficult times of my life, but on mindful, non-judgemental reflection, it was a test of unconditional self-love. When I started to feel ill, my first thoughts were, “I’m ill and this means I’m useless and unable to help when my family and the world needs me the most! Everyone else is helping but I’m stuck in bed having to rest!”. Like everyone else, I was already dealing with life challenges that required energy and resilience, so this put a strain on a usually robust wellbeing maintenance system. This unfortunately meant that, instead of taking care of myself physically and mentally, I regressed to the place of judgement that contributed to the depression I suffered from my late teens – defining my worth as my ability to serve the world. And this really did render me useless. I shot myself with what Buddhists call a ‘second arrow’. Not only was I having to deal with the physical symptoms of the illness (the first arrow), but my mind had automatically labelled it as a threat to life and activated my stress response. Awfulising thoughts, such as “I won’t be able to bring in any money”, “I’ll get into debt” and “What if my family needs me and I can’t help?” and such the like, did a real number on my ordinarily positive disposition. After about a week of this, with some emotional support, I remembered that even though I am a wellbeing practitioner, I still put my trousers on one leg at a time, just like everyone else, and am still susceptible to illness. Expecting myself to ‘just get on with it’ while suffering from muscle pain, potent headaches reaching from behind the eyes and a tiring, tenacious cough (which made my usual calming breathing techniques inaccessible) was not just unkind, but unreasonable. Fortunately, I was able to realise this soon enough to nurture myself back to health, physically and mentally – part of my Happiness Train the Trainer learning helped me understand that stress actually blocks the immune system, so it’s in our best interests to proactively de-stress to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System and promote our body’s natural ability to heal itself. I did this by pivoting through 360 degrees on the stress mode – I put myself into wellbeing mode. Everything became about my wellbeing, and that had to start with awareness.
In my experience, self-awareness is the foundation of mental wellbeing – you can only take action to look after yourself, if you know there’s something wrong. But here’s the kicker, because of the way our brain works, our stress response puts our higher functioning cognitive systems on the bench, in favour of the more basic physiological fight or flight functions (for example, maintaining tension in the large muscle groups for fighting or fleeing). This leaves us in a heightened physical state, but psychologically vulnerable as we may well be unaware that we are actually stressed, until someone is kind enough to point it out, we make a mistake, or even worse, burn out. Think about it, have you ever been in a situation that woke you up to how stressed you were, or how little you’d been able to take care of yourself? Perhaps it was a missed appointment, a friend pointing out that you’ve been unreachable or looking tired, performing an act of self-care for the first time in a while and suddenly remembering how it feels to stop for a moment and breathe.
The Self-Care Check In
If you don’t know a) how you’re feeling and b) what you need to feel better, how can you take care of yourself? Checking in on others comes naturally to us; “How are you?” is the basis of most conversations (even though we don’t always have time to show how much we truly care and delve deeper into the initial response), so learning to turn inward regularly and ask, “How am I, really?” is a proactive strategy for developing self-awareness that has vastly improved my mental health and happiness.
So how do I do that?
For me, the foundation of wellbeing mode meant setting my watch to beep every hour, and doing a self-care check in on a scale of 0 to 1 -, physically, by tuning in to my body to check for areas of tension, discomfort or pain) and mentally, by asking “How good do I feel?”. This simple act would make me aware of whether or not I was ‘OK’. For instance, if I found myself under 7/10 mentally, I would have the self-awareness to know that I was in the early stages of needing some self-care and could take proactive measures to ensure I didn’t slide further down the scale. That is the basis of self-kindness for me – knowing that I deserve to feel good, and I give myself permission to prioritise being kind to myself in a moment of difficulty or struggle, rather than expecting myself to push through and be a ‘good human being’. Of course, when we have responsibilities outside of ourselves, such as children, work, commitments, it can be a real tug of war. There are, of course times when we have to put others first, but just like they tell us on the airplanes, if you don’t take care of yourself first before helping others, you could die – as dramatic as that sounds, the point I’m making is that finding even a few minutes each day to nourish yourself in any healthy way possible, can pave the way to better mental wellbeing, and serving from a fuller cup, with a comfortable smile, rather than a brave face.
In finding myself ‘less than OK’, I would tune in through a pause and quiet reflection or meditation and ask myself:
“What do I need right now?”
My self-awareness served me further here, as I am well-practiced at knowing what nourishes me, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, so the answers came to me quite easily. This is an important point – it’s essential to explore this area of self-awareness so that you are ready to take charge and nourish yourself back up the scale should the need arise. Find out what activities and experiences revive you and replenish your energy in different ways. During this period of illness, there were occasions where I found myself lower down the scale, with feelings of frustration, irritability and even hopelessness. From experience, I knew that the best remedy for me was asking myself the mindfully kind question:
“What do I need to move myself up the scale by one?”
Taking the pressure off the need to get all the way back up the scale was the ultimate act of self-kindness. It acknowledged that I was in a moment of struggle, and that the immediate priority was to feel better, not to be able to function as a human – this is an aspect of the all too evasive unconditional self-love and recognises happiness as our human birthright. There are times when I wish I had learnt this during my years of depression, because I know that the main reason I stayed stuck in it for so many years was because I was judging myself on my ability to serve the world, or rather my inability. The judgement of having negative thoughts and ensuing feelings continually lowered my mood, and eventually led to thoughts of ‘not wanting to be here’. I am truly thankful that they were only thoughts, and that I have lived to tell this tale and spread this message that self-awareness gifts you the power to take better care of yourself, and consequently others.
If I was 2/10 or below, I had trained myself to automatically respond with compassion, just as I would if a friend was sitting next to me, deeply upset, and ask:
“What is the kindest thing you can do for yourself right now?”
This is a technique I learnt on a Mindful Self-Compassion course with Kind Mind Academy. While I found that they were teaching many of the lessons I had learnt the hard way, I highly recommend taking the journey with them as they go deeply into things on a psychological level, with what I found to be therapeutic results.
What was interesting about the two scales, was that I noticed that if my physical scale was 7 or below, it would affect my mental scale. This awareness in itself was helpful, as once I called out the mental stress about the physical stress, it seemed to dissipate – the thought process went something like this: “So I’m feeling 7/10 mentally, 2 points off because of the two things that happened earlier, and 1 point because I’m worried about my shoulder. Well, that isn’t helping me, so how can I take care of my shoulder?” The awareness sparked the return to focusing on self-care, and that in itself redeemed 1 point! It’s important to note that these techniques are what have worked for me, and that a numeric scale, for example, may be off-putting for some. Be creative, try out different ways of measuring, or for the mental side simply use adjectives. I know from experience, though, that one of the difficulties with depression, as with many mental health conditions, is the difficulty in expressing how you are feeling or what you are going through – I found the numeric scale liberating and comforting for that reason. My highly creative, analytical mind only had to land on a number or range of numbers, rather than conjure up a perfect sentence to describe a constantly fluctuating, somewhat frightening mental state.
I am truly grateful for the learning I have developed over the years, and speaking of gratitude…
The first thing to note about purposeful gratitude practice, is that it can be applied to wellbeing, spirituality or even as a way of life. However, when offering it within the sphere of wellbeing, I do so with the caveat that there may be times when you feel unable to reach that attitude, or even altitude, from where you are emotionally, and that’s not something to judge yourself for. Those lowest mood times are when I would say your priority is to find out what you need to take care of yourself – in those times, I prescribe myself self-kindness until I have moved myself far enough up the scale where I feel in control and stable again. What I’ve found is that the more I practice gratitude, and in different ways, the more it has become a way of life, a natural attitude, and I find the bumps in my road are far less bumpy, sometimes even enjoyable!
There is a lot of content around gratitude, but my take on it is that there are levels of practicing it, and with each level, come layers of benefit. For example, given that humans already have an in-built Negativity Bias to contend with (primevally inherited psychological wiring that means we may have a tendency to focus on the negative, or what the brain may perceive as a threat), you could start by simply being present with what is going right at any given moment. There are an estimated 37.2 trillion cells in the human body. While we may be having pain or suffering physically in some way, the body is always healing itself and all those cells are miraculously doing their jobs every day, without us making any effort. We don’t think about the miles of pipes that our clean water has to travel through to get to us, yet it magically appears for us at the opening of a tap. These are just two ideas to start contemplating when beginning your journey with gratitude. The two-way layers of benefit here would be that while you are engaging your mind with thoughts of fascination and wonder at these essential yet miraculous phenomena, you are generating tonic emotions, and you cannot entertain toxic ones simultaneously. On a deeper level, you are also sending out positive energy (to the Universe, or a higher energy if you believe in such a thing), which, if you believe in the notion of ‘like attracts like’, can only be a good thing.
At the other end of the scale, you may have gone through mental, emotional, physical, verbal and spiritual layers of appreciation for a given situation, and be overflowing with a high vibration that inspires you to pay that gratitude forward into action, much like I did with my charity project, Club Gratitude. I call that Active Appreciation, the best kind in terms of win win win situations. If you play your cards right, and are truly conscious in your experience, you can generate a cumulative effect, not just for you but for others too. As an example, I founded Club Gratitude in 2009, when I had finally started to return to a state of good mental health after the depression. I was so grateful to be functioning again, and to feel like myself, that I felt inspired to help others who were less fortunate. This translated into making sandwiches for the homeless, perhaps not the most direct or purposeful idea for paying it forward, however, at the time I just wanted to take meaningful action to improve lives, and I found out that my late Grandmother, God rest her soul, was making sandwiches through her synagogue. This inspired me to gather a group of friends to increase the impact, and we were soon feeding 75 people in Watford every month. As time went on, I began to connect with my purpose in life, to uplift those who cannot yet do so themselves, and the practice of gratitude became embedded in my daily routine, at first from a spiritual perspective, and then I discovered its powerful impact on my mental wellbeing. I started introducing light practices into the sandwich making sessions, and eventually ran events that revolved around gratitude – conscious volunteering. People felt more fulfilled from this kind of volunteering as they deeply connected with the reason and energy behind their giving. The win win win with Active Appreciation is that first you receive the benefit of feeling grateful, as it is one of the highest vibrating emotions, this may cause you to extend that feeling through one of the other layers of appreciation (verbal, mental, physical, spiritual), and finally, from that feeling of fullness you may decide to send that energy back out into the world through some kind of purposeful action – which is in fact a double win, because acts of kindness generally feel good for both the giver and receiver.
In publishing this resource, my hope is for you to consider prioritising taking care of yourself at least a little more each day. If you’d like to learn how, in creative and uplifting ways, please take a look at my calendar of events (free and paid), and get in touch if you’d like to book a workshop or online event. I have also just launched a new 3 week course, 3 Keys to Mental Wellbeing, specifically to support remote workers within their organisations to develop robust mental wellbeing habits that will serve them beyond Covid-19. Please take a look at my Mental Wellbeing for Organisations page for details, and my testimonials, for an idea of previous workshops I have run.