A guide to coming out of this mentally stronger
With Melbourne being back in lockdown, many of us feel uneasy (to say the least) about the sudden, strange upheaval to regular life as we know it. There is no doubt that, on top of the serious physical respiratory health pandemic, a tsunami of associated mental health issues is rapidly sweeping across Australia & the globe.
It is totally normal and understandable to flip between a multitude of mental and emotional states during the COVID-19 outbreak. Researchers recorded “fear…depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder” levels to rise following the announcement of the government’s lockdown policy.
As optimising, best-selling author Aubrey Marcus recently shared:
“It’s okay to feel what you are feeling, whatever that is. Don’t feel ashamed if you aren’t positive…People misunderstand what ‘being strong’ really is. Strength is the courage to be vulnerable, be real. Some days I feel empowered…some days I feel helpless…This week I’ve had heaping doses of both polarities. Most people I’ve spoken to have felt similar. It’s all okay.” — Aubrey Marcus
Although we might not go actively looking for them , life’s toughest challenges also provide the opportunity to shake up our lives and realise what matters most. After struggling with several big life changes myself a few years ago, I focused on what seemed to help keep me emotionally stable and happy — even in the midst of external turmoil.
The pandemic is like a collective challenging life-change — the world is battling serious illness; anxiety; financial woes; separation from loved ones; grief; a temporary loss of freedom — instability in multiple areas en masse.
10 practical ways to help keep you mind balanced during these challenging times:
1. Stay connected with others
Healthy relationships are key for our well-being. Personal connections are key for our happiness and longevity throughout life. People who engage in supportive, positive relationships produce more oxytocin, which can: boost our immune system, allow us to physically heal quicker, and mean we are less likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression.
Technology is often blamed for making us feel more socially isolated but most of us are using it now to build a sense of real-life community that we might miss at the moment. Commit to speaking to at least one person who uplifts you on a phone or video call every day. You can arrange to share meals, play online games, or have creative sessions with loved ones using apps like Zoom or Houseparty. You can even host virtual dinner parties by eating meals at the same time as those we miss
As well as contacting those we trust and feel positive with when we are struggling, reaching out to others who might be feeling alone, anxious or overwhelmed can also help us get through hard times together. Every morning when you wake up, try to think of two people you could check in with that day — with a message, call or supportive voice note . Helping others is also known to help boost our own mental well-being.
2. Meditate small and often
Just a few minutes of meditation day has been shown to have a multitude of positive effects on our mental and physical well-being, and now might be a great time to start. Over the medium-term, research has shown that meditation can help calm down anxious racing minds; decrease stress and depressive feelings; give us new perspectives; and find inner stillness even when the outer world seems tumultuous.
Set up a comfortable, quiet space with a cushion, blanket, candle or other elements which make your spot enjoyable to go to. Head there at a regular time — for example at 8am or before you go to bed to make it more likely that you keep going back.
There is an ever-growing treasure trove of free and paid-for meditation material online. Insight Timer meditation app has variety and a community aspect; the Calm app has a free “Let’s meet this moment together” section to soothe COVID-19-related anxiety; and Australian Smiling Mind also has this dedicated “Thrive Inside” resources page.
Many of the world’s best-known meditation guides (such as Jay Shetty) are busy sharing positive-mindset content on social media and Deepak Chopra’s “Hope in Uncertain Times” site is offering a free 21-Day Meditation Experience.
3. Approach things more mindfully
To be mindful means staying non-judgmentally aware of the present moment — rather than mind-wandering into thoughts about the past or the future (which is believed to make us less happy). During difficult times it’s easy for our attention to drift to worries about worst-case scenarios that may never happen. The fact is, no one really knows what the future holds. It is prudent to be practically prepared, but after that it is helpful to remember that we are safe in the present moment, rather than diving into negative thought spirals.
Meditation is a concentrated, dedicated period of mindfulness, but we can also practice staying mindful — or to keep bringing our full attention to — during other tasks.
A few easy ways to practice mindfulness include:
Pausing to notice three things you can touch, two objects you can see and one sound you can hear in your immediate environment;
Closing your eyes and counting five slow, deep breaths. Feel how your body moves with each breath, notice how warm or cold your inhales and exhales feel;
Going through all five of your senses individually (noticing sight, smell, sounds, tastes and touch) whilst preparing or eating a meal or a snack;
Running your fingers along the outside and then the inside of your own arms from your shoulders to your fingertips slowly three times;
Each morning or night, write down three things you’re grateful for, or the previous day’s successes — no matter how big or small. These might be someone you know; things you like about yourself or where you live; what you ate or did that day; or an aspect of nature
4. Develop a new routine at home
Try to build some kind of routine at home — you might decide to wake up, go to sleep and eat at regular times; take up exercise on certain days; or diarise blocks of your calendar for work and other tasks. This can help to help maintain our sleep patterns, to eat more healthily and stress less.
It’s useful to list things you’d like to achieve tomorrow (highlighting three top priorities), as well as the week ahead in your journal, carrying any unfinished tasks forward to the next time period.
To work on forming good habits, or getting rid of old ones, James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” is a great guide to getting started. Using a journal, a highly-visible habit tracker, app or having an accountability buddy also helps us stay on track. To help my focus levels, I like listening to calming background music such as this on YouTube, or you can check out scientifically-backed Brain.fm.
5. Take breaks from tech
Being at home all day means that many of us are spending more time than ever socialising, working, informing and entertaining ourselves through our online devices. The majority of us use our smartphones right up until bedtime and, in 2019, the average person checked theirs 96 times per day.
Studies have linked heavy smartphone use to stress, depression and anxiety, with too much social media particularly found to affect our mood. Most of us have also likely noticed the associated effects of overuse on on our sleep, focus and productivity at home.
We can use usage-tracker apps like iPhone’s Screen Time, or Digital Wellbeing for Android to see how much time we spend on our devices— usually it’s way more than we consciously realise! Then it’s down to simple hacks like having a phone-free room at home (like your bedroom) or times of day (like 9pm to 9am); turning off all but essential notifications; keeping your phone of arm’s reach when you are working; and deleting social media or other potentially time-wasting apps to declutter your home screen.
6. Moderate your negative news intake — have fun too
It’s important to stay up-to-date with key developments, but if you start to feel overwhelmed by negative news, follow the CDC’s advice and take a break from it. Try not to have news on in the background — check once a day for updates, rather than constantly, and set a time limit on how late you’ll consume it at night. Notice how you feel before and after you check the news. If you feel like you are compulsively checking, give someone you care about a call, or do something productive, like picking up a book, instead. Alternatively you can even check out Positive News for pandemic respite.
Laughter is known to make us feel better, and can soothe physical tension, strengthen our immune system and give us pain relief. Notice the small things that make you smile, and make sure you are regularly having fun doing things you enjoy — like baking, drawing, dancing, singing, speaking to friends who cheer you up, watching or reading something that makes you smile. Think about what lit you up as a child, and dedicate at least 30–60 minutes a day to activities that make you feel most happy and alive— instead of consuming anxiety-inducing content.
7. Connect with nature
spending time in nature can have positive effects on our health — like lowering our blood pressure and boosting happiness. Try to spend time outside in your garden or patio every day, or go for a socially-distanced walk or run in the park or a natural space near you (as permitted by your local government’s recommendations). Take the time to mindfully notice your surroundings — any trees, flowers or birds you spot. Focusing on distant views can also give our eyes a break from all of the screen time at home.
8. Prioritise your sleep
Try developing a regular relaxing bedtime routine — such as having three things you regularly do, like reading a book, having a herbal tea, a bath, journaling or meditating.
Make sure your bedroom is as quiet and dark as possible, and avoid mental over-stimulation and blue light from our screens in bed — which affect our sleep cycles
9. Move your body every day
Physical activity has many mental benefits such as improving cognitive function, boosting our perceived quality of life, and reducing anxiety and depression. If you’re used to feeling the positive effects of going to the gym or playing sports, which you can’t do right now, do not fear! Many of the fitness studios and instructors have moved to streaming regular free or paid-for classes online during lock down.
Lower intensity, strengthening movement like yoga can help calm us down during stressful times.
10. Be kind to yourself
We can all be guilty of being harsher to ourselves than we would be to anyone else — learn to treat yourself like a best friend instead. If you’re not feeling as productive as usual — do what you can and know that you’re trying your best during an unprecedented, stressful situation. This could also be an opportunity to rest a little from “normal” busy life, and to learn to forgive yourself if you are not feeling 100% (or failing to meet unrealistic standards).
If you are comparing yourself with other people’s attitudes or achievements — notice, and then try to put a stop to, doing that. We all handle things differently at different times, and we never really know what someone else is going through.
Acknowledging difficult feelings — such as anxiety, grief, or boredom — by sitting quietly with them and feeling where they come up in the body, and maybe sharing them with someone we trust, or a mental health professional — can help us process and move through them, rather than repressing and paying for it later.
We can tell ourselves “Ok, I’m anxious/grieving/bored now, but that is normal and fine, and this too will pass” — after all these are not usual times!
Journalling — committing to writing whatever comes up for a set time duration (such as five minutes) or number of pages (three, for example) without editing or censoring ourselves — can help us to get clearer on what’s going on in our heads, and so make them feel less cluttered. Recording feelings can also be interesting to reflect on in future.
These are uncertain times where many of us face grief, financial pressure, loss of freedom and anxiety — so it is imperative to look after the physical and mental well-being of ourselves and others well during this period.
To summarise, try to regularly: meditate and practice mindfulness; build social connections; prioritise sleeping well; practice movement and a hobby you enjoy every day; regulate your tech use and consumption of negative content; and help others who are vulnerable, lonely or in particular need.
We can decide to not only survive and get through this period, but maybe learn to come out the other side as improved beings — with a better understanding of how to tend to the needs and feelings of ourselves and others, and a renewed realisation of our connectedness to nature and the rest of the world, as well as of what is truly most important to us.
Article courtesy of Jessica Warren - co-founder of Mind: Unlocked￼