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Mind the Gap: Protecting our mental health as physical health becomes a global priority

23rd April 2020

Recent events have prompted some rather radical changes to our everyday lives with schools closing, businesses ceasing trading, implementation of social distancing measures, scarcity of basic provisions and restrictions on liberty, as measures are taken to reduce the spread of covid-19.

The recent changes will of course affect people very differently as we each individually understand and adapt to what this all means for us. April is Stress Awareness month and this mental health campaign could not have fallen at a more pertinent time, as the stress levels across the world soar amid the current pandemic. Here we have outlined 5 ways to look after your mental health, whilst we all pull together and take extraordinary steps to collectively protect our physical health.

Perspective

Our view of the world has a huge impact on how we think and feel, so it is helpful to ensure that our perspective is realistic and not distorted to a point that it is contributing to heightened stress levels. In each passing moment our senses are exposed to a vast and overwhelming amount of information and so our brains filter out what we don’t need to pay attention to, so that we can focus on particular information and tasks, without our senses being flooded. However, these processing shortcuts mean that we can sometimes overlook, over generalise, exaggerate or minimise information available and relevant to us which can have a direct impact on how we feel. We may also find ourselves engaging in fortune-telling, which is where we believe we know what will happen or magical thinking when we link our behaviour to unconnected outcomes. Therefore, if you notice yourself feeling stressed, monitor what you are exposing yourself to and explore your beliefs around the situation; where necessary, putting those beliefs on trial. Ask yourself, have I considered all the information, am I catastrophising, jumping to conclusions, overgeneralising or too black and white in my thinking? With coronavirus saturating headlines and social media, it is easy for our assessment of the situation to become somewhat biased. Consider limiting how much and when you expose yourself to conversations, articles and news updates to keep grounded in your reality.

Gratitude

At the moment we may really be noticing what we have lost and what we are missing, as plans and routines are turned on their head and huge changes sweep us off balance. Gratitude is the act of appreciating and being thankful for what we have received or benefited from, resulting in a positive feeling both for the individual and any person who receives thanks. It is simple both in concept and practice and can bestow a bounty of benefits for wellbeing. It has been shown that practising gratitude can support a more optimistic outlook, improved relationships, resilience and mood and helps us to stop and acknowledge what we already have in the present, rather than what we are perpetually seeking or what is not going so well. The good news is that we do not need to search for or be recipients of anything of great magnitude to practice gratitude. Gratitude invites us to appreciate the little things that are scattered around us which we might otherwise take for granted. As Alice Morse Earle once said, “every day may not be good, but there is good in every day” and so it can be helpful to reframe how we look at things to locate positive meaning or benefit in a situation. Why not start now by making time at the end of the day to write down on a piece of paper 5 things you are grateful for and leave this under your pillow to return to when you wake, to nurture a positive start to the day. If what you have written the day before contains thanks towards another, maybe make a point of expressing your gratitude to that individual to pass the good feeling on?

Connection

Amid the current covid-19 pandemic, the way we connect with others is under particular strain. Humans are essentially pack animals; driven to connect with others for species and self-survival, but it is precisely this human trait that enables the spread of the virus and so paradoxically, in conflict with our natural instinct, social distancing is one of the ways in which we will as a species, survive this. This is no easy feat however, as our relationships are the fabric of our wellbeing and prolonged isolation or fragmentation of communities can lead to feelings of loss, loneliness, disorientation and fatigue. It is therefore of paramount importance right now that we deliberately and creatively find ways to maintain and pursue relationships with others. Unlike generations before us, we have developed technologies which enable video and telephone conferencing, instant messaging and access to online communities, which enable us to preserve our relationships virtually; and never before have these advances been such a lifeline. Right now, whether you are on your own at home or not, make a point of regularly staying connected to those who you deeply relate to, within the current parameters. It is also worth mentioning here that privacy and space are also important for wellbeing and so if you are safe at home with others, create opportunities for solitude when you need it, either through physical separation or distancing via absorption in private activities or projects.

Agency

As the coronavirus situation continues to dominate our landscape, individuals may feel some degree of fear and vulnerability. The majority of the population are asked to stay at home to help control the spread of the virus, which will no doubt save lives but may for some, in practice, feel rather like they are physically doing very little. When faced with perceived danger our fight-flight response is triggered and our body prepares for action, leaving us with a feeling that we need to do something. For those who are remaining at home who are feeling vulnerable and afraid, this drive to do something may not be experienced as fully satisfied and our fear may either remain at a high level leaving us feeling anxious and restless or tip us into a freeze response to threat, where we might feel helpless, numb and psychologically distant from what is happening. It can therefore be useful to find ways by which we can achieve a sense of agency, to help fulfil our fight-flight reflexes and build a sense of control and strength in the face of a threat. Movement can be particularly helpful to enable your body to discharge stored energy and to access a sense of agency. Whether this is a regular exercise regime, a physical hobby or therapeutic movement in the form of yoga or sophrology, physical activity not only helps us feel more in control and responsive to threat but also has benefits for supporting our focus, rebalancing our perspective and releasing feel-good hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. There are also numerous local projects across the country which offer platforms for individuals to direct their energy into contributing to the welfare, protection and campaign against the virus, which can help people to feel resourceful instead of powerless.

Stop, Look, Listen, Breathe

When feeling stressed we might find our thoughts projecting into the future or even reflecting on the past, which can skew how we experience the present moment. Try to make opportunities to ground yourself in the here-and-now by stopping what you are doing, looking around you, listening to your current environment and checking in with how you are feeling and how you are breathing. The weather has been on our side recently, giving us daily opportunities to engage with the outdoors and nature, which can be incredibly helpful for grounding ourselves. Ask yourself the question, “what problem do I have right now in this moment?” Not in the future, not what has already happened but right now. We often find that our worries and stresses are based either side of the present moment and this activity helps calibrate our minds to what is really happening as it is happening, which helps to dissipate our concerns.

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