Michael Scott’s now memed response from The Office “It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” sums up America’s relationship with mental health and a host of other hot button issues. One silver lining to the global pandemic is that it forced the conversation and centred on mental health for people of all ages and socioeconomic groups. While it may feel daunting to read the news and continue to navigate ever-changing covid precautions, there are natural strategies available to help us help ourselves.
Since it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, I’d like to offer a few accessible well-being strategies to manage periodic flare-ups or just practice good mental health maintenance. Consider incorporating the following as part of your wellness plan to mitigate stress and maintain mental wellbeing: practice self-compassion, schedule social interaction with others and plan consistent physical exercise.
A full decade prior to covid, Akhand Gyan articulated the paradox of increasing material abundance and decreasing happiness in his 2013 article Self-Actualization: The New Age Management Mantra, “Another shift is happening in our consciousness is that in spite of all conveniences of modern life, there is more crime and violence around and we live in insecurity and mistrust. Despite working in the comfort of our air-conditioned offices, and material abundance at homes, we are more stressed and depressed than ever before.” We are living in arguably more stressful times with the war, white supremacy, gun violence and a volatile political environment compounding Covid, so the first key is to practice self-compassion.
Acknowledging our feelings, and their validity and holding space for them will help us process them quicker in a healthy way. Feeling bad about our feelings only exacerbates an issue and extends suffering. As American Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron said: “Remember you are the sky. Everything else is just weather.” If we are mindful that this situation is temporary, we can navigate it with detachment more confidently. Plus, we should find solace in the fact that everyone is feeling exhausted and a general sense of malaise from the state of affairs because we are having trouble making sense of the world. To wit, we typically process situations/stimuli by comparing them with known experiences; because nothing from our lifetime parallels the pandemic, our brains are essentially zooming in and out continuously like a camera lens searching for answers on how to process this trauma. For neurological reasons we are tired, which in turn makes us thin-skinned. So be kind to yourself. Practice self-compassion and extend kindness to others as we collectively process the monumental effects of Covid.
Next, though our natural instinct might be to retreat from others and isolate ourselves, extended periods alone are not good for our mental health. Planning social interactions with supportive friends and family can stave off depression. In addition to employing introspective modalities to check in with yourself, check in on your people regularly. The value of community cannot be overstated as we all felt the loss during Covid’s lockdown period. People need people.
In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, “Belongingness and Love Needs” (intimate relationships, friends) is the third and central stage of the motivational pyramid after Psychological Needs (food, water, warmth, rest) and Safety Needs (security, safety). While covid restrictions initially relegated social interactions to the interwebs or those living in the same household, due to a mostly vaccinated population we are once again able to reconvene and relish the company of others. I recognize that not all demographics feel safe in public spaces right now, and for that I’m outraged. Certain populations are subject to Covid, the war, political turmoil AND the omnipresent threat of hate crime attacks. For those groups, all three foundational stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy (Psychological, Security and Safety, as well as Social) have been impacted in this country over the last three years. Just for a moment imagine the psychological impact that has on our neighbours and colleagues. When we cross paths with our fellow African Americans, Asian Americans, and LGBTQ citizens consider a smile or salutation communicating kindness and support. The least we can do is practice compassion and improve health outcomes for both parties.
Third, it’s imperative to exercise regularly. Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki stated in her 2018 TED talk that “a single workout has immediate long-lasting and protective benefits for the brain.
One workout instantly lifts a mood and the effect can last for one or two hours.” She goes on to explain how consistent exercise over time is great for the body, but it also protects the brain from different conditions including depression and “is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain today.” While many health professionals advocate regular exercise for the physical benefits, commensurate are the mental benefits of consistent movement. I’ve even heard some Peloton instructors use the mantra “movement is medicine” in their opening
remarks. Whatever healthy forms of movement temporarily distract one from stressful issues, do it. Then do it again. And again. Our positive experiences and thoughts get tagged with positive emotions which get logged in the subconscious. The more uplifting morning runs with a training group, jovial pickleball matches with friends, or empowering weight lifting sessions with online contacts, the more positive emotions are logged. Over time, as positive experiences/ emotions accumulate, our baseline shifts toward the glass half full and the periodic highs become not just a mood but our personality.
If we are looking for ways to lift our spirits when we are feeling down or want to condition our mental bodies to self soothe and remain grounded when times are tough, then I recommend practising self-compassion, maintaining social interactions, and getting regular exercise. I have used all three tactics to lift my spirits during a dark time and have found that I’m a happier person practising them all the time. It’s on each of us to prioritize mental health maintenance so that comes stormy weather we have the clarity of mind to wait out the thunder for good times as Arcade Fire declares on their new album, “Waiting on the lightning, Waiting on the light, What will the light bring?”
(Disclaimer: for those feeling overwhelmed to the point of self-harm, seek immediate medical attention.)
Article Written By Leslie Keough | B.A. E-RYT, Health and Wellness Coach www.meditatemontclair.com