And so we come to the end of another Mental Health Awareness week...
This time around, it’s come in circumstances when people are more aware of their emotional wellbeing than ever as news headlines proclaim that we’re heading for a mental health crisis on the back of the COVID 19 pandemic.
The stresses of the current situation are undeniable, with people juggling threats to their own physical health and that of loved ones, unemployment, working from home with no childcare and, above all, the huge uncertainty and lack of autonomy that lockdown has, quite necessarily, imposed on us. However, there are two factors that these news headlines are not taking into account. Firstly, there’s the inherent suggestion that life wasn’t stressful before the pandemic. For many, it was. The stresses might have come in different forms and, perhaps in ways that we were so used to that we no longer counted them as stressors. The long, polluted commute. Hectic crowds. The pressure from social media to be doing something fun and exciting on a Friday night when actually you’d rather be in your PJs on the sofa. All of these affected our mental health as well and waiting lists for services were already overflowing.
Secondly, it’s important to recognise that feeling distressed and worried about a huge, unforeseen life upheaval doesn't constitute a mental health condition. It’s natural that you might feel concerned when the health of loved one is at risk. It’s normal to feel anxious when you don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent. It’s only human to feel overwhelmed when you find yourself having to parent, homeschool and show up on work Zoom calls all at once. Let’s not turn understandable responses to suffering into something we diagnose as an illness.
Unfortunately it’s true that there is no magic button that is going to restore our economy and the ways of life that we were more adept at managing. However, shouting about an impending mental health crisis only makes us anxious about feeling anxious. So what should our response be?
We can start by asking ourselves two questions.
The first is, ‘What can I choose?’
I’ve seen a lot of blogs, infographics and posts recommending that we focus on what we can control, rather than what we can’t, in order to manage anxiety. This isn’t inherently wrong but it does perpetuate the control/lack of control cycle. During those first few crazy weeks in March I’d focus on what I could control - such as going to the gym and taking care of my body - only to find out that we were no longer allowed to do it the next day.
Instead, we can focus on what we can choose that no one can take away from us. It might be courage, it might be hope, it might just be some slow, deep breaths.
Another way to look at choosing is as rejecting something harmful in favour of something helpful. For those parents who feel utterly torn between being a ‘good parent’ or a ‘good employee’, choosing self-compassion over perfectionism is will be key for surviving this.
Which leads me on to the second question you can ask: ‘How can I be kind to myself?’
Again, I’ve seen a lot of posts with ideas for self care such as going for a walk or having a soak in the tub. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, although it’s important to point out that you’re wasting your bubble bath if you sit there mentally beating yourself up.
Being kind to our minds is just as important as being kind to our bodies. Whenever you notice yourself talking harshly to yourself, take a moment to check in. If a friend rang you and confessed they were struggling, would you tell them that they’re a rubbish mum and probably going to get fired?
Of course not.
It’s so important that in this situation where we can’t physically see our loved ones, we learn to be good friends to ourselves.
More than ever we are aware of the fact that we can’t know what the future holds. We may be headed for an increase in mental ill health, we may not, but if we can master the art of kind self-talk, and choosing over controlling, we’ll be far better equipped for whatever 2020 and beyond throws at us.