As the COVID-19 lock-down evolves, and none of us have any certainty about when life will return to normal, it’s vital that we focus on what we can control: our proactivity and habits toward our wellbeing.
Typically, one of the most overlooked aspects of our overall wellbeing is our mental health. Unfortunately, stigma and misunderstanding prevent many people from taking an active interest in their mental wellbeing, while the practical tools and strategies to take action aren’t relevant, engaging or accessible to many people. So we put it off.
At Resilience Agenda, we believe that good Mental Health is something to strive for at all times. We all have mental health, and it’s not just something to think about during crisis situations or when bad things are happening. That’s why we want to change the entire perception of mental health – so that it’s something we work on daily, and so that it’s proactive, preventative and positive.
Because mental health is more than just the absence of mental illness.
With that in mind we wanted to share with you our Five Pillars of Mental Fitness. Mental Fitness is the idea that we can work on our mental health just like our physical health – using similar mindsets, approaches and methods.
These five pillars are the building blocks of good mental health and wellbeing. Understanding this collection of ideas and strategies for building the habits and routines of Mental Fitness now should not only help you get through isolation and staying at home, but become a platform for building your resilience and fitness when life does get back to normal.
Here they are:
Almost everyone has heard the benefits that stem from regular physical exercise. But for some people, the habits and routines of exercise still aren’t a daily reality. That’s why we prefer the term movement, because staying energetic and productive throughout the day is possible even if we don’t spend 45 minutes sweating it up at the gym.
The feeling of a runner’s high is there for anyone who does more than 20 minutes of moderate exercise each day, just enough to get our lungs pumping and feeling a little short of breath. On a smaller scale, movement can also mean getting up regularly from our desks to get a drink, any kind of stretching or yoga, or even dancing around the house to a YouTube video. Whatever works – as long as we aren’t sitting all day.
Even though it’s tough during isolation, that’s inspiring because according to Stanford University professor Kelly McGonigal, movement can bring us hope, meaning and connection. We just might have to improvise a bit given the sudden change to our routines.
Make it Happen:
- At the start of the week, structure into your diary or calendar exactly when you’ll exercise in the week ahead. This makes it an ‘appointment’ and stops you simply delaying an important based on how you might feel after a long day’s work.
- When you are making phone calls – walk around. Set up a habit of going for a walk n talk in a local park or wander around the house whenever you are speaking on the phone.
- If you’re working from home, try to craft your own standing desk using booked stacked on top of one another. Try alternating standing and sitting for 45 minutes at a time at first.
Many people intuitively understand the connection between what they eat and their physical health. However, many people don’t fully recognise the impact of what they eat on how they feel, their moods and their mental health.
Recent research is beginning to show the impact that high levels of sugar (in soft drinks and pre-made juices especially), high levels of processed food and high levels of salt can impair concentration, make us feel sluggish, and send our energy levels up and down throughout the day.
Even more, incidence of depression is higher for people who eat a ‘typical western diet’ rather than a less processed diet such as the Mediterranean diet (high in healthy oils and fresh produce) or a Japanese diet (high in sea-food and low in red meat).
With more of us at home and tempted to snack or eat more, it’s important we set up great habits to ensure that we are taking the best care of ourselves.
Make it Happen:
- What goes in the fridge goes in your mouth. So great nutrition habits start with the shopping list and the effective planning and execution of the weekly shop.
- Eat more green stuff. Spinach, beans, kale, lentils, chick-peas, broccoli – the list goes on. With a few herbs and spices, some salt and pepper and some imagination, week-night meals can be nutritious and packed with flavor. Crowd out other foods rather than simply eliminating them.
- Eat for the occasion. If you’ve got a big work project to complete after lunch or dinner, avoid eating a big bowl of pasta or a steak, which will be followed by a food baby and a rush to take a nap. Eat filling breakfasts, snack on nuts for brain food, and save the comfort food for when you can truly relax and enjoy it.
“The best bridge between hope and despair is a good night’s sleep.” Matthew Walker
Sleep is only just starting to be recognised for what it is: possibly the single most effective thing we can do each day to re-charge and revitalise our mood, immune system and physical and emotional health. Unfortunately, many of us prioritise it last, after everything else that has to get done, even if those things aren’t actually important.
According to Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, this isn’t sensible given sleep’s healing properties and its ability to improve our concentration, decision making and judgement. For example, just one week of poor sleep is enough to raise our blood sugar levels to the pre-diabetic range. Some studies have even equated excessive tiredness with the equivalent of a high Blood Alcohol level.
Make it Happen:
- Have a sleep routine – go to bed and get up more or less at the same time each day. And try to limit the caffeine after lunchtime which can interrupt our natural sleep rhythms and keep us awake.
- Get quality sleep – If you can’t get more sleep, try to get better quality Make your room darker, cooler, avoid blue light within an hour of bedtime, and despite common belief, alcohol actually leads to less restful sleep, not more. If you are struggling to sleep – have a hot shower, write down what’s on your mind in a notebook, or try listing all the great things about the day gone. Gratitude and fear find it hard to co-exist at the same time.
- Avoid working and using technology in your bedroom. Typically, blue light screens – phone, computers, tablets not only wake us up, the things we use them for tend be stimulating rather than relaxing, which doesn’t help improve the quality of our sleep.
We need interaction with people to be happy, fulfilled and effective. It’s that simple.
Going to work, chatting to strangers, paying for our daily coffee – there are so many social interactions in our regular lives that we just take for granted. Now that many of us are staying at home, it’s important that we be proactive with making human connections with people.
Make it Happen:
- Schedule it – don’t just wait until the last minute or rely on how you feel to reach out to someone. Book in a Skype or Zoom call with 3 friends next week. Even better, go for a walk n talk, and get some exercise at the same time.
- How are you really? – More than just catching up with friends, great relationships are strengthened by checking in with people’s real needs and asking “how are you really?”
- Forget the forgotten – Was there someone new in town, or new at work who might not have as many contacts as they could? Do you know someone who had a limited social life beforehand, who lived alone, or who was struggling? Reaching out will benefit both you and them.
The way we choose to think, the approach we take to solving problems, and even our belief in our own ability to change, impact the world and improve our lives is our mindset. In other words, our mindset is the lens or filter through which we see the world and which we interpret what happens to us. By the same token, our mindset is the attitude we take towards our impact on the world around us and how proactive and persistent we are.
For example, some people might believe they have to work from home, while another person might believe that they get to work from home. It’s all a matter of perspective and mindset. And very often, we can change our perspective, if only we ask ourselves the right questions and take the time to really question what it is we believe.
Mindset is about understanding that the way we think isn’t inevitable, and that changing our mindset is an ongoing skill that can be learnt. Over time we can choose our mindset.
Make it Happen:
- Add the word ‘yet’ to your vocabulary. Next time you are tempted to say “I can’t do this” learn to say: “I can’t do this ” Not knowing how to do something or not being ‘complete’ isn’t a failure. Limiting yourself based on your own narrow experience can be.
- Understand your attitude toward stress. Stress, change and uncertainty don’t have to be negative. Some people thrive in uncertain or volatile situations whilst others withdraw under pressure. It’s possible to believe that stress enables us to find resources within ourselves we didn’t know we had – and that ‘struggling’ isn’t actually failing, it’s just working harder and preparing us for what lies ahead.
- Mindset isn’t about being happy all the time. It’s about accepting reality as it is, seeking to understand what we can and can’t control or change, and taking steps to impact what we can impact.
So that’s it for now. In part two, we’ll go a bit deeper and outline the Five Elements of the Mental Fitness Framework for taking your mindset and resilience to the next level – Optimism, Mindfulness, Gratitude, Re-framing and Perspective.
Until then, stay safe, stay at home, and take care.
For more info on the Mental Fitness Toolkit, click here.
Founder & Managing Director