While external support helps, learn to power up your own restorative emotional and mental strength
While a large part of my job as a psychologist and coach is to help you unlock your inner strength in order to face adversity - this does not in any way mean that I don't believe in the need for funding, campaigning, broader social and political support and recognition for mental health and self sustainability. On a smaller scale, I would also acknowledge that while I may help strengthen your ability to withstand stress at work (for example), this doesn't mean that you should ever accept inequality, toxic behaviours or actions you deem inappropriate.
I do believe however, that sometimes external forces are slow to mobilise, and in the interim a focus on building the strength within ourselves can enable us to generate the focus and energy to continue pursuing our own desires and goals, while also being mindful and aware (and taking effective action) on the wider societal changes that need pursuit.
See yourself as a self-sustaining power source
For all the practical skills we learned growing up - how to dress, feed, wash ourselves; the ones we progressed to - how to learn, pass exams, develop our skills; and those we use most often now - how to succeed in our field, how to contribute to the lives of others, how to make a positive impact on the world...most of us have not been formally taught how to regenerate our energy, how to restore our sense of balance and harmony, how to replenish ourselves after emotional or mental fatigue. We're often just told "Do a bit of self care!".
...and don't worry about what "self care" even means!!
Oh yes, we are told - look after yourself - take a spa day, chat with friends, "relax"...but firstly we might be thinking "I genuinely wish I had time to "relax"...and if I do, I wouldn't know where to start without feeling guilty", or "Ok - but I can't do that in lockdown!", or "Spa days cost money, chatting with friends costs time - for them and me...and I'm not an energy leech", or "Actually I can't think of anything worse than meditation!".
Find the little boosts that give you a positive jolt
1. Engage with nature as a natural energiser: Most humans have a biophilic preference. That is, we are drawn to nature and things that best represent shapes and forms in nature - for example curved shapes or pools or stone/wood effects. However our connection with nature can also be restorative for our body and mind. Researchers at Kyoto university extol the benefits of "Forest bathing" - walking within nature and have found that having pine within the vicinity has "healing" properties - for example the lowering of blood pressure for people exposed to it regularly. If you don't have the benefit of an open space, consider nature screen savers, or even tending a window box to stimulate a sense of calm. The bonus being, you don't even have to think about doing anything more than just have it around!
2. If you enjoy music have a "happy playlist" to hand: Music has the ability to change our mood - and we do not just need to use it to reflect on how we feel, but we can utilise it to alter it. I certainly do believe that when we need to have a cry or express painful emotion, and reflect on sadness or loss, it is hugely beneficial to do so in a safe place - such as your room, with music. I also believe that it is as beneficial to find a way to energise ourselves to a positive future - after accepting that loss is painful and happens - is as helpful. While part of what I do is reflect on experiences with clients so that they have an understanding of the root of why things happened, knowing why may still not enable you to change the past - but looking to the future (something which can be changed) can empower you to know that while you accept your narrative, you can write the next chapter of your story.
3. Alternatively have other healthy "substitutions" to hand that make you smile: These can be simple things such as photos of happy memories, or friends you can simply text a funny message to, or something you enjoy doing - I get myself out of "doomscrolling" by always having a book I enjoy on my kindle, others may subscribe to podcasts or meditation channels. I also have an even more accessible "wellbeing pack" on my which includes a keyring with a pompom as stroking the furry texture is calming, and a fan because heat makes me stressed.
4. Reframe your goals to think in terms of lifestyle not targets: I lost 2 stone on weight watchers - and when I achieved my goal I struggled to maintain that loss. However, in restarting my fitness campaign in earnest, I decided to not focus on targets, but simply on fitness. Rather than jump on the scales every day, I instead focused on creating a morning exercise routine I could stick to - and every weekday I get up at 6.30am, exercise for 40-50 minutes and follow a low sugar diet. At weekends I do 30 minutes - at whatever time I feel like. The scales have not changed as fast as with a slimming programme, but I look and feel great and have made a genuine lifestyle change which I can continue to develop rather than thinking "when I reach my target I can stop."
5. Connect - and stay connected - with people who energise you and seek to energise them: Never underestimate the value of a healthy network...and in doing so, give back as much as you get. I phrase it this way round because too often we get caught up in giving to those who simply exhaust us (often for reasons known to us "I need them", "I feel bad otherwise", "I can't say no"), and don't always truly appreciate the relationships which lift our spirits - sometimes because we might take them for granted. (How about that - we ourselves may be culprits in draining those who truly love and value us!!?) It's tough, but in my reflections on my close network:
I identify those who lift my spirits* and note down the values I appreciate in them
I personally work to demonstrate those values in myself - as like often draws in like
I make sure before I give of my time and energy to others, that I have given to those wonderful people I'm lucky to have in my life first. (This may be telling them how awesome they are; or showing them I'm thinking of them; spending time with them - for them; or perhaps even a little surprise gift).
*Note - at different points in your life you may need different things that lift your spirits. Often the same friends will appear, but if you catch yourself feeling exhausted it might be that what you needed at one point is no longer so important...focus on what is...ideally through recognising what you truly value.
I have said in previous articles, and in The Leader's Guide to Resilience, the secret to resilience is not just about surviving - it is about having the mental and emotional fortitude to keep going when all around is a struggle...but the bigger secret is, if we work at it, boost it, nurture it like a precious seed, that mental and emotional strength comes from OURSELVES. We don't need external achievements or praise or support - although it is always nice, and can add an extra boost - we simply need to look within.
...and I continue to hope that recognising and nurturing the power within all of us which has the potential to do so much good - not just for us, but for those around us - is one day not longer "a secret" but a value that we all practice ourselves and seek to nurture in others.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience.
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