Another bizarre Bank Holiday weekend in the rearview mirror, a few extra kilometres of space to explore our surroundings and the welcome emergence of our cocooned friends and neighbours; these may be small shoots, but they are the signs of progress nonetheless.
We've entered into a new phase of this crisis now where we’ve landmarks to motivate us and guide us gradually back to a life of family, friends and hairdressers.
This seemed as good a time as any to transition the You OK? podcast from a daily dose of support and camaraderie to more like a once or twice a week check-in. Over the last month or so, professionals and leading voices in the field of mental health have shared invaluable thoughts and advice on the challenges of the current crisis and how best we can manage them.
I’ve been fortunate to speak to each one of them and honestly, it’s been a salve to my mental wellbeing throughout this period of confinement, to have a daily reminder of the fact that we are all in this together, there is no perfect way to approach a pandemic and dips in mood or peaks of anxiety are par for the course and utterly normal.
Before we move on to the next phase of the podcast, there’s an opportunity to reflect on the last 25 episodes, which now exist as a handy bank of support that you can dip into at any time. I’ve been struck by three main things, which I’d like to share with you – each of them stark in their simplicity.
Our mental wellbeing is a complex thing, not least because as individuals with our own histories, traumas, traits and predispositions, our experience of the world and its impact on us, is uniquely personal. However, as human beings we share a common biology, so there are things we can do to optimise our general wellbeing and by extension our mental wellbeing.
I was surprised every day how at least of one of the following three things, was mentioned by our experts; routine, breathe, be kind.
I like to think of this as eat, sleep, rave, repeat. The idea is that at a time where we are experiencing unprecedented levels of uncertainty, our brains are comforted by routine. It makes our day to day feel more predictable, there are less variables for our brains to worry about. In practice this means:
- going to bed and getting up at a regular time,
- eating breakfast, lunch and dinner,
- getting some exercise in every day,
- keeping specific work or study hours,
- scheduling pleasurable activities so that there’s something to look forward each day.
Listen back to episode 1 of You OK? where Chartered Psychologist Mark Smyth’s episode for a bit more detail on this one, and if you’re struggling with sleep, Clinical Psychologist Dr. Claire Hayes has some great advice in episode 2 where she also shares a relaxation exercise that’s sure to help you nod off.
There’s often a wee bit of cynicism around the power of breathing, after all, we’re doing it all the time so how transformative can it really be? The breathing we do every moment of every day is controlled by our autonomic nervous system, which basically looks after everything we do without thinking e.g. digesting food, blinking, pumping blood around our bodies.
Our breath becomes our superpower when we do it consciously, allowing us to:
- connect our brain and our body,
- be in the present moment,
- slow our heart rate
These are three things that have an instant impact on our anxiety levels. So many of us are prone to catastrophic thinking or spiralling thoughts at the moment, so sitting comfortably, closing our eyes and taking a few deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, can help to ground us and bring us back from the vortex of worry.
The other crucial thing that breathing allows us to do is to check-in with ourselves. We can’t help ourselves if we don’t know what’s wrong and a few minutes spent breathing, slowing down and checking-in, lets us know what’s going on for us – whether that’s feelings of sadness, frustration, fear or whatever.
There are two or three podcast episodes, in particular, that deal with this really well. The first one is with Counselling Psychologist and Senior Clinician Dr. Sinead Lynch who explains what being in the present moment means and how breathing can help us get there, that’s in episode 9.
Then, in episode 23 Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Niamh Connolly explains the crucial role breathing plays in switching off our fight or flight response – she also has a great hack for incorporating some dedicated breathing time into even the busiest day.
All of us understand the power of kindness, but we tend to think of it as something we extend to others and forget that it’s equally important that we be kind to ourselves. We are living through an unprecedented global crisis at the moment, many of us without our regular support system. The one thing that you can be sure is going to make this an even harder experience to cope with – is being tough on yourself.
Any feeling or emotion we experience is going to be intensified when it’s met with judgement or shame. If you feel like you’ve been unproductive, if you’ve been snappy with the kids, if you haven’t baked anything during this entire pandemic, it’s ok. This is hard. You’re doing your best. No one is keeping score.
Having a vocal inner critic is not good for our stress levels. Harsh self-talk can activate our fight or flight response, thereby raising the levels of a stress hormone called cortisol in our blood. If we’re tough on ourselves all of the time, then that sustained release of cortisol has an impact on our general health and wellbeing.
Compassionate self-talk on the other hand, meeting ourselves with understanding rather than judgement, has the capacity to stimulate dopamine production which naturally boosts our mood. An easy way to start cultivating kindness to yourself is by asking how would you respond to a friend in the same situation as you, what would you say to them? Another option is to do nice things for yourself. If you’ve had a hard day, gift yourself the time and space to have a relaxing bath or something else that you enjoy.
Dr. Sinead Lynch joined us in episode 4 to talk specifically about this, how to trade a critical inner voice for a kind one and she shared a really helpful exercise designed to harness the kindness that others show us, to help retrain our inner critic.
Of course, kindness to others is also crucial at the moment. It serves as a daily reminder of our shared humanity and our ability to support each other through the toughest of times. The writer Damien Barr recently tweeted that "We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar".
This is undoubtedly true, many of us enjoy great privilege and many of us are dealing with struggles unseen. These are not mutually exclusive though. If you have a nice home with a garden and food in the cupboard, that doesn’t immunise you from finding this hard.
There is, however, an opportunity there for all of us, to develop our compassion, our empathy and our gratitude. Chartered Psychologist Aisling Leonard Curtin spoke to us in episode 11 about how valuable gratitude is to our mental wellbeing and how it can sustain us in tough times, while in episode 21, Chartered Clinical Psychologist Dr. Ursula Bates talked about grief, sharing some lovely ways that we can be kind to bereaved members of our community, but many of them translate to the more generalised sense of loss that many of us are experiencing at the moment.
Plan a routine, breathe and be kind; after 25 episodes of You OK? these are the three things that are sure to support us in the coming weeks and months. That's not to say we won’t have bad days, that we won’t have struggles and that there won’t be tears, but the object of exercise isn’t to eliminate pain, it’s to accept it, to move through it and to savour the joy where we can find it.
You OK? is back with a new episode next Tuesday 12th May.