Tips for Mental Maintenance
1. Drop the brave face
We are all fragile, vulnerable human-beings trying our best to hold it together. We are all full of self-doubt, full of shame and confusion – but the brave face has been widely adopted. It has made it so easy to assume that everyone is doing better than us. We think we are weird because we meet such filtered versions of each other. We should spare ourselves the burden of feeling alone in our suffering and make space to share how very difficult things can be sometimes. Allow others to see a part of the reality of your life. When it comes to really connecting with others, it is in our suffering that we feel most intimate. I don’t know about you, but when a friend calls me up to say just how difficult their day has been or how tough they are finding life, I feel much closer to them than I do when they call me and tell me how perfect and brilliant everything is.
2. Dissolve the need to be perfect:
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. When we strive for perfection, we end up missing out on life. One way to curb our perfectionism was pioneered by Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Winnicott specialised the parent-child relationship and stressed that children did not need the perfect parent to flourish. He noticed that he would meet mother after mother who felt like failures and that their agony was coming from having excessively high expectations of themselves and a counterproductive perfectionism. Instead, he introduced the idea of the “good enough” parent, the parent who allows space for imperfection and for failure and does not hate themselves for it. We can take this idea into our relationships and our work. The good enough employee, the good enough partner.
3. Make space for all of your emotions:
Much of what we come into contact with in our culture tells us if we are not happy, there is something wrong with us. Many self-help books promote the benefits of positive attitudes, positive thinking, and positive behaviours, labelling sadness, anger, boredom, loneliness and even grief as a “problem emotions” that need to be kept at bay and “fixed”.
Normal, natural emotions are too often seen as negative or positive. When challenging emotions leave us feeling heavy or hurt, we tend to race to our emotional exits in pursuit of happiness or relief. A natural response to painful experiences is to avoid thinking about them, but research tells us that when feelings and emotions are ignored, they amplify. They get stronger. The only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves. In this, allow yourself to feel (both heavy and light) without judgement and without rushing to your emotional exits. Sadness, anger, boredom, loneliness and grief: do not need to be treated with the urgency of a shark attack. Let them teach you what you need to know.
4. Befriend yourself.
All of us know how to be a great friend to other people, but very often don’t speak as friends to ourselves. If most of us saw how we treat ourselves, we would recognise how very cruel we are. When you find yourself in situations of distress or suffering, think: “if I wasn’t me, how would I advise me?” and you will have a good answer. Show yourself the care, compassion, acceptance and understanding that you know that others deserve.
5. Cultivate community.
Community care means showing up; it means that when you find yourself in the position of being able to give more than you need to receive, you do so. Depending on who you are and your strengths, this might mean receiving messages from someone who needs to be comforted and heard, cooking a meal for friend who hasn’t been looking after themselves, reaching out to a friend who is lonely, volunteering and so on.
Over 9 million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say they are always or often lonely (British Red Cross and Co-Op, 2016). The thing about loneliness is that it makes us feel as if no one else feels like we do, when in reality, millions other people around us are feeling the same. Almost all of us have felt lonely at one point or another. Reach out to others, reach friends, reach out to family and stay connected. If you can, call or meet up instead of texting (of course social distance rules apply), be curious about others, let go of expectations and don’t isolate yourself. Being able to feel safe with other people is one of the single most important aspects of maintaining good mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.
Of course we have to look after ourselves in order to best support others (a bit like the “attend to your own oxygen mask first before helping others” analogy) – but cultivating community in this way not only improves our mental health, but improves the mental health of others too.
6. Connect with your body and breath.
As we tend to avoid difficult emotions, they can later manifest as physical problems. Notice sensations in your body and take stock of where you are holding tension. Emotions like anger and stress can cause clenching of the jaw,: release your jaw, massage your face muscles and try yawning. Worry or anxiety can cause you to knit your brow without realising, for this: release your forehead by raising and lowering your eyebrows 2-4 times while inhaling/exhaling deeply. To release tension in the shoulders: while inhaling, lift your shoulders to your ears. As you exhale, draw your shoulders down and back, guiding the shoulder blades towards each other and downwards.
Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body and connect with ourselves.
7. Connect with nature
Seek out green space. It is not about spending hours outdoors or wandering in the wilderness. It is about a walk in the park, it is about noticing that tree in the middle of the city. Virtually any form of connection to the natural world (outside of our internal world) heightens our overall well-being. When we extend ourselves, our perceptions, beyond focusing primarily on your own self — our own needs, worries, regrets or desires for the future, we become less anxious and more present in the moment.
8. Disconnect from tech
Disconnecting from tech will not only help you to achieve all of the above, but a digital detox goes a long way in allowing us the time to return to ourselves. Setting boundaries around screen time can really help sustain us; try turning of notifications for any work email accounts post- working hours. Researchers have found that unplugging after work can make a huge difference in your quality of life, mental health, and happiness. They found that when people disconnected from work related tasks, such as checking their work email after hours, they reported feeling fresher and better recharged when beginning work the following day. Also, try committing to not looking at your phone for the first hour of the morning or the last hour before sleep, time away from Social can help disrupt patterns of comparing yourself to others, help you sleep and improve your overall mental health.