In reflection of World Mental Health Day on 10th October, its been highlighte that mental health awareness deserves greater attention in 2020, for the level of paradox which this year has brought if nothing else. While we have never been more accessible due to remote working technologies, we have never been this far apart by prohibitions on togetherness.
While the corporate awareness for mental health seems to be higher than ever, it is difficult to imagine civilised working conditions which could bring more widespread lows. Equally, with all the negativity and threat brought by 2020 so far, there are opportunities for us to enter next year in some ways perhaps better than we started. Here are some ways we take the negatives of this year to better our mental wellbeing:
1 - Go Back to Bed
The absence of the 9-5 office presenteeism has provided the working world with an opportunity for us to look after our natural rhythms once again. The physical, mental and emotional benefits of proper sleep cannot be understated. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker gives a fascinating account of the scientific revolution currently underway, away from disease, medication, road accidents, sports injuries and poor memory, to the good old-fashioned prescription of learning to have a good night’s sleep. His insight, knowledge and passion for the subject is frankly contagious and this interview comes highly recommended for anyone not yet bought into the astounding importance of getting proper shut-eye every night.
Dr Walker explains we naturally have different sleeping patterns which we need to be aware of and cater to. Evolutionary theory tells us that having ‘night owls’ and ‘morning larks’ helped our survival in tribal years by minimising the time spent at night unconscious and vulnerable to threats such as predation. However, the traditional early-bird hours of the corporate world have massively disadvantaged the ‘night owls’ amongst us, who naturally feel, think, exercise and live much better when they sleep later and wake up later. Further to increased remote working, if there is one positive which the corporate world can take from the lockdown, it would be flexibility in staggered working hours. Having staggered commute and entry/exit times from the office can help us restore the balance on our body clock demands between the owls and larks in the office.
If we are talking about optimising the body clock and mindset, proper sleep comes first. Whereas sleep was once understood as a ‘third pillar’ after diet and physical exercise, sleep is now becoming more widely accepted as the baseline to healthy living, even with priority beyond such factors. Alongside the chance to restore proper physical activity levels, working from home gives us the opportunity to rid ourselves of screens before bedtime. Walker advises we set an alarm for sleeping and waking times, turning off all the screens which have already filled our days and picking up a good book.
For those who believe they can sleep 4-5 hours a night and wake up the next day without serious short-term and long-term cost to their bodies, minds, memory, and general abilities – think again. “Expressed as a percentage and rounded to a whole number, the number of people who can operate normally at under eight hours of sleep is zero”. Learn more here.
2 - Befriend Your Stress
Learning to befriend our friend goes a long way in not exacerbating cortisol levels. This is contrasted to further stressing about how stressed we are – a nasty feedback loop to fall into. Stress exists on a physical level to help us survive. Upon realisation of a threat, our heart rates increase and blood flows to the relevant body areas in preparation of ‘fight or flight’. Periodic stress has remained in the gene pool by helping us avoid being eaten or beaten. In this way, stress is very much our ally. Having said that, we all need a break from even the best of friends from time to time. The contemporary, chronic stress of remaining in a tense ‘fight or flight’ mode in front of the computer screen all day needs to be managed.
No account on stress management should be without at least a mention for mindfulness, which advocates us to welcome bodily emotions such as stress. The concept of mindfulness can be put figuratively: if to imagine our thoughts and feelings as a river with constant flow, to be mindful is to sit on the riverbank and observe the current, rather than fighting upstream or being dragged wherever the current takes us. Put literally, it is better to observe stress impartially, than it is to fight against or act on every stressful thought.
The underpinning principle of mindfulness is simple to phrase, but not to realise: to become aware and accepting of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they occur. Becoming closer to our automatic mental processes in this way affords us a level of detachment from them, which in turn, greater choice for which impulses, feelings and behaviours to follow. Mindfulness has been a growing area of attention in the west over the past 20 years or so, with an increased focus and praise for mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) interventions in educational and workplace settings. You can find an accessible, excellent starting point for a self-guided, eight-week MBSR course here, by Penman, Williams & Williams.
The second aspect of befriending stress involves treating your stress with kindness. Dr David Hamilton argues for empathy and kindness as the physiological opposite of stress. Hamilton gives an emphatic account and walks through the science of kindness and empathy, illustrating the beneficial outcomes for not only the receivers, but also the givers and observers of kindness.
It is peculiar that in times of crisis we quickly raise the barriers in the interests of self-preservation, just when the need for kindness and empathy is at its greatest. Looking out for ourselves often comes to the detriment of others (recalling the image of empty supermarket shelves), though there is certainly a balance to be found. The good news is that Dr. Hamilton believes the behaviours and benefits of kindness, empathy and compassion can be learned and realised. Go out of your way by practicing just one kind deed a day which you would usually do without.
3 - Talk About Your Problems
Simply talking about our problems is an everyday therapy that we should all have access to. Between cognitive behavioural therapies (CBT), psychotherapies, counselling, and a variety of other psychologically-led interventions for mental wellbeing, there is a roughly equal outcome for each across a range of mental health conditions. In other words, regardless of the form of therapy used, people tend to make similar recovery rates. While this ‘equivalence paradox’ might seem to discredit the individual therapies as claiming a better approach, an underlying mechanism to each of these wellbeing approaches might be accessible to all of us – perhaps by simply talking about our problems.
Love him or hate him, the increasingly controversial clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson offers an interesting insight to the equivalence paradox (though not named specifically) in his bestselling book “12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos”. Peterson reasons that much of the time we consider ourselves to be ‘thinking’, we are merely ‘experiencing’ the world in passive mode. The difference, as he puts forward, is found in language and dialogue. True, sophisticated thought involves reasoning through issues with words, whether spoken or silent.
Simply verbalising our concerns helps us to mentally define problems and reason through them purposefully. Sigmund Freud famously used drew on the power of speech in his ‘free association’ technique. This involved instructing people to speak aloud by themselves for an hour or so, while he sat back and listened and smoked his pipe, relentlessly. The central message here: putting our worries, concerns and problems into words helps us reason them through and arrive at acceptance and meaning, if not a solution.
4 - Face your Fears
The stoic practice of premeditation malorum – or ‘the premeditation of evils’ – dates back thousands of years. The naysayer who tells you not to spend time dwelling about what might go wrong clearly never picked up Seneca for their bedtime reading. Seneca, amongst other stoics, advocated for listing the terrible things which might happen to us. The reasoning here is that rationalising our fears helps us in addressing them to the best of our ability and leaving little justification for further worry.
A working example is in the interview context. I actively encourage the candidates I work with to list as many weaknesses/disadvantages they can see to their candidacy, prior to the big interview. The intention here is to deal with any underlying anxieties which arise and put our best foot forward. Some of these self-perceived weaknesses are agreed as unrealistic once thought through. Others are realistic but are topics we can prepare for. The remainder may be realistic though completely uncontrollable, at which point the stoic interviewee would find solace in having covered their blindsides. Tim Ferris gives an excellent account on the premeditation of evils here, alongside making a case for why defining your fears is of comparable importance to goal-setting.
Stoicism aside, a wealth of literature exists on the virtues of facing our fears more generally – big or small. Even at work, we each have mundane fears to face which will sap us of our energy if we let them intimidate us from the corner of our ‘to-do list’, untouched. Brian Tracey offered the metaphor of ‘eating the frog’. Tracey describes the ‘frog’ as the dreaded task each of us come across at work each day. This frog will sit on the plate in front of us, staring and croaking continuously until we just swallow it. Often, the fear of eating this frog is much worse than the taste, and the satisfaction of finally clearing your plate, is more rewarding than the creature was disgusting. Peculiarly, it is often the things we fear which we need to do the most, for our own wellbeing.
5 - Find Meaning
Have you ever tried keeping a gratitude journal? There are two rules:
- Write down 5 things you are grateful for, every morning and every evening.
- Only list a reason for gratitude once (for what memory will allow).
When first listing the obvious things which we are most immediately grateful for, this exercise initially seems easy and a little pointless. Day by day however, the practice becomes more demanding. Within a week, you end up scouring for the “diamonds in the dirt” – the things we usually take for granted. While there are a number of benefits found in gratitude writing generally, I have found the benefit of specific exercise as training the mind toward a mentality of abundance. In a short space of time, I found my thoughts automatically darting toward find the positives instead of negatives in a situation, and similarly toward the opportunities instead of the threats.
Perhaps we should be grateful that we have negatives and threats for us to do something with in the first place. At length, Peterson explains the chaos of pain and suffering in life as an inevitability which we will all face at some point. To live with the expectation of continual happiness is downright precarious. Inevitably, something is guaranteed to go wrong. Peterson makes the compelling case that it is our sense of purpose, or worthwhile cause, is what gets us through life (and the suffering) with it still being meaningful. What do you live and work ‘for’ today? If money was no object (for some, this is the case today – and for all, this was once the case), would you choose to continue making the contribution to the world which you currently do? ‘Purpose’ is distinct from a ‘goal’ or ‘objective’, as the former implies that what we are working towards is something worthwhile which will have a positive impact in some way. Some are lucky enough to have a job they find meaningful, while some need to squint a little to arrive at some purpose to what they do. More than a few sacrifice a would-be purpose altogether to keep our bank accounts afloat. We can take this chance to step back at what we are contributing towards, alongside whether it might be time for us to change for the better.
From these five tips, we have seen some examples of how we can make positive from a less than ideal situation: fixing our sleeping patterns, befriending our stress, verbalising our problems, facing our fears and finding a purpose. Each of these suggestions involve finding ‘the diamonds in the dirt’, and for this, we need some dirt to trawl through, to begin with. Additionally, each of these suggestions illustrate how we can take personal control of our wellbeing, to an extent, and that sometimes it is simpler to change ourselves than it is to change the world around us.