What can we be doing to help promote positive mental health? What helps with building resilience?
A very simple answer is just to take care of ourselves and actually do what we know we can and should be doing to look after us, because no one else is going to do that for us. We can so easily get wrapped up in the needs of our job, our colleagues, our clients, and those of our families and friends, that we barely find the time or energy to think about ourselves – and, if we do, too often it is something that has to be crammed in at the end of the day once we have ticked off all the other jobs.
There are a number of handy reminders out there which we can have in mind. The Centre for Wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation came up with our five ways to wellbeing some time ago:
Learn – keeping our minds active with new thoughts and ideas, exploring different ideas, perhaps through reading or hobbies;
Connect – face to face human interaction – talking to people makes us feel better;
Give – thinking about other people and how to help them, in smalls ways (helping that parent with the pram, making someone a cup of tea) as well as big;
Take notice – being present and aware, in the moment, noticing and focusing on what is happening here and now rather than dwelling in our worries about the past and/or the future;
Exercise - 30 minutes of exercise four times a week has a positive impact on our wellbeing, and it only needs to be vigorous enough to raise our heart rate a little.
If we can build each of these into our regular patterns of life then the research suggests this is likely to have a marked and positive impact on our overall wellbeing.
Professor Martin Seligman uses a model of PERMA:
Some of these overlap with the five ways to wellbeing – relationships could be seen alongside connection, engagement alongside taking notice. Meaning, the idea of being part of something bigger than ourselves, having a sense of purpose and mission, is something that could come from giving, but is also something that work can contribute to enormously – an example of how organisational wellbeing (having a clear purpose for the entity in order to drive engagement as well as values and strategy) overlaps so perfectly with individual wellbeing. Accomplishment speaks to the positive feeling we get from achievements, of having goals and meeting them. Positive emotions speak for themselves.
Another handy acronym is THIS which describes some of the symptoms we experience when overwhelmed and at the same time points to ways to address them:
Tired - lack of sleep, rest or recharging of batteries
Hungry - poor nutrition and dehydration
Isolated - lack of supportive colleagues, family or friends
Stressed - overworked and under pressure.
These are the basics, the hygiene factors if you like, and of course underline the fact that our mental health is part of our wider health and depends on many of the same factors. The problem is that all too often we do not take ourselves seriously enough to bother even with this level of self care.
A step up from that basic hygiene is to look at how we respond to the world around us – do we respond in ways that feed our stress or can we build alternative approaches that promote positive wellbeing and/or resilience. Do we learn from our mistakes or simply repeat them – do we dwell in them, attributing blame and regret to ourselves and others, or see them as a learning opportunity? Do we have clear boundaries which we, and others, understand and respect? Do we have a sense of perspective? Are we assertive enough, kind enough to ourselves, realistic enough, to say no sometimes when people are asking us for help?
I overheard two clinical psychologists talking the other day about the perils of perfectionism, a clinical term apparently denoting an established diagnosis. In a law firm context, however, it too often feels like an entry level requirement.
Resilience is more than luck. Resilient people (and organisations) take active steps to be better able to face the adversities thrown at them. They will not be immune to mental illness, but they will be better placed to thrive rather than simply survive.
Much of this sounds easy - some is probably more easily said than done and may need some third party help - recognising adverse thinking patterns is something others can often see more easily than ourselves - but if that's so, why aren't we doing it? The answer is where we started, taking ourselves seriously enough to actually take care, to prioritise looking after ourselves.