How to build mental resilience
It’s like Groundhog Day and it’s getting me down!
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard repeated multiple times recently. We wake up each day knowing we’ve got no immediate plans to look forward to. What’s worse, we’re met with a relentless tidal wave of bad news, large doses of boredom and lockdown feels like a giant magnifying glass making every little problem look much bigger than it really is (and much more complicated too).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ungrateful for the safety of my home, and I want to do my bit to help protect the NHS and save lives. But as we all know, lockdown is taking its toll on our mental health and even the most robust will have struggled at some point in the last 10 months.
If we’re going to survive (and I’m mindful there is light at the end of the tunnel, but it still feels a long way off), we’ve got to work on building our mental resilience. But that in turn begs the question, how?
What is mental resilience?
Resilience is our ability to bounce-back in the face of difficulty or challenges. In the current situation, it’s about staying motivated, keeping cheerful, busy and active, getting back up when we’ve been knocked down and finding new ways to feel happy, fulfilled, and inspired. But of equal importance and often overlooked, is the importance of developing an ability to accept that sometimes, it’s OK to not be OK.
I know this all sounds like a tall order right now but equally, there’s quite a lot we can do just by taking some little steps.
It’s OK to have a really bad day
The first step to building mental resilience, is to accept that there will be times when it’s all just too much. That could be for a couple of minutes or a whole week, or more. Try and recognise and accept that you’re feeling low. I read an article recently by Saundra Dalton Smith about how we actually need 7 different types of rest: physical, mental, sensory, creative, emotional, social and spiritual. In respect of emotional rest, the author explained, that being honest with ourselves, for example by accepting that we’re struggling, is an important part of getting some mental rest. And stepping away from our screens for a bit will help with our sensory recovery. And although at some point you need to try and get back out there, by incorporating some of the following, you should start to build your natural resilience.
Find some space!
Many families are finding themselves crammed into their homes, fighting for the bathroom, for the kitchen table to work on, or for viewing rights of the TV. Space, physical and mental, is in short supply. There’s a queue for the toaster and a constant stream of noise from the radio, the Zoom calls, the squabbles. The trouble is, however well you all get on, we all need a little bit of personal headspace once in a while.
Wrap up warm and take a coffee and a chair into the garden, sit in the car for 10 minutes, go for a walk or just tell your family that you need a few minutes of peace and quiet and shut the bedroom door. We’re not talking about long periods of time to yourself, but about carving out as little as 10 minutes of “just you” time. Take a deep breath and enjoy. It can make all the difference.
There’s a Chinese school of thought that we should let every emotion run its course. But in times when many of us are experiencing emotions that fluctuate from despair to anger, frustration, sadness and more, it’s not necessarily a good idea at the moment. We don’t want to upset our nearest and dearest and I know many of us are consciously trying to remain upbeat.
That said, our emotions are important and shouldn’t be ignored. Rather than blocking them, try channelling your emotions: if you’re angry go for a good stomp round the block (muttering to yourself if you need to). If you feel sad, can you channel it into something creative: write a poem, a song, start painting. Alternatively, can you get out in the garden and use the energy to start digging over pots and beds ready for some winter planting?
You have probably read about how important it is to be mindful and careful about how we talk to ourselves. Our subconscious is at work here, and if we’ve got a permanently negative conversation going on with ourselves, it’s easy for your mind to start to believe it. For example, have you ever caught yourself saying “I can’t do it”, “I’m so stressed” or “I’m so miserable”? If so, why should your subconscious mind not believe you?
It’s both understandable and easily done, but a simple way to reset the balance is to use affirmations. Replace, “I’m so anxious” with “Even though I’m anxious, I deeply love and accept myself” or “I know I feel anxious now, and that’s OK but I also feel grateful for…”
And that leads us nicely to making sure you spend a moment each day acknowledging the things in your life you are grateful for. Keep it simple. It might be that you are grateful for having a warm bed, a cup of coffee or for a phone call you made. There is an increasing body of evidence that demonstrates the benefits of daily gratitude which include a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, and increased optimism, compassion and empathy.
I appreciate it’s easy to suggest exercise and getting outside but when it’s cold, wet and very muddy, it’s easier said than done. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to abandon exercise altogether – rather, just alter the expectations you have of yourself. Sign up to an online Pilates class instead of going on that run. Reset your step counter to a lower limit so you feel a sense of achievement rather than failure when you walk 5,000 steps rather than 10,000. Walk round the gardens 5 times and then call it a day. It’s better than nothing.
I find the five “Yin organ” exercises really helpful. In traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the five most important organs of the body are the lungs, kidneys, liver, heart, and spleen. Each organ corresponds to one or more other aspects of the body or mind. For example, the lungs are related to the intestines and so if your lung health is poor, you may find it manifests itself in stomach complaints.
The five “Yin organ” exercises are simple, quiet exercises designed to support the health of that organ. Done at a slow pace, with mindful breathing, they can be performed in a corner of the bedroom on a wet day and I find that both my mind and my body benefit with improved mental wellbeing, a sense of calm and focus. Just get in touch if you’d like to know more about these.
Celebrate small victories
The lockdown magnifying glass may make small problems seem much bigger, but the opposite is also true. Most of us have come to realise that it is the small things that matter. Didn’t manage a whole day of home-schooling? Don’t worry, celebrate the fact that your child managed one good piece of homework. Feeling completely unmotivated today? Try and achieve just one thing off your to do list and give yourself a big pat on the back. Gave up on your diet / dry January / new year resolutions? No problem, these were always ambitious plans for a pandemic so take pride in the small changes you did manage. Did you manage one week of dry January…well that’s good enough for now.
Find your guilty pleasure
And indulge! For me, that normally means going to the theatre and as lots of them have now released their archives (for example, visit Metropolitan Opera | Home (metopera.org)), I had a date night with my other half watching La Traviata and drinking Prosecco. And why not make it an event to look forward to. Start planning on Monday for Friday night. Have a long bath with some smellies to prepare. Tell yourself you’re going to have an alcohol-free week so you can really savour those Friday night bubbles. Switch off your phone at 6pm, order a takeaway, sit down and enjoy.
I have a client who loves snow and also loves crime dramas so every night she sits down to a Scandi Noir series and binge watches in front of the fire…something she would never have done in “normal times.” In fact, the same client says she’s making a conscious effort to enjoy the slower mornings without the school run, lingering in bed for an extra half an hour with a coffee and a book or catching up with distant friends on WhatsApp.
The point is that these are small pleasures that we wouldn’t indulge in normally. Yet in 10 years’ time when we look back at 2020/21 they might just be the things we remember. The things that really mattered.
I can’t write about resilience without mentioning acupuncture. The World Health Organization (WHO) is one of many that recognises acupuncture has an ability to enhance mental wellness. Treatments can help with anxiety and muscle tension, improve digestive function, and help decrease your heart rate. Many also report them to be very calming. To that end, apart from the physical benefits, treatments can help with poor mental health.
My experience is that patients report a wealth of benefits from improved sleep and metabolic functioning, to a greater sense of calm, improved wellbeing and relaxation. I am offering 30 minutes Zoom acupressure sessions at the moment. The feedback in respect of these so far has been amazing, especially in respect of anxiety. You can book a session here.
The feel-good factor
I hope I’ve inspired you with a few ideas for finding small pockets of happiness in your day. And if I have, that in turn will help you build your mental resilience. I’ve also recorded a short video to help combat low moods. Personally, it gets me thinking about hot crossed buns, warmer days and good things to come (although it may not be doing my figure much good). Please take a look and let me know what you think! 😊