In the spirit that we teach best what we most need to learn, this blog is about staying mentally well. Maybe its a combination of the worldwide prevalence of Covid-19, the anniversary of the 15th March Christchurch attack, combined with surviving a Wellington summer, and working from home, which has left me focusing on what it means to stay positive and maintain well-being.
There are some great resources on staying physically well and reducing the spread of Covid-19, but staying psychologically well, especially during periods of enforced isolation at home, has got my attention.
I’ve done some research and reading on the topic of staying mentally well during this time and here’s what I’ve discovered.
In the same way that diseases are contagious, it turns out that so are emotions. Emotional contagion is ‘the tendency to feel and express emotions similar to and influenced by others’. This was demonstrated by a now infamous experiment carried out by Facebook in 2012 who manipulated the news feeds of approx. 689,000 people to see if the emotion they picked up through the content on their news feeds impacted the emotion they then displayed on the platform through their own posts. They found that those who saw positive news feeds posted other positive material. Conversely, those who saw negative posts, tended to post more negative material.
What to learn from this (aside from how to conduct ethical experiments)? You can moderate your environment by limiting your exposure to TV or radio news to once a day, rather than every hour. It’s also important to be aware of your own emotions and refrain from spreading doom and feeding gossip to others. You can choose to spend time with people who are positive and leave you feeling filled up rather than depleted.
2. Pay attention to your well-being
Rather than trying to ignore your mental well-being, this is the time to give it special attention. All those things that you know to be true are particularly important right now. These include getting plenty of exercise and sleep, eating healthfully and take time out on a regular basis with meditation, rhythmic breathing or other relaxation techniques. Going for a walk outside amongst nature has been shown to have significant benefits for mental health. Another tip is to invent one new adventure in your day, however, small. It might be exploring a new walk or park in your area, or biking a new cycle track.
3. Look for the silver lining
Change in our lives can leave us feeling scared and fearful. However, change can also present new opportunities. Focusing on the benefits that arise during times of difficulty can help. For example, time at home might mean ticking off a project that has been on your ‘to do’ list for a long time. It could also mean that you get a very clean house!
4. Look to the heroes
There are always people who sacrifice themselves at the time of adversity. Hearing these stories helps to lift us up and be inspired to act for the benefit of others. While the temptation might be to focus on fear and everything going wrong, we can redirect our attention to those who are doing the right thing, which will lead us to be better citizens ourselves. I like to read the stories of the heroes of the Christchurch attack – the people who risked their lives to save others and so inspire me to be a better person.
5. Compassion, kindness and gratitude
When we’re fearful, our tendency is to blame others and the media fuels this tendency. We blame politicians, foreigners, government officials – anyone who is different from us. Research suggests that when we recognize our common humanity and show compassion, we are more likely to pull together and to solve issues that may be complex in nature. Compassion starts with ourselves: forgiving ourselves for the mistakes that we make. Showing kindness to others, particularly a random act of kindness to someone in your social network, has shown to have significant benefits for your own mental health. Likewise, being grateful: grateful to the healthcare workers who care for people with contagious viruses, grateful to the NZ healthcare system who tracked and contained people with Covid-19 in NZ so far to contain the spread. How good were they?
Caring for ourselves and others during times of adversity helps us to grow stronger and recognise our potential as human beings. My question to leave you with is: what will you do to lift someone up and be kind today?