Brook Education and Wellbeing Specialist Lauren Pae has two degrees in mental health. This Mental Health Awareness Week Lauren reminds us that it’s important to be kind to ourselves during these times of uncertainty.
It feels like the world has stood still. Time doesn’t make sense anymore, and anxiety, constraint and fatigue have weaved together as a hammock in which we are all fitfully trying to get comfortable. Most of us are barely leaving the house in order to keep ourselves and other people safe – a collective act of kindness and love, if there ever was one. So even know we know we’re all in the same boat, why can it feel like we’re adrift without an anchor?
Isolation has caused enormous changes to our routine; resulting in a loss of connection to our loved ones, to things that make us happy, to a sense of real life and about feeling alive.
Thankfully we live in an era of technology where the Internet provides assistance and we can share ourselves and our lives in real-time with other people…often in our pyjamas, possibly unwashed, eating cereal – granted, not always what they want to see! But even with helpful apps, we realise how important touch is to our wellbeing.
Research suggests that eight hugs per day actually increase oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and reduces cortisol (our stress hormone) in our bodies. For various reasons, not all of us have, or even want, access to eight hugs a day even before coronavirus – but there is a sense of connection in being close to people, without the fear of contamination.
Touch or comfortable proximity reminds us that we are not alone. Historically, humans are social creatures; we protect each other, inform of food or danger, look after dependents and co-create.
When we feel threatened, our minds go into “survival mode” and we automatically switch our focus to staying alive and safe. This mode may make you feel cut off to the needs of other people outside of your immediate loved ones, and empathy can often take a backseat (think the toilet paper and pasta shortage crisis!)
In addition, when we are separated from a “pack”, i.e. our neighbours, colleagues, fellow commuters even; the awareness that others are also experiencing the same feeling is not always soothing. Our brains are generally a bit preoccupied with making sure we have what we need to survive – as Maslow postulated, if our basic necessary elements like food and shelter and safety are not met, we cannot so thoroughly consider our higher thinking and cognitive needs, let alone think of others.
One school of thought is that everything you do, your brain is trying to look after you. Even when we make choices that are seem unconstructive, or unfathomable to others, the brain is decision-making with our best interests at heart. This even includes potentially less healthy behaviours such as increased alcohol use, eating tons of delicious treats and not exercising. Even loneliness has a purpose, and is activated in order to force us to reconnect. So loneliness and panic responses are powerful yet normal responses to an abnormal situation.
At this time, it is totally feasible to act differently, or reflect more; we have a lot of time on our hands. You may start to have thoughts about a relationship that didn’t work out, or reasons why you and a friend lost touch. You might even be brave and “shoot your shot” with that certain someone special. Not being able to plan anything with reliable certainty, and work, education, travelling or dating plans being unstable might cause panic and a sense that disconnect is never-ending.
Our poor logical brains crave normality and structure, and an absence of this can cause a tailspin over our lack of attachment to our lives. “Connect!” our brain screams – “I just want to know I’m not alone!”
This is why it is so important to be kind to yourself. Although everyone’s situation is different, we really are all just imperfect humans in boats in the same vast ocean. Being kind to yourself actually helps your brain pick options for maximising your health and wellbeing. The pandemic is not your fault, and the more one strives for control over what’s currently happening in the world, the worse the frustration might manifest.
Right now, the best you can do is take time to look after your physical and mental health – however you feel you can.
Drinking and eating lots is short-term love. It matters more than you realise that you tell yourself you believe you can weather these bad times, and take part in things that lift your mood. Even if you ‘fake it until you make it’, repetition causes routine. Being able to say positive things about yourself, being patient and kind when you make mistakes (like texting your ex, oops!) and -my favourite- remembering that deep breaths are hugs for the soul, all work towards calming your mind. This is important – calm minds make better, more thoughtful decisions.
The better you take care of yourself, the better you can take care of others. There will be an end to lockdown, and we will be able to connect to others more personally again, but not losing connection to yourself as a worthwhile human is really what will keep you afloat.