This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme has been nature. It feels like the perfect theme, particularly since so many of us have connected with the outdoors in the pandemic. There have been great examples all week about the steps we can take as individuals to support our mental health, but it’s got me thinking about the role played by our personal environment on our wellbeing. By personal environment I mean our families, our friends, where we work.
In terms of raising awareness, this week has worked! All week my social media feeds have been full of people engaging with nature. I’ve seen them take mindful walks, spend the night in tents, work in the garden. It’s been great. Every picture has been of someone smiling. The stories being shared signal the powerful benefits of engaging in the outdoors and have been motivating and I’m sure I’ve spent more time noticing the growth in my garden as a direct result.
Another benefit of this week, one of the ongoing goals of the Mental Health Foundation, is the removal of stigma associated with mental health. Just search on #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and you’ll find plenty of posts, from the incredibly personal to the objectively informative. There’s no doubt, we’re much happier talking about it than we were.
In all the posts I’ve seen, I’ve been struck by the way the responsibility is placed on each of us to take care of our own mental health. Of course, as adults we are responsible for ourselves. We have to take ownership of our behaviour and make sure we act in our best interests. For example, I know I hide in work. I turn to it when I am at my most stressed and can actually feel myself relaxing as I concentrate on what’s on my computer screen. It’s a short-term fix but in the longer term it leaves me feeling isolated and ultimately exhausted. If I want a more sustainable and healthy solution, I need to stop hiding and address what’s causing the stress in the first place. The only person who can do that is me. It’s definitely my responsibility. But what if the environment I am living in resists? What if it doesn’t want to let me?
I often hear people described as over-analytical, over-emotional, too demanding. Perhaps it’s saddest when the people being described are children and it’s the adults around them calling them a problem child and wondering what’s wrong with them. For me the truth lies in a mismatch between the individual and their environment. By environment I mean the others in the family, workplace or friendship group, essentially the people describing them as too much. It’s not that they’re over-emotional or too demanding. Instead, it’s that the people describing them are not okay with what they feel is being asked of them. The person could have a perfectly average amount of emotionality but someone who has no history of connecting with their own emotions will experience it as too much and describe the other as over-emotional. The impact on the individual being described can be profound and long-lasting.
Engaging with nature boosts our mental wellbeing. Taking a walk at lunchtime and really noticing the feel of the breeze, the colours and the sounds can be incredibly rejuvenating. Perhaps most importantly, it can give us enough space to notice what’s going on in our world and its impact on our sense of wellbeing. It gives us the resources to ask some important questions. Is the environment I live in nurturing? Is it okay to unapologetically be myself? I don’t mean we can ignore everyone around us and that there must be no pressure or stress. We do need to notice others and the environment can be challenging. I definitely appreciate being pushed, but not if it’s unremitting, if what I need is completely ignored. And certainly not if I feel I’m missed or about to be attacked, however subtle the attack might be.
#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek has presented plenty of ideas and information about how to boost our own wellbeing. The theme this year might be nature but reflecting on our own environment might be the most important thing we can do to improve our wellbeing. My final thought is to reflect on the environment I create for others. What is my role in creating their environment and do I help to create one that supports and encourages them to be who they really are?
It seems appropriate to put self care front and centre at the beginning of a bank holiday weekend.
Judging by the comments on social media, most people argue self-care should be a priority. I don’t see anyone say otherwise. Yet people still feel stressed, experience burnout, suffer depression and anxiety. Some struggle to concentrate and feel angry and exhausted. What’s going on? If self-care is the panacea, why is it so difficult to put it first?
I certainly haven’t got it cracked. It’s a work in progress and probably always will be, but it’s worth it. The important relationships in my life are better. The underlying feeling of being taken for granted and the associated resentment has dissipated, and the regular bouts of rage are history. But it’s not easy.
What’s changed? Perhaps the most important step has been to understand my role. I have been the person neglecting me. I might have felt I had no choice. I might have felt under intense pressure to work hard or take care of everyone, but there were different choices. Of course, there would have been consequences to those choices. Relationships and my career, for example, would have been different. But as soon as I really accepted, I was making a choice, alternatives became possible.
Real self care is about putting yourself first. That sounds selfish … and we all know it’s not okay to be selfish. Selfishness implies a total disregard for other people. It implies doing something at the cost of someone else. For example, someone has a deadline of 5pm and they need help to meet it. It’s 4pm now, there is about another two hours of work to do and they ask for your help. You help. The job is done in time and they’re finished at 5pm. That’s when you start on your work that was displaced, making you late. Is it selfish or self-care to say no? It depends, I hear you say. You’re probably right but my point is if something is not okay for you, it’s okay to say no. It’s not your job to make things okay for everyone else at a cost to yourself.
Self-care also gets confused with self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is the gratification of whims. It can be excessive and disproportionate and of course it can be wonderful in moderation. I absolutely love an indulgent session in a spa, having a massage, a manicure and a pedicure. I love ice cream. It’s my all-time favourite food. Sometimes all I want is to sit down and have a big bowl in front of a movie. Is a spa day or a big bowl of ice cream self-indulgent or self-care? It seems to me there is a continuum and where we sit on it is, perhaps, a good indicator of the value we place on self-care.
“I’m fine” is perhaps the biggest obstacle for me. I have some sort of inner narrative that tells me I can survive whatever comes my way. Looking at it one way, it suggests real resilience and the truth is I do generally cope without making much overt fuss. That is until I hit the buffers and explode or melt down. My blind determination to survive whatever comes my way, then proves to be incredibly destructive. Those close to me move away and I’m left feeling exhausted, unnoticed, resentful and alone. It’s not fulfilling or uplifting. For me, admitting I’m not okay is scary. It’s been a long process to find a way to say I’m not fine. Perhaps the biggest shift has been finding people I feel safe enough with to share the truth of my experience. It has given me space to, slowly but surely, prioritise my self-care.
Self-care is a way of being in day-to-day life whereby you understand and accept your physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual needs and act in a way that will get those needs met. I emphasise needs because that’s what it’s about – needs, not wants, wishes or desires. Prioritise it and self-care will boost your well-being, true resilience, the quality of your relationships and your physical and mental health. It’s no wonder we all advocate it so much.
If you want to focus on your self-care, here are a few steps you can take to get started.
Engage in self-compassion. You’re bound to get it wrong – you’re human afterall, so be gentle and kind to yourself.
Put a good night’s sleep at the top of your agenda. Begin by getting into a routine. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, with space in between for seven or eight hours.
Eat a balanced diet. I’m not talking about anything extreme, just one that includes fruit and veg. Remember the self-compassion!
Move more. We all know exercise is good for us, but if you’re anything like me an exercise class or going to the gym might not be the solution. Instead, walk a little further. Stand up and move around regularly.
Go outside. It can reduce stress, lower your blood pressure, and improve concentration, your energy and even your pain thresholds.
Say no. It’s not easy but saying no to others when you need to really matters.
Today, Monday 18 January, is Blue Monday. In a normal year the cold and wet weather, dark nights and credit card bills landing on the door mat take a toll. This year we’re contending with the lockdown too! Feeling ‘blue’ is a perfectly healthy response.