When it feels like we’re living in a Groundhog Day, the task of finding ways to stay positive is becoming a challenge we’re all facing. Whist we’re doing what we should to stay physically healthy, it’s equally as critical we stay on top of our mental health. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology and host of The Happiness Lab podcast recently spoke about the ways in which we can boost our well-being during these unprecedented times. Here’s the key take-outs from her most recent Q&A:
How can we deal with at-home tension and avoid arguments in our relationships?
Validate the situation and encourage everyone to be a bit more patient. The research on relationships and what makes relationships succeed suggests it has a lot to do with our expectations. Giving our spouses, family and friends the benefit of the doubt and managing our expectations of them is now more important than ever. It’s time to double down on the good aspects of your relationship and be intentional in promoting the positive aspects.
How do we stay updated with news without increasing our anxious feelings?
The physical manifestations of anxiety can come to the surface when we listen or watch news coverage. We can practise mindfulness to register how the news is making us feel and be deliberate about what we’re consuming. Upregulate the information with positive news and decrease the amount of news you are consuming. The 24-hour news cycle is going to be there when you’re ready to take in more information.
How can front-line workers prioritise self-care and manage anxiety?
One thing that may help is a ‘re-focus’ to understand that we need to prioritise our own mental health during these times. Pay attention to your anxiety levels. Even just three conscious breaths allows us a moment to be present. Doing this consistently helps to down regulate your sympathetic nervous system and kick in the parasympathetic activity that we need for rest and digest. The more you can take short breaks, the better. For health care workers, re-frame what you’re doing in as positive a way as possible. Taking time to realise what you’re doing is compassionately helping other people and recognising it as a pro-social action can allow you more resilience which will enable you to do difficult things. Turning on your compassion muscles can be incredibly powerful. There is evidence that suggests that specific meditation can reduce burn-out even in incredibly stressful times. ‘Loving-Kindness’ meditation is helpful in managing stress levels. With this you work on practising compassion and focusing on the people that matter in your life and extend to them information on being happy and healthy. Use the mantra “May you be happy, may you be healthy.” This urge to help people, without the empathy to go with it i.e. the burn-out from feeling these other people’s emotions, can be a powerful technique.
How can we stay positive during this time if we’re living alone?
You can be physically alone without being socially alone. You can be using technology to reach out to all those friends and family members. During these times, we need to do this more than ever and even more intentionally. Science suggests that the act of intentionally connecting in real time can be almost as strong as a normal social connection. Consider the perks solitude gives you in terms of other mental health benefits. Quiet time for meditation or alone time to engage in exercise or hobbies. Being alone allows you to re-set things and focus on yourself in a way that would be tricky if you were not in lockdown.
How can we stay sane and focused during work?
Validate the concerns over work and money and have some self-compassion. There are a number of people who are feeling frustrated at themselves for not being as productive or focused as before, which in reality is impossible in the current situation. Even if we’re reacting to it well one day, it doesn’t mean that the next day we won’t feel it very deeply. Speak to yourself the same way you’d talk to a friend as all of us are going to be a little less productive. We often assume that if we’re able to stay productive, we’ll be happy, but it actually works the other way around, as research suggests that the happier we are, the more productive we’ll be. Focus on this direction. Minimise the guilt. In order to be more productive, focus on the things that will improve your mental health.
How can we help children in quarantine during this time?
Children don’t have the frontal lobe tools to regulate this crisis. Make sure they have a routine. We are all creatures of habit. We work best and feel less anxious when we’re in a consistent situation and routine. Just as it’s important that we focus on the positives, it’s important that we show children the heroes during these difficult times. Expose your kids to the good things that are happening. Be mindful of emotional contagion – when one member of our team or family feels panicky, that can be transmitted. Be the calm in the storm. Transmit positive states to them and embody the positive emotions. But equally let them know it is OK to feel worried or sad and let them talk through their feelings.
How can we build new experiences into our lives?
We’re all faced with a new situation of having to stay at home. More time with our kids and our families. Research in psychology suggests we can harness these new situations to form new habits. We can start things we hadn’t started before such as new game nights and new family dinners. We can harness the power of fresh starts. We have no norms for what we’re supposed to do during this time which provides opportunities to put good habits and new traditions in place.
What can we do to deal with sleep problems?
Use the power of ritual before you go to sleep to enable you to feel more in control. The struggle to sleep stems from feeling out of control. Be mindful and deliberate about your rituals to train your body into doing things. You could limit the anxiety-provoking news you consume before bed. Or put your phone on silent after 8pm and not use it for the rest of the evening. It’s important to substitute a habit with something else. Sleep is essential for mental health and also protects your immune function during a time when we all need to make sure our immune system is as up to scratch as it can possibly be.
How do we care for sick family whilst protecting our own mental health?
Validate the emotions. Many of us aren’t in positions to be able to help people who are sick. Have self-compassion and be kind to yourself. If you are feeling frustrated that you can’t do more to help in a certain way, then find alternate ways you can help. Find ways to reduce your own sympathetic nervous system. It will give you the bandwidth to deal with that stressful situation.
To find out more ways to improve your mental health, take a listen to The Happiness Lab Podcast today: www.happinesslab.fm