2020 hasn’t been easy on anyone. There’s no “right” way to feel right now. Go easy on yourself and listen to what your body and mind need. With all that’s going on in the world and World Mental Health Day coming up, we’re looking at how we can take tangible steps to support our emotional wellbeing.
Knowing yourself means understanding yourself. The good, the bad, the wish-I-hadn’t-done-that are all part of it. Truly accepting yourself leads to recognising thought patterns and behaviours. You begin to know your triggers and understand your saviours.
Whilst the benefits of positive thinking have been researched over and over again, the stats don’t make “controlling” thoughts any easier. While it’s helpful to actively practice putting a positive spin on things (e.g. pair a negative thought with a positive one), it can feel a little overwhelming.
Recognising that you’re feeling “off centre” or “not quite yourself” is half the battle.
Categorising thoughts can become a helpful practice to make a conscious shift in mindset. If you find yourself in a negative spiral, carve out a moment to take three slow, intentional deep breaths. Feel the sensation of the air entering your body, let your shoulders loosen, your forehead relax and your chest expand. Picture the cool rush of air flowing into different parts of your body. By focusing on (and – maybe even – enjoying) the sensations, you’ll begin to focus on the present moment, and distance yourself from your thoughts.
Thoughts are temporary, temperamental and easily tempted by shiny objects. Close your eyes and don’t let the idea of meditation scare you. Focus on where one thought ends and the next begins. See that sweet spot in the middle? Try and linger there for a second longer. There’s no right or wrong way to add mindfulness into your day.
The next step is realising that most emotions can be controlled (kind of the way a toddler’s tantrum can be controlled – where food, sleep and a little bit of TLC can go a long way). Once you’ve labelled your emotional state as your inner child, you’re free to take care of yourself with the patience and compassion you deserve.
By taking the time to understand our thoughts and be less critical of ourselves, we’re able to stay present through the hard times. When compartmentalising “good” and “bad” thoughts, try to acknowledge that “negative” thoughts are often either future projections or past regrets. Even through difficult times, try to root yourself in the present moment.
Take another slow, deep breath and begin to focus on what you can do in the now.
How we speak to ourselves is a good indication of how we feel about ourselves. We each have thoughts that guide us through the day, but there are times when your “voice of reason” needs some reasoning of its own.
Think about how many times you have told a loved one that you believe in them. Imagine if you showed that same belief and kindness to yourself in your darkest moments.
If that sounds easier said than done, start here: when your inner voice is giving you feedback that makes your heart race, your palms sweat and incessant internal swearing start – stop.
Stop and consider how you would talk to a friend in the same situation. Try to momentarily adjust your inner monologue to become a dialogue.
Chances are, you wouldn’t tell your best friend that she’s done “everything wrong” and that “it’s too late” to redeem herself. Instead, you’d likely say “it will be okay, either way” and offer reasonable advice to “focus on what you can actually control in the situation”.
You’d be understanding, encouraging and – most importantly – you’d listen to what your friend needs. Listening is a form of accepting.
The sooner you start checking in with yourself, the sooner you begin training your subconscious mind, and the sooner you turn yourself into a friend you enjoy spending time with.
Read more: Facts Worth Knowing About Depression
Research on brain plasticity shows that the brain is far more malleable than we give it credit for, so it’s no surprise that a growth mindset promotes a love of learning and a sense of resilience – two things essential for personal development.
Approach new things with the mindset that “practice makes progress, and progress is good enough”, losing the idea that a perfect end goal is the aim.
Fear has a funny way of functioning and it feeds on our exhaustion, our indecision and our worry. The worry is amplified when it involves outcomes that are out of our control. Claim back the parts of life that you can control by tracking the journey. We’re all works in progress and that’s part of the fun.
Whether you choose to free write every morning or sit down with a gratitude journal every evening, the benefits of logging your daily musings on paper are as endless as your overflowing, unfiltered thoughts. Even if your natural instinct towards writing is a big “no”, it is a tool you can tailor to your needs. Writing allows overactive minds to formulate thoughts, question painful triggers and cement exciting ideas.
Plus, letting your thoughts go for a run every once in a while is the best way to reflect – building the muscles you want to strengthen.
This week, try writing down five things you’re grateful for before bed each night. Consciously cultivating gratitude is a great way to hit the reset button.
Whether it’s squeezing in a lunchtime workout, cooking yourself your favourite meal, downloading a new mindfulness app, take some time to unapologetically put yourself first. The activities that make you happy are the things that enable your best self.
In our “sorry, running late” lives, there is something so powerful about being in tune with our own wants and needs. Know what you want and work towards it. Also know what you don’t want and make that clear. Your mental state will thank you for investing time and energy into creating positive processes.
Action: Make a list
Start small. Make a list of 10 simple things that make you happy. Try and make them as silly and removed from your daily life as possible. From baking gooey chocolate chip cookies, to rockin’ around your room pretending you’re part of The Rolling Stones, to going for a solo hike before getting settled in for a cosy night of reading. Nothing is off limits. Let yourself have fun with the list.
Remember all the little things that made you happy as a kid? You’re not too old. It’s not too late.
Setting aside clear time for activities you’re excited about will mean you’ll naturally start saying no to things you never intended to prioritise in the first place.
Make time for the things that prove excitement eliminates exhaustion.
You’ve heard it countless times: regular exercise, a solid sleep schedule, time outdoors and a healthy diet is good for us. We know it’s good in principle, the problem is that, in practice, the follow through takes planning and implementing.
Prioritising can feel like a constant challenge, but our bodies are intelligent and intuitive and there are simple things it needs to function at its optimum. We know what’s good for us and our bodies know too: less time sitting in front of the TV and more time exercising, less coffee and more water, less “just because” gin nights (yes, less, not none!) and more thoughtful routines.
Balance matters. The key here is to not get so caught up in routine, that tick boxes are prioritised over what your body – and mind – is actually asking for. And whilst a balanced routine is beneficial in effectively prioritising and minimising anxiety, breaking that monotony can add some much-needed excitement to your day.
Action: Pinpoint one area
Make an effort to focus on one core area of your life that needs attention this month. Whether it’s diet, exercise, sleep, minimising tech time or something else entirely.
If you’re constantly waking up tired, set an alarm to remind yourself to get to bed before you lose valuable hours. Melatonin and serotonin exist to regulate our bodies, but they can’t do it without our cooperation. Plus, the more research is done, the more it’s proved that sleep has a huge factor on our brain power.
If you’re prone to mood swings, energy fluctuations and sugar cravings, try cutting back on bursts of refined sugar and replacing it with slow-release natural sugars, magnesium and healthy fats. Simple diet changes can stabilise energy levels and leave you feeling more mentally alert throughout the day, so it’s worth knowing what ingredients can help relieve anxiety.
Wondering why the sharp pain behind your eyes isn’t going away? Step away from your phone and laptop. Try putting your phone on airplane mode for a few hours a day and prioritise the real world over the Valencia-filtered virtual one. Through this challenging time across the globe, consuming too much news or social media can distort our reality. Consume mindfully.
Do you feel more fulfilled and relaxed after binge-watching everything new on Netflix? If so, order in a pizza and call it a night. If, however, after sitting through the entire latest season of “Sex Education” you find yourself anxious and seeking the next distraction, perhaps it’s time to try a Netflix detox.
Most importantly, recognise how your mind and body feels throughout the process.
Read more: How Hard Is It To Be Vegan In Hong Kong?
Whilst learning to enjoy time alone is necessary for mental stability, relationships are one of the most influential factors in our lives. In fact, in “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness”, Robert Waldinger talks about how the 75-year-old study shows that securely attached relationships have the biggest impact on our happiness. Strong, secure relationships aren’t just good for your happiness levels, they’re essential for mental health.
Physical and social isolation are two independent things. Through this surreal time, it’s important to still make an effort to connect with others.
Humans have an innate need to be part of a “tribe” and the loss of that collective feel can cause deep psychological struggles. In times of crisis, a sense of community can support people’s emotional wellbeing like nothing else (did you know that the suicide rate in NYC after 911 actually dropped?).
Above all else, building a life where you’re connected to others is rewarding and hearing people you trust offer alternative views is the best way to bring perspective into a difficult situation.
Action: Support your network
Take yourself out of the equation and make an effort to provide your loved ones with a chance to talk about their mental health today.
By starting open conversations, we can approach underlying issues in our community, while understanding our own mental wiring.
We all recognise the importance of feeling supported and cared for, so make a conscious effort to support people around you, even through your own difficult times. Everyone’s battle looks different, but we can always use another soldier on our side.
It’s always the right time to check in with friends you haven’t spoken to in a while. WhatsApp your crew. Call your parents. Keep your people close.
Read more: How To Recognise (And Stop) Repeating Relationship Patterns, From A Clinical Psychologist
Global pandemic aside, the world needs more people who hold the door open for strangers – it’s the least we can do for each other. When you take a moment to appreciate that every single person on the MTR is equally as complex, cranky and inconsiderate as you on a Monday morning, you might find the clouds in your own head start to drift.
Even when you’re feeling alone, know that you can create your own sense of community. Despite all the unknowns, your empathy and compassion are things you can control.
Action: Support your wider community
Find an NGO or charity that speaks to you and volunteer.
You may just find yourself living the phrase “by taking care of yourself, you take care of others, and by taking care of others, you take care of yourself”. Giving back is a chance to gain new perspectives and experiences whilst encouraging our minds to process the present moment.
On top of that, doing something that aligns with our values can remind us what matters most to us.
There are plenty of places to volunteer in Hong Kong, or you can combine time and skills to make sure you’re volunteering abroad in a sustainable way.
Read more: What I’ve Learnt From Volunteering at a Cambodian Orphanage
Your mental resilience and emotional health is your responsibility. It’s something everyone works on – whether it’s conscious or not. Just like our physical health, our mental health requires time and attention.
Don’t wait for an emotional hiccup to happen before you start prioritising your needs. Put healthy habits in place when you’re feeling strong, so that you can rely on them when you need support most.
Pick any action point that speaks to you from this article and try it for yourself. Let each step lead you onto the next discovery. The idea is to gradually establish daily routines.
Action: Be honest about what you need
Wondering what your first step should be? There’s no right answer and starting is half the battle.
As a collective, we’re going through something none of us have ever experienced before. There’s no right or wrong way to process what the world is currently going through.
If you feel like you’re going through the daily motions of your life fairly contently, but feel a bit disconnected from your purpose, explore outlets like life coaching as a way to realign your course. Life coaching is a great way to filter out the fuss and find mental clarity.
If you’re experiencing emotional fluctuations and mental changes that aren’t going away, talk to someone and get help – whether it’s a friend, a partner or a therapist, opening up to a trusted source is essential.
If you feel like your mental health is negatively impacting your day-to-day life, look into counselling services and getting professional medical help. You know your mind and body best, so trust that whatever you’re starting with, wherever you’re starting from, it’s enough.
Editor’s note: This post was originally written in October 2018 by Tania Shroff and was most recently updated in October 2020.