Mental Health Awareness Week
Updated: May 26
I read something the other day that said we should treat ourselves how we treat our pets. While I’m not suggesting we all feed ourselves liver treats and take ourselves on a walk (though sometimes a walk is all you need!) it’s a good reminder to reign things in when we’re treating ourselves with anything other than self-compassion; not just for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of those around us too.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs drives home one important message – that we’re all human. Blindingly obvious, yes. But actually it’s something that we can forget. Over the past few months, we’ve all experienced some turbulence in the lower sections of the pyramid - physiological and safety. It’s no wonder, then, that - especially at the start of lockdown – many of us struggled to get a good night’s sleep, were more likely to procrastinate and watched more TV and ate (and drank) more than usual.
Our outer reality has been challenged and in many ways, that is a traumatic experience. Before we can climb up to self-actualisation where our best self dwells, we need to effectively step up the ladder. We can do this by reframing our thoughts, journalling, changing our routines and also meditating. Meditating, for example, is found to not only make you happier but also increases grey matter in the brain, which is responsible for muscle control, seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control. Below are some steps I think we can take to move up the pyramid:
1) REFRAMING OUR MINDS
The 'Default Mode Network' in our brain is responsible for mind-wandering. When we are not focused on the present moment and dwelling on the past or future, neuroimaging shows that the network is most active and this activity is linked with lower levels of happiness - and even unhappiness. And studies in the field of neuroscience have shown that we mind-wander 46.9% of the time. So how can we harness this default activity?
“Be alert. If there is awareness in you…you no longer need to believe in every thought you think. It’s an old thought, no more. Awareness means presence and only presence can dissolve the unconscious past in you."
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it” - Eckhart Tolle
Some ways to put this advice into practice:
Accept this moment exactly for what it is instead of hypothesising about could/should/would/will be. Deal with each moment as and when it arrives, without looking too much to the past or too much to the future
See things from a factual perspective rather than adding a narrative to it
Whenever a negative thought arises, don’t identify with it but rather oppose it with a positive (or if you’re not feeling positive) a more neutral thought
Take 2 minutes to focus solely on your breathing. Similar to what happens when we exercise, meditation can train the default mode network to decrease in activity so that you're more focused on the moment at hand. And the benefits of this continue even after you've finished meditating
Journalling doesn’t have to be reams of writing, detailing all of your thoughts and emotions. Or it can be. But setting aside 5 or 10 minutes a day just to note down a few words or bullet points can make such a difference. Here are some ideas:
Make a note of positive affirmations
Write down your aims for the week
Note down 5 things/people/situations that you’re grateful for
3) CHECKING IN WITH YOUR AIMS - PRODUCTIVITY
I find it’s always helpful to think about whether things are being done from a place of ease or from a place of struggle and where more balance can be brought in. Some useful questions to ask are:
What aims do I have and how will I feel when I achieve them?
What is a realistic amount of time and energy that I need to complete this?
Are there a list of books that I want to get through or a course that I want to start and finish?
Will a new routine - more exercise, yoga, meditation - make me feel better and more in control?
Ultimately, we all have our own ways of doing things and even if we're doing all of the activities above and then some, we're not going to feel like we're on cloud nine all of the time. Because, like Maslow's pyramid reminds us, we're all human.
And while the paths that we’re on vary from one person to the next, we’re all on that path (or sometimes off, for a while!) for a reason. If, in the midst of chaos and turbulence, we decide that we won’t make things even more of a struggle for ourselves, it’ll surely be a habit that can stick. And that’ll probably be the single most important thing we’ll ever achieve.