Has it really taken a pandemic to make leaders take their mental health seriously?

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As a leader, what has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced during lockdown? Aside from work, we imagine ‘managing my wellbeing’ – or something similar relating to your mental state, to feeling well or your need to stay positive is high up on your list. 

The question that many people are now asking is: how do we manage our mental health in times of crisis? 

To really get to the root of this and begin to take practical steps to improve your mental wellbeing at this time, you must first ask yourself: how would I ‘normally’ (or formerly, before the lockdown) manage my wellbeing? 

If your response to this question highlights that your wellbeing isn’t necessarily something you’ve been consciously or actively managing up until this pandemic, then isn’t that interesting? That it takes this crisis of epic proportions for us to pay attention to something so fundamental to our health?

Taking positive action to improve mental health

In conversations with colleagues, friends and family we know that many of us have increased our daily physical activity. It is, after buying food, the only reason we’ve been allowed to leave our homes, after all. As well as something positive we can do with the kids, hence the Joe Wicks daily PE class craze. 

My own group meditation class has grown from around 80 participants to more than 250 weekly meditators. And not primarily because it’s easy to access via Zoom; rather that, on the edge of insanity we now crave a deep sense of calm that only meditation can facilitate. 

The third obvious suspect on the wellbeing plan is diet. Most of us have never eaten so well, and never been more focused on what the next meal will look like, with new-found time to cook from scratch with the family. 

But for many of us, increased exercise, more time for relaxation and improved diet is where we end when it comes to look after ourselves. And this may be why we’re still struggling through this crisis. Is it enough?  

Turning off the stress of coronavirus

In truth, it’s proving far too difficult to turn off the stress of coronavirus. Stress levels brought on by our biggest fears: of falling ill, a loved one dying, loss of employment and huge uncertainty as to what kind of lives we’ll be able to safely lead going forward, until a vaccine is found for this powerful and pervasive virus. 

This stress is keeping our bodies flooded with cortisol which, in turn, can lead to poor physical health if not kept in check. 

Hence, an important part of our wellbeing management is self- or mind-management. And this is the part that is overlooked, under-resourced and letting us down.

Most adults did not receive any formal PSH (Personal, Social & Health) education. Although this is thankfully set to change as, as of September 2020, PSHE will be a compulsory part of the primary school curriculum in England and Wales). 

At best, we might have good social or relationships skills if we’ve had them modelled, encouraged or nurtured by our significant others. And, very definitely, most of us haven’t yet sought out any emotions regulation training. 

Losing our self-control comes more naturally than managing it. For decades we’ve been told to ‘Calm down’, ‘Don’t worry’, or ‘Keep a stiff upper lip’ – nothing could be more unhelpful as a set of encouraging mantras. 

Practical steps to manage your mental health

So how do we manage our minds when we’re losing them? The first step is to ensure you have enough quiet or self-reflection time – even if it’s a minute grabbed here or there, but ideally a block of time scheduled once or twice a day – to regularly ask yourself these self-coaching questions:

  1. What am I feeling? 
  2. How would I describe this emotion or feeling?
  3. Why am I feeling like this? What is going on? 
  4. What’s the fear here? Or what is the story I’m telling myself? 
  5. Is this fear or story likely to be true? (9 times out of 10 the answer to this question will be that you don’t know or don’t yet know). 
  6. What can I do either to find out what the fear is or to let this unhelpful belief go? Or put another way: how can I quieten these feelings and move on?

If you have ever had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), this self-coaching script may sound familiar. Becoming attuned to our fears and our negative emotions is far more common than you might think. It certainly doesn’t take a pandemic to unearth them. For most of us now, however, they are bigger and louder than ever. 

The human brain is hard-wired for negativity. It’s how we’ve kept ourselves safe for millennia. It’s how we’ve detected threats, survived and evolved. 

Ultimately, our response to the multiple threats that the coronavirus pandemic presents will be no different: the majority of us will survive. However, the collateral damage that it is wreaking on our mental state impacts on the quality of our thinking and our performance; and it could take its toll on our lives and on our long-term health. Thinking negatively is both unhealthy and unproductive. 

How can we teach ourselves to be more positive?

In contextualising this mental challenge as a developmental strand of human evolution, isn’t it about time, given everything else we’ve invented and accomplished so far as a human race, that we all took some basic steps to become more self-aware and attuned to our minds? Isn’t it time we taught ourselves to think more positively?

Positive psychologist and author of Positivity: Groundbreaking Research To Release Your Inner Optimist And Thrive Barbara Fredrickson has identified, through her decades of study, the following ten forms of positivity: joy, gratitude, serenity, inspiration, hope, awe, amusement, interest, a sense of pride, and love. All of these contribute to our positive sense of wellbeing. 

We would fare much better if we took these ingredients and added them to our daily wellbeing plan. How can we seek out more of these forms of positivity? They all feel eminently accessible, even among the chaos and uncertainty of this pandemic, don’t they? 

One way is that all these forms of positivity are available to us via those around us. So try to stay close to those available to you. A common downward spiral that coaches and therapists see when struggle or hardship prevails is that we go into ourselves, we stop reaching out and talking to friends, we become hermits, we hide. 

The relationship between the self and the other (or, put in normal speak, between ourselves and each other), and our need to belong, is a fundamental human need and integral to our wellbeing plan. 

Being in this together, being generous with your attention to others, and, if you have the emotional capacity, to support and help others. Generosity and altruism boosts wellbeing, too.

So ask yourself these last questions: 

  • What’s my freshest thinking about how I manage my wellbeing? 
  • What could I practice that may boost my feelings of optimism and contentment? 

Happiness may currently feel like an unattainable and inappropriate goal for the time being, but learning ways to manage our negativity, anger and sadness is essential and potentially life-saving work.

If you would like to receive coaching support to achieve your wellbeing and resilience goals, please contact us. We’re here to help you.   

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