Six ways to protect your mental health during the pandemic

Columnists

When I first started writing this column, the Coronavirus was a distant threat that seemed manageable. “It’s just like the flu,” we told ourselves as we continued to meet up with friends at the pub and send invitations for weddings, baby showers and business lunches.

Then, the unthinkable happened. We found ourselves in a scary and surreal situation that left us practising social distancing and facing uncertain times as individuals and business owners.

The column’s focus on mindfulness seemed more timely than ever but some of the content would need to change to match the new normal we were facing. With a good portion of the population working from home, many of us are sharing spaces with partners, roommates and/or children and the 24-hour news cycle is begging us to stay updated while stirring anxieties in ways we could never have anticipated.

In this challenging time — with all of the uncertainty, isolation and fear — it has never been more important to protect our physical and mental health. But between worrying about the virus, the longevity of your business, paying staff, homeschooling children and doing the actual work, it can seem an impossible task.

The good news is that mindfulness is a free and available to option to all of us and it doesn’t require much time or energy. There are steps (both mental and physical) that we can take safely at home to tweak, reframe and stay calm in this chaotic time and they only take a few minutes a day. Follow your new routine for 66 days and you will have formed a new way of thinking, behaving and reacting.

First, know what mindfulness is and Isn’t

Before we begin, let’s address common misconceptions about meditation and mindfulness. For some, these words may bring about images of monks with “blank minds” chanting or Northern California commune members sitting cross-legged in a circle. Others might attach mystical manifestations like the ones found in the book, The Secret.

In reality, both are simply names for focused thinking techniques that have scientifically-proven benefits. From regulating our response to stress and increasing our resiliency to helping us connect with other members of our team, studies have shown us numerous ways in which focused thinking can have a positive impact on our physical health as well as our personal and professional lives. It’s important to note that there is no wrong way to meditate or be mindful, only the wrong approach which is to place pressure on yourself to do either perfectly. Best of all, you can put habits in practice that gently guide you into a calmer and more mindful space (see Quiet the Noise below). Now, let’s get started…

Put the judgement on pause

While we all struggle with a pesky inner-critic, high-stress situations like the pandemic can increase anxiety and amplify unhelpful emotions like shame and guilt.

Feeling overwhelmed and scared right now is normal, so allowing space for those feelings is essential. That said, being led by negative emotions pushes us firmly onto our back foot and keeps us in a constant state of distress and scarcity. Think about it; when we feel there is not enough (time, resources, opportunities, support), we work in a fog of distress and/or panic — and that’s when mistakes are most likely to be made.

If you begin to feel bad about not being able to do everything required of you “perfectly,” remind yourself that you’re being asked to do much more than you’re used to — maybe even too much for one person — under extreme circumstances. It’s not always easy to do this when we feel the tasks piling up, but adjusting your view of productivity to meet the circumstance we are in is a sign of leadership and will help you see that showing up and doing the best you can each day is enough.

Embrace change as a step to the next level

There is no denying this pandemic is going to change how we do business for a while, maybe forever. But change is a tricky topic. We welcome it warmly when we send for it but often panic and reject it when it stops by without warning (just look at the loo roll situation in supermarkets and the mass gatherings that continue despite dire government warnings).

While there is comfort in familiarity, holding onto outdated viewpoints and habits will prove disastrous for your business. The fact is that many of us are in unchartered territory, and with that comes challenges that will shake up domestic life and transform most industries.

We can choose to ignore the obvious and live in fear of this undeniable fact (making this reality seem even more abrupt and disruptive) or embrace it and make consistent tweaks — staying abreast of research and finding ways to support furloughed staff through the pandemic as examples — so that future change feels more like flow.

Quiet the noise

Between the aforementioned 24-hour news cycle, social media, Facetime calls and numerous other information sources pounding at our mental doors, it’s no wonder few of us can concentrate. The noise is at an all-time high and it’s difficult to know who to listen to and what to discard.

This is where taking control of your information sources — and how often you tune into them — can make all of the difference. Think about it; do you need to watch the news all day or can you catch up at the end of the day to get the latest reports? Is arguing with your non-scientific neighbour on Facebook a valuable use of your energy and time? Instead of filling your head with more static, tune in when and where you’ll get the most valuable information.

Personally, I loved the advice of writer, Kris Abdelmessih who shared the importance of information curation in a recent edition of his newsletter, Moontower“Build your very own cabinet of trusted advisors. Whose thinking resonates with you? Who can be verified by proof-of-work? Curate what gets your attention. The sources you read, the blogs you RSS, the people you exchange ideas with, and the accounts you follow. In the lyrics of the late Neil Peart: ‘If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.’ This exercise is not optional. If you don’t actively choose who you let in your mind, you will find squatters with bad agendas living in your head.”

Use this time to up your game

“Don’t get (insert negative feeling here), get better.”

I use this mantra anytime I feel frustrated, angry or scared and it never fails to remind me that I am in control and capable of overcoming whatever feeling is trying to bully me into submission.

It’s a bit of a cliché, but knowledge is power (over fear, worry, insecurity, and yes, competitors). The more you know, the more you can assess risk, identify strengths and weaknesses and gain higher insight into how your industry may change in the next 12-18 months. If you can find some time and energy to learn a new skill or research the latest data and trends during this time, take it and make the most of it.

Connect with your team and your tribe

Being isolated can be very lonely for those on their own and studies have shown that social isolation is linked with several adverse health consequences including accelerated cognitive decline, depression and a decline in immune response.

Use of apps like Zoom, Skype and Houseparty are excellent ways to combat the negative effects of social isolation making it easier than ever to connect with friends and colleagues all over the world. Log on to check in with members of your team, host virtual happy hours and have a therapeutic laugh with a loved one every once in a while.

As a bonus, reframe the narrative

There’s no sugar-coating that we are facing a global crisis with terrifying implications, and being asked to stay home comes with its own specific challenges.

That said, falling into a victim trap where you feel defenceless and hand over all of your power to our current circumstance in question will only compound negative emotions which will make things feel worse. Your best mode of attack? Change your language.

Example: Instead of complaining that you have to stay home, show gratitude for the fact that you are fortunate to be able to stay home where you are safe. Challenge yourself to find solutions for challenges as they arise. Homeschooling children but need to make dinner? Get creative and combine lessons with chores (Example: Baking and science). Miss the gym? Look for a great online workout. The goal is to train your mind’s default setting to one of capability and opportunity instead of having it zone in on what you lack.

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