Anyone who has flown regularly will be familiar with the idea that in the event of cabin decompression you should put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. The air stewards never go into detail, but it’s not hard to see that if you don’t tend to your own air supply as a priority, you won’t be in any position to help fellow passengers. Indeed, you’ll be the one needing help. It’s a good analogy for the importance of self-care when we’re talking about mental wellbeing. In order to empathise with and support other people with their mental health challenges, it’s equally important that we look after our own selves.
In practice, self-care is a holistic business, extending beyond the mind to incorporate body and soul as well. In the context of mental health that might seem strange at first; but just as mental stress, anxiety or depression can manifest itself dramatically in physical responses, so physical exercise can work wonders in improving mental wellbeing.
It’s partly a chemical thing: when you’re exercising aerobically, levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline are decreasing in your body and it’s releasing ‘feel-good’ endorphins. And not only can building a habit of regular runs, say, lift the spirits, but it may also make a material difference to your ability to sleep. A decent night’s sleep is often elusive when you’re struggling with mental health challenges.
Of course, not everyone wants to or can run, in which case it’s a question of finding another form of exercise or sport that’s accessible and enjoyable, whether that’s swimming or skateboarding, hillwalking or Zumba classes. Whatever you do, develop your abilities incrementally through ‘atomic habits’ day by day, rather than setting your sights high, failing at the first hurdle and giving up.
While exercise can help ‘reset’ a stressed body, techniques such as meditation or mindfulness are valuable tools to help calm a troubled mind. Mindfulness’s focus on the breath helps to still racing thoughts and strengthen powers of concentration – always a useful attribute at work. But the process of allowing thoughts to flow through like water without analysing them also helps develop a less judgmental mindset – not just towards other people but towards yourself as well. Better to cultivate an ‘inner friend’ than suffer an ‘inner critic’.
In turn it may become easier, for example, to embrace the fact that we are all, without exception, very imperfect. Everyone makes mistakes, misreads situations, says the wrong thing, does not act when they should have done something, so constantly striving for perfection is setting yourself up for a bruising fall. The process of self-care is not all about doing it yourself, though. The support of other people is key, so that means having trusted friends to whom you can open up with honesty, and who will be there when you need them.
The various facets of self-care – physical, mental and emotional – are explored in the third module of our digital workplace mental health training course, with practical strategies to help you protect your wellbeing and be your best self.
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