The mind can collapse in the same way as the body. If someone breaks a leg, we do not expect them to walk for a while. In the same way, if someone breaks a mind, we should not expect them to handle daily life in the same way for a while.
Our minds rely on a subtle and balanced ‘operating system’ which can be harmed or disturbed at any time. It involves external and internal influences – in other words, our mental health is affected both by our circumstances, and by our own thought patterns.
These are few key parts of that system, external and internal, that keeps us going. Attending to them can improve our resilience.
WIDER SOCIAL CONTACT
Our social networks are an important part of our mental health care system. If we have a supportive group of non-judgemental friends and allies, it’s going to be easier to get back up. Those of us who are loners are likely to have more difficulty recovering, because we have fewer direct connections to alternative support systems.
WORK AND OTHER ‘EXPECTED’ ACTIVITY
Work is, in general, a great supporter of mental health, because it puts the mind into a daily social structure. If you don’t quite feel like action, the contractual expectation acts as a bridging motivation. The activity does not have to be paid. Voluntary work can be equally motivating.
DIARIES AND PLANNERS
Strange as it seems, the ability to diarise and plan can be protective of mental health. Anxiety likes to latch on to empty time, and turn it into fearful speculation. Those who are able to make a schedule for each day, can minimise the fearful speculation, and spend more time in focused activity.
AN UNSELFISH ATTITUDE
Selfishness causes a lot of mental ill-health because it ties us up in the ‘story of me’. Because we live in an interdependent world, transactions will always be happening which involve give and take. Selfishness makes us over-attached to our friends, routines and possessions, and therefore makes us anxious when they are taken from us. It stops us letting go. Mental ill-health can exaggerate this over-attached feeling, sending us downwards in a spiral of fear and anxiety.
Sometimes grief or trauma put us in a self-absorbed state for good reason. Just as our immune system goes into overdrive when we are threatened by germs, so our ‘loss management system’ can go into overdrive in order to heal. However, even that loss management system functions better under a broadly selfless attitude: there is less likelihood of descending into that fearful spiral.
ABILITY TO FOCUS
An ability to undertake focused activity can bring great relief under stress. While the mind is focusing on the activity, it gets a rest from the loss. In a sense, the loss does not disappear, but it is re-contextualised. This kind of ability to focus can be enhanced through meditation.
ABILITY TO REFOCUS
An ability to leave a problem alone for a while, or to refocus attention on something else, is just as mentally healthy as the ability to focus. Watch a child get over a temporary trauma, and you will see that children have a great ability to move their attention to something new and interesting. As adults we sometimes lose that, and we have to remind ourselves that the things we are worrying about are not the only things in the world. This gives us wider perspective.
SIX THINGS TO WORK ON
In relation to the above, here are six things you can work on to improve your resilience, if you are finding yourself weighed down by events.
- Reach out to trusted friends.
- Give yourself a work structure.
- Make an activity schedule for each day.
- Help others.
- Undertake focused activity.
- Give yourself regular changes of activity.
THREE EXTRA TIPS FOR BAD TIMES
In addition to the above, here are three extra tips for self-care in particularly bad times:
- Normalise – in other words, teach your body that life goes on. Try to do what you can of your normal routines, and your mind and body will at least have a regular opportunity to kick back into a more functional stride.
- Choose whom you speak to – focus on conversations with those you know will be able to hear you and understand. Maybe keep away from more judgemental or self-protective friends, as they may have limited ability to help. If there seems to be no-one, a trusted counsellor may be a good bet.
- Be gentle and incremental – for a short while, keep your routine basic and less challenging. In time, when you are ready, step it up.
The six main tips above may seem simple, but they really are helpful for maintaining some resilience. You can’t necessarily stop temporary collapses; but you can respond to them in a way that gives you a better chance of getting through.