Global pandemic aside, this is the time of year when we start thinking about our physical health. We give up smoking or drinking, commit to daily exercise, Google B12 injections, panic buy vitamins and contemplate a juice cleanse. January is synonymous with a natural urge to improve our body’s strength, immunity and resilience, even when we’re not in the grip of a devastating health crisis.
But when was the last time you thought about your emotional resilience? In the same way that a strong physical immune system can help protect you from illness, and encourage a swift recovery when you do become unwell, a strong mental immune system can support you through life’s inevitable ups and downs – making you both less susceptible to slumps, and more resilient when things don’t go your way.
Mental immunity is our mind’s ability to cope with whatever life throws at it. It’s about having the capacity to understand, observe and move through painful thoughts or events, without either being completely derailed or ignoring them altogether. Good mental immunity is not only about surviving when things get hard though, it requires you to learn and grow from difficult times, too.
Life is not easy for anyone. And without healthy emotional resilience, things can start to feel unfathomably tough. Sadness, fear, loneliness, change, uncertainty, grief – without a strong foundation these feelings will threaten to overwhelm you. Life will seem like it’s forever knocking you down. And in the same way that a cold or virus can seriously affect the health of someone who is already unwell, even a small setback or upsetting encounter can do the same to someone who lacks mental immunity.
2020 was a harder year than most. Many of us now face uncertain futures, financial hardships and health fears or concerns for ourselves and others. Even if your mental immunity is strong, even if you’re not feeling emotionally “sick”, I’d still hazard a guess that you’re feeling run down. I certainly am.
So, let’s look at some ways to improve our mental immunity; tools to make ourselves strong, flexible and resilient so that we can live life with more compassion, understanding and joy. These are the tools I recommend to all my clients when they’re feeling emotionally spent, I hope they work for you too.
While it’s tempting to push difficult or painful emotions aside, doing so just creates more space for them to thrive. If you’re feeling anxious, sad, lonely, confused or anything else, you are by no means alone. Acknowledge these feelings to yourself and your loved ones, and give yourself the space to process them so that they don’t weigh you down. If it helps – scream, cry, shout, hit a pillow – do what you need to get your emotions out.
Worry is natural and understandable, however perpetual worry will grind down your mental health. Pick a time of day and give yourself five, 10 or 20 minutes to do nothing but worry and feel anxious or stressed. When those thoughts come up at other times, say to them, “No, not now. I’ll get to you later.”
While we don’t want to ignore our painful thoughts and feelings, nor do we want to be overwhelmed by them. To help process your emotions, try mindfulness. For a few minutes bring your full awareness to your negative thoughts and feelings, taking the approach of a non-judgemental observer. Often, simply being acknowledged without judgement lessens the strength of the emotion.
The more you associate yourself with your mental health difficulties, the harder it becomes to separate from them. So if you are feeling depressed or anxious, remind yourself that that doesn’t make you an anxious or depressed person – it just means that that’s what you’re experiencing right now. Things are always in flux, and you are much more than the sum of your current state of mind.
Exercise is proven to almost always help improve your mood – both in the short and long term. If you’re feeling terrible it’s very hard to do anything at all, so it’s helpful to start a regular movement habit when you’re feeling okay, and then keep reminding yourself of the power of endorphins when you’re not. It doesn’t matter how you move – walk, dance, box, stretch – just pick something that works for you.
Mental immunity is bolstered hugely by your nervous system spending time in its resting (or “parasympathetic”) state. Obviously, sleep is good, however telling anyone with sleep problems to sleep more is just cruel. Instead, make time for active rest – take a long bath, read a book (with your phone off), do a puzzle, or try deep belly breathing or yin yoga.
Incorporate uplifting books, articles and podcasts into your life, as they help programme your brain to look for the positive. I strongly recommend The Choice by Edith Eger, or Solve for Happy by Mo Gowdat.
Obvious, but essential. Comparison is the thief of joy, and the more you compare yourself to others the thinner your mental immunity becomes. Step away and do something else, now.
Finally, and most importantly, when life goes awry and you don’t manage to do anything at all on this list – be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is the greatest immune booster of all.
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