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Mental health needs more than just a week

Last week was mental health awareness week, but the conversation shouldn’t just stop there, awareness needs to be raised all the time. It’s great that mental health is being given a platform, but things around this subject are slow to change in ordinary, daily life. We all still feel the need to put on a brave face and this is especially true if we are in any position of authority or leadership. The pressure to be fine can be immense, often if we show a crack, people who depend upon us wobble. Sometimes there is an inference that we are not looking after ourselves properly, that we have let things slip if we dare say we are struggling. All of these things need to be discussed openly, honestly and with all the judgment taken out.

For most of us, when we feel overwhelmed, down or anxious, we want to withdraw, we don’t want to be seen. This is a protective measure and makes sense, as this can be helpful sometimes. However, if this is for a prolonged period of time, coming back out into society, work etc, can be really daunting. There is an element of this happening for a lot of us now with us coming out of lockdown and things opening back up. A lot of people are scared, if they haven’t been out for a long time amongst groups of people, it’s all very unfamiliar. Add that on top of all the new rules and regulations we are supposed to know about and follow, as if they are normal. It’s somehow not ok to be seen not having a clue how things work. If we feel as though we are coming out of hiding, the last thing we want is to be told off, shouted at, or called out in front of others. For this reason some people are avoiding getting back out there and staying inside instead. When we feel fearful, we get more hyper-vigilant and scan around for danger. We loose the ability to be curious, take in our surroundings and feel relaxed, this in turn increases our anxiety.

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to start connecting with things again, opening up our curiosity and feeling a part of things. The theme of this years awareness week was nature, which is brilliant, especially as its spring time and all the trees and plants are emerging, just as we are. Nature gives us the perfect opportunity to be curious, engage our senses, and feel involved. We always know what we will get with nature, it’s not unpredictable or hard to read, unlike the way humans can be. It can really help us to become more mindful in a very relaxed way, by just taking notice of what’s around us. When we plant things and watch them grow we feel involved in the process. We plant the seeds, we water them, and we watch them emerge and grow. We have to nurture them to keep them alive and we feel responsible for them. Planting cress seeds on damp kitchen roll is one of the quickest ways to do this, they begin growing so quickly. When we go out for a walk or into the garden, we can really notice the leaves growing and changing. We can feel them, smell them and notice the difference between the two sides. Touch things, notice textures and scents, listen to the rain falling, or notice the way the wind moves the trees. As you do this, notice the way you are breathing, let yourself really take in the connection, be curious about what feels good and how your body tells you this feels good.

If we practice being really present in nature, it can help our hyper-vigilance stay under control, if we can always find something to focus on, to really allow our awareness to be engaged, it is settling for our nervous system. We can use these skills when we go out amongst people, instead of worrying what might happen, focusing on what is actually around us right now. When we learn to be observant, it can help us feel less like a rabbit in the headlights and more of a part of what’s happening.

We do need a bit of a retraining programme but it’s so important that we connect back with people, isolation is so damaging to us and has a dramatic impact upon our mental health. If we are going to be more aware, then we have to be able to communicate with each other. None of us will open up or reach out if we don’t feel safe, we have to be able to smile at each other, let the people around us know we are there and we are approachable. The more we can make going outside a pleasant experience, the easier it will be for those who feel scared or nervous. Just making the effort to smile at people we interact with helps us and helps them. Smiling is very underrated, it’s more tricky in a mask but people can see the smile in our eyes. If we bear in mind that there are nervous people around us, pretending to be fine, we might remember to smile more and be open to engagement, it might make a huge difference to someone’s day.

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How to build a better relationship with your body

Most of us have a lot more critical things to say about our body than positive things. The more critical we are, the less we want to pay attention to it, we would much rather ignore it. We are bombarded by images of perfect bodies, we are surrounded by information about nutrition and exercise. We measure ourselves against other people and usually find ourselves lacking. We will have received a lot of criticisms throughout our lives, maybe even insults. All of this makes it hard to have a good relationship with our body.

However, it’s in our body that everything to do with action or feeling takes place. We feel emotions through our body; that flush of warmth when we feel a deep connection, we talk about things warming our heart or things that makes our blood run cold. Our body is how we experience feelings and life events, and we need it to work as well as we can. Our memories are largely based around things that affected us emotionally. We remember how we felt at the time and the events associated with it. The more we can feel what our body is telling us and how it’s reacting, the easier it is to ground, regulate, feel safe and connected.

We can find out so much by listening to what our body is doing right now, in this moment.

  • If you take your awareness to your breathing, how are you actually breathing right now? Try not to be judgmental, just be curious.
  • Follow a few breaths in and out, how slow or fast is it?
  • How deep or shallow is your breathing?
  • Where can you feel the movement as you breathe?
  • Do you notice any criticism coming up? Any negative thoughts like, you should be breathing deeper? Try to put any negative thoughts to one side. Your breathe is working, it does this all day and never stops, without your help.

You can also try thinking about something that you really like:

  • Picture it, remember all the things you like about it.
  • Now follow a few breaths as you picture it, has your breathing changed?
  • Has it deepened or expanded? If it has, would you be willing to give your breathing this nice image once a day so it can breathe deeper?
  • If not, why not? Ask yourself what’s stopping you? It could give you a clue about your relationship to yourself and your body.

If you don’t want to give your body something that resonates as a good experience, then you may have beliefs about not deserving good things. You may believe that anything good has to be earned the hard way. Whatever your response is, it may reveal a lot about your relationship with your body and therefore yourself.

Building a relationship with our body is about finding ways to connect and feel into it, getting used to noticing and paying attention to it. The more we can listen, the easier it becomes to look after it and know what it needs. The better connection we have with our body, the easier it becomes to improve our relationship to it.

Our senses can be a good gateway of waking up the connection in a mindful way. By mindful, we mean something being felt purely as a sensation rather that what we think or believe about the sensation. When we use our senses it’s easier to be curious. If we take temperature, and use hot and cold, we can close our eyes and feel the sensations of hot and cold through our hands or feet. We can feel how these two sensations gets relayed through our body to our brain. You can then ask yourself how you know if you prefer one to the other. What is it about these sensations that is comfortable or not so comfortable? We can do the same with smell. Being curious what it is about certain smells that we like or don’t like. We can notice how our body responds and reacts to different smells. Our relationship to these things can help us explore the whole concept of a relationship, why some things are pleasurable and some are not, all of which is experienced through our body.

If we can learn to read and trust what our bodies are telling us, then it can really help us know what’s good for us and how we really feel about certain decisions we are making. It’s such a different and clearer process than just trying to work things out in our head. Often we make a decision but have no idea how we will feel when we act on the decision. If we could visualise the enactment, then we will have a much better idea of how we’re going to feel once we’ve done it.

So many phrases are based on body experiences, that’s no coincidence. ‘It sent shivers down my spine’, ‘it made me sick to my stomach’, ‘I should have listened to my gut’. If we really want to listen to our gut, we have to be able to listen to what our gut is telling us. The better relationship we have with our body, the more likely we are to trust it, and not just let our head override what we are feeling.

This doesn’t dumb us down or take anything away from our clever brains, it’s the exact opposite. It’s a bit like, instead of having a two dimensional take on things, now you have three or more dimensions. Who wouldn’t want that?