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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.