Improving Mental Hygiene

A couple of weeks ago I went to hear the Dalai Lama speak at the (relatively) intimate setting of London’s Lyceum Theatre. The event, hosted by Action for Happiness, saw his Holiness take to the stage for a two hour Q&A followed by other influential speakers and a panel discussion.

"where people show smiles & affection, that's your country" @dalailama on culture of #compassion

A post shared by Em Mathews (@parisiem) on

 

Science is Universal

In a previous post, I spoke about the importance of searching for health rather than happiness. As someone who was brought up agnostic, I believe we all examine our stance on spirituality at some stage in our lives. There are so many external factors in life that are out of our control. What we can control is what we allow inside; both physically and spiritually.

Mental health issues affect nearly every person in Britain and there has been a noticeable shift seeing discussions around physical health expand to that of mental hygiene. More and more people are not only showing an interest but trying to implement a better system of care for themselves and others.

Neuroscience has shown us that our brains are not rigid, they change. This plasticity is proof that we should take more responsibility for the shape they take by engaging in mental hygiene. Neuroscientist Richie Davidson gave a helpful breakdown (!) of what constitutes mental hygiene:

  • Resilience – How quickly we can recover from adversity
  • Outlook – Savouring positive emotions
  • Attention – A wandering mind is an unhappy mind
  • Generosity – Being kind to others

 

You learn swimming by swimming

As with any workout, it is unrealistic to expect big changes in a short period of time. We should instead be thinking about the mid and long term benefits. There is no task that cannot be broken into lots of smaller tasks and we should act now, even if we do not see the (immediate) fruits of our efforts.

Creating habits make it much easier to make changes and there are numerous great mindfulness techniques out there. Though it may sound overly sentimental, a point that really stuck with me from the day is that it’s not about becoming something we’re not, it’s about remembering what we truly are.

 

Know thyself, love thyself

From a young age I have taken an interest in examining my own mind and the often unhelpful patterns it creates. I have reached a stage in life where I feel that I know myself. I see myself for who I am and am beginning to understand my place in the world.

“The difference between strong silence and weak silence is whether it is imposed or not”

The ultimate goal, following Buddhist principle, is to reach a state of compassion and I believe that there are three key levels in life that we need to reach in order to become a compassionate person. It begins with self awareness; an ability to take stock and be present in the moment.

3 pillars

The Dalai Lama stated that altruistic love is the best thing you can do for yourself and for others and this sits within this first pillar for me. It was stated: “Love is the will for the other to be happy”, I firmly believe that and know that I need to love myself in order to be able to love and receive love from others.

 

Take a more holistic view

As social beings, it is important that we find our place within the world, accepting our tiny part within a much wider ecosystem. This is not to say that you are a trivial cog but rather that one should balance their consumption with their contribution. Even selfishly, helping others can help one’s own mental health. You can be mindful without being caring but you cannot be caring without being mindful.

Asked by Richard Layard how he was able to keep so cheerful despite the many difficulties he experiences in life, his Holiness replied, “Look more holistically and you’ll see that the bad thing also offers an opportunity.”

 

Global responsibility & compassion

This thought carries through to the fact that our individual problems feel very small when compared to the global responsibility we have. Our future is that of the whole of humanity, the mentality that says “destroy your enemy”, “we vs them” etc. creates a gap that is not reflective of the reality of modern society.

I was reading an article about Japanese children, as young as 5, travelling alone on the Tokyo metro, the societal reasons for this are symptomatic of a compassionate culture.

I have long been inspired by the Mayan greeting, which translates to:

“I am another you”

“You are another me”

This iteration of the Golden Rule shows the affection that comes through empathy (and affection is something that every human needs). However, the key difference between empathy and compassion is sustained care. Striving to be a more consistently compassionate person in turn improves our mental hygiene.

You don’t need a crisis to have a plan

We talk enough about brands in crisis, we advocate honesty and showing a human-side. I put a presentation together on that very topic:

However, this is not the main focus for this blog post.

I’ve dealt with depression from my early teens but have been lucky enough to only experience three crippling lows in that time. If it’s a part of us it will find its way into our working lives at some point or other and unfortunately my most recent dip occurred only earlier this year.

According to our Human Resources department, depression is abundant within our industry, which begs the question; why aren’t we talking about it? Supporting each other? Sharing our coping strategies? I’m assured that it’s no longer the taboo topic of yore but all signs point to the fact that it is.

Inspired by the articles that former BBH colleague Shadi writes for the Huffington Post but lacking the same journalistic talents, I’m using this space to explain some of things that have helped me.

Warning Signs

Prevention being better than cure, the most important thing to know is when you’re slipping. Unfortunately, it’s minor things that add up or the extremes of quite normal emotions, they also differ from person to person, making them all the more difficult to spot. I’ve listed mine:

  • Wanting to get away/go somewhere new – We all fancy a holiday more often than not but this is a strong desire to pack it all in and be somewhere anti-Cheers; where nobody knows your name
  • Over-eating at sporadic intervals – Like preparing for hibernation this may be my body anticipating the fact I’m about to enter into a state where I won’t be taking care of myself. Or it could be a comfort thing. Or I could be reading too far into it
  • Putting myself down, feeling that everyone is better than me
  • Over-reaction to trivial things – Having certain thoughts that I obsess about
  • Wanting total silence both around me and in my mind – Probably as a response to the previous point
  • Paranoia – reading too far into the nuances of conversation – It’s very difficult to step back and see yourself as being irrational

Most of these points are examples of ‘unhelpful thinking’. CBT is a great way to try and break these habits and, though hideous (clipart alert), this was a handy link that I was given.

Feeling Wafty

A ridiculous word that a family friend uses to describe that sinking feeling.

It tends to start with exhaustion and a complete lack of motivation. This often leads to guilt for me; wanting to give my life to someone who could use it better.

The best thing is often to ride it through. Keep busy but pace yourself. Step back but don’t retreat. Stick to a light routine, easing up on the workload where possible and alerting your line manager that things may not have the same rate of productivity that they usually do.

Cure

Too late, I can’t get out of bed. Short term next steps (N.B. You won’t want to do any of these):

  • Speak to someone – I’m lucky enough to have 3 people who I know I can call on no matter what state I’m in and I hope they feel they can do the same with me. You don’t have to engage in a high level of conversation but just alerting someone to how you’re feeling really can help. They may also be able to help you with some of the other steps
  • Open the curtains and switch the light on
  • Have a shower – My friend describes it as being like a re-boot

Changing thinking patterns is the most difficult part of recovery but there are two other areas that can help you get there:

  • Go for a walk – Endorphins, you know this
  • Cook something – Maybe a personal one but making something (however slowly) puts my mind into a manageable task
Health

Rather than striving for happiness, it’s more realistic and beneficial to strive for health

Finally, know that it will get better but be prepared for it to get worse before it does. It sounds trite but you’ll look back on an episode and find it hard to understand why it seemed so insurmountable.

My hope is that this will be useful, not only to people who are fighting depression but to their friends and colleagues who care about them.

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