To say that 2020 has been a year of trials and change so far would be – putting it lightly – an understatement.
There are a lot of words we could string together to begin to describe everything we’ve been through, and most of the ones that come to mind probably aren’t those I can safely put down here without offending Grandma. So, I’ll give you a sec and let you choose your favourites.
For the travel industry, that understatement deepens further. Change, loss and the steely grip of uncertainty have hit so many in the wake of COVID-19, but for those working in travel the hit has been next level.
Discussions around hand hygiene, transmission rates, curves and ventilators are vital, but we’re increasingly seeing the need to open ourselves to the impacts that the pandemic is having on our mental health too. And it’s for this reason I hope you’ll read on.
Why we’re here
Our brain works off patterns, routine and predictability more than we often notice (and that’s a sign it’s doing its job). So, when it comes to our mental health, losses, change and adjustments can put us at significant risk of struggling.
Rates of anxiety, low mood, sleeping troubles and generally struggling with the mental side of things are high right now. Statistically, emerging research shows that the majority of people are struggling to at least a mild degree, and up to a third are experiencing moderate to severe issues. Fear for ourselves and our families, social isolation, massive changes to normal routines and (notably) lost jobs, unclear futures and financial pressures are likely only a handful of the reasons behind it.
So, if the world around us seems hell-bent on throwing one thing at us after another, what simple steps can we lock in place day to day that can help us ensure our health of mind stays on solid ground?
Sleep is intimately linked to our mental health, so it’s no surprise that prioritising it during times of stress, change and pressure can bolster mental health and improve anxiety and low mood.
Research shows that when it comes to amounts of shut-eye, seven to eight hours is what’s needed for the vast majority. For some, it’ll be slightly less; and for others, slightly more. Getting to sleep faster, and doing it more soundly, is improved by a consistent bedtime and wake time, so this is step number one.
As a process, sleep is actually incredibly active, so remember that a good night’s sleep starts in the hours before we hit the pillow. Dim the lighting in the few hours before bedtime if you can, and put away blue-light-emitting screens where possible an hour before. Caffeine is a silent assassin when it comes to struggles with sleep, and even if you’re someone who doesn’t feel the ‘buzz’ of that 4pm coffee, it’s likely that your brain still does. A good rule of thumb is to avoid caffeine (and this includes energy drinks or pre-workouts, too) six hours before bedtime.
When it comes to mental health, feeling supported and socially connected are two of our biggest predictors of good outcomes, and it can be hard talking about stress, anxiety, fear and struggles when it comes to our mental health. But keeping this in check even whilst we’re moving through restrictions and losses is one of the single biggest protective factors for giving your mind a helping hand.
Some tips here can be making this a part of every day in a more routine and active way. Schedule a time each day to connect with someone (as naff as that might sound at first glance), whether it’s a round of texts, a Zoom dinner or a call. Including some social contact each day to talk openly and feel heard is important.
There’s zero weakness in speaking out about our stress, our strain or mental health struggles. And just as Freud himself told us all those years ago, just letting it out can be one of the biggest steps toward protecting and improving health of mind.
Modern-day views about health often leave our mind and body at different stations, but we know now that the two are intimately linked.
Regular exercise has some powerful impacts on our mental health too. Even short stints of activity can be of benefit, so a walk, those jobs around the house and anything that gets the heart rate up can be taking a step for mental resiliency. When it comes to anxiety and depression in particular, that stats are even more impressive. For those struggling with mild forms of anxiety and low mood, a regular exercise program can offer improvements that parallel those of an antidepressant.
With everything we’re moving through at the moment, incorporate some form of physical activity and exercise into each day. Particularly for those feeling strained, anxious and off on sleep at the moment, people often find improvements come quickly. Start small and work up. Even short periods of moderate level activity three to four times a week is a good place to start.
The pandemic has left what used to be of our routines in its wake like nothing else. And this has been one of the biggest strains on mental health lately, especially for those who’ve had sudden changes at work.
Particularly when it comes to anxiety, putting even a basic routine in place right now can be a big help. Start with a routine wake up time to ground the day and move through your morning routine as you would have otherwise (avoid the all-day PJs trap). Either on your phone or with good old pen and paper, plotting out what your day might look like can be protective for mental health. Including regular meals, some form of daily physical activity, social time (even a call counts) and something you enjoy just for the hell of it each day is a great place to start.
This one can act as a bit of a secret weapon. At times of stress, significant change and when the pull for our mind to feel stuck in the negative are high, putting even a brief bout of regular mindfulness in every day can help steady the waters and realign things.
Some great apps for this are available (check out Headspace or CALM), and it’s not about sitting cross-legged on a cliff top chanting mantras. Mindfulness is about training out mind to stay calmer in general and to stay grounded in the present when the worlds a whirlwind around us.
My favourites include even two minutes of centring the breath, slowing things down and focusing on the feeling of the air moving in and out past the end of my nose. For those who might find breathing exercises a bit stressful, progressive muscle relaxation or sitting stilled noticing the noises of the morning/night around you are other options. Benefits can include reductions in anxiety, better sleep and more grounded moods/emotions. Give it time though – like a muscle, mindfulness gets stronger and shows its pay-off after several weeks.
Dr Kieran Kennedy is a doctor, mental health advocate, writer and speaker who is passionate about health, fitness and breaking down barriers to wellbeing.
Featured image source: iStock/TarikVision