Seven Tips For Good Mental Health In Lockdown.
Here we go again, Lockdown 2, Except this time the nights are darker, the days are shorter, and we have a whole Winter to look forward too… How can we survive? Thrive? And keep our mental health healthy under this pressure? The goal of this article is simple, reduce negative emotions and keep your mood regulated. There will be no, why God! Why have you forsaken us! Just some simple, good old fashioned, practical advice. I know Christmas has been canceled, there’s no end in sight to Corona, the start of Brexit, the impending economic collapse, but sometimes we have to forget about all that and just focus on staying healthy, alert and achieving your goals. I am not advocating putting your head in the sand, but as my father says, ‘don’t worry about the things you can’t control.’ So here are my seven ways to help you beat the Winter blues and stay on track mentally throughout this lockdown.
1) Wake up at the same time every day. This seems simple, but regulating your sleep cycle can be a very difficult task, especially if you are not working. You stay up too late one night, wake up late the next day, and then by the weekend, you are in full-on Sloth mood. The winter is cold and unappealing, and putting a toe outside of the blanket can feel like torture. Still, whatever you are doing, you have to be consistent in it. Your circadian rhythm regulates your mood, so if you are going to bed at random times and waking up at random times, you’ll feel dysregulated, and this is the last thing you need when everything already sucks the big one. Sometimes we all need a lie-in, but to maintain your emotional regulation, you need to go to bed and wake up at the same time. Ideally, in the morning, to get as much sunlight and daytime as you can. Winning the battle in the morning sets the pace for the rest of the day. I know there’s a lot of flump about morning rituals, and I don’t dunk my toes in apple cider vinegar every day but psychologically speaking waking up knowing how you are going to spend the day means you begin the day on the right foot, without an existential crisis. This takes us to our second tip.
2) Have a schedule. You gotta know what you are going to be doing every day! You can only experience positive emotion in relation to an aim. This is because the world is a place of infinite possibilities. So when you don’t know what you are doing, the infinite possibility rushes in, and your body perceives chaos as a threat. Anxiety rushing in. Think if you were an animal in the forest. If you don’t know what you are doing, you are vulnerable. You don’t have any direction and can become easy prey for a wandering predator. As I have mentioned before in previous articles, we only experience positive emotions in relation to an aim. The emotions regulate how close or far you are from the aim, and the more positive emotion is released the closer you get to the goal. So if you don’t have an aim for the day, you will wake up and automatically feel bad. Remember, our goal is to minimise negative emotions because everything already sucks! So you don’t need anymore. What is a good goal for the day? I can’t decide this for you, but what’s the best day you can imagine given the particular circumstances? What are your long term goals? How can you get closer to them today? I like to use google calendars on a Sunday and plan the week out; work, writing, training, seeing people, and then I make lists and notes on my phone the night before each day so I always know what I am to be doing. Bam, your day has a spine, and you are riding that positive emotion train all the way to the bank. Do you have an aim you are working towards? How can you plan a day you would actually look forward to?
3) Eat breakfast. Man, do I love breakfast. Nothing fills my day with more joy than a bowl of oats, banana’s, blueberries, milk, chocolate protein powder, and a hot cup of coffee after training. It is an oasis between tasks and a psychic anchor in the day. Heavy carbs and protein decrease anxiety, and your diet is very important in regulating your mood. I always skipped breakfast as a time-saver, but now I feel like it’s an essential. The prevailing philosophy in this article will be: what you do, is how you feel. So if you feel bad and aren’t eating breakfast, you should try something different and see does that correct the imbalance. Go big, outrageous, give yourself the breakfast of your dreams. Modesty is for lunch and dinner, and breakfast is for kings and queens. Also if you have trouble getting up in the morning, a fine breakfast can be just the carrot to lure you from your cave and start the day off on the right foot.
4) Maintain your routine. Now you have your schedule, you have to act it out. Making conscious decisions is one of the most mentally fatiguing activities one can do. So if you are already stressed and worn down, you want a routine you enjoy to reduce mental pressure. Even really high-level executives, whose job is literally to make decisions, say they can only make about 3 good decisions a day. If you don’t have a routine, every decision you make has to be conscious, and by the time you get to lunchtime, you will be so exhausted you might even go back to bed. I was reading once about a leading neuroscientist who ordered the second thing on every menu when he went out for dinner just so he didn’t waste his mental bandwidth. This is also why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same clothes every day! Minimise conscious decision making by having a routine and save your mind for the important stuff like memes. Aristotle said,
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
5) Avoid bad news. This can be a tough one. You can self-harm with social media and the news in general because it’s not really the news is it? It’s the bad news. The broadcast rarely opens with: mostly everything is grand today, except for this shite. No, it’s crisis center, that is because we are more predisposed for negative emotion than positive. I mean, this makes sense, bad things could lead to your death, and so we have a vested interest in being informed sadomasichists. But if you are feeling bad, then more bad news will make you feel worse. Truth is there is an insurmountable amount of human suffering in the world and as human beings, we are small, primitive, and hardwired for dealing with about a hundred people, trying to conceptualise the suffering of thousands, millions everyday, is a real threat to a person’s sanity. So to maintain your mental health, particularly if you are predisposed to anxiety and depression, avoid bad news, which will create more unnecessary negative emotions. This is a sacrifice you must make. You can think about it as putting your mental health first, valuing yourself, and your own peace of mind over the endless media circus.
6) Solving problems on the lowest level of abstraction first. Another way of saying this would be to solve practical problems before you solve the existential problems. You go running, the running does not go well, you start to think I am a terrible person who is no good at anything, and I might as well give up now because I’m a failure and I always will be; not a great solution to the running problem. You have taken on the problem at the highest level of abstraction, identity. Instead of taking on a problem at the highest level of abstraction, which may or may not be the case, start from the lowest level of abstraction; the physical. What time do I want to do the run in? How far off that ideal time am I? How can my diet and my sleep affect that performance? Are my shoes, right? Is this a bad place to run? Use physical solutions for physical problems. I blame psychology for this inversion that we are always trying to fix ourselves; don’t fix yourself before you are absolutely certain you are the problem—physical solutions for physical problems. Work with the nuts and bolts before going to the abstract and existential level of analysis. Your bodily feeling creates your abstractions, so if you change how you feel, by changing what you do, you can literally change your perception of the world (at least for you). You’ll notice this say after exercising, when before the future looks grim, you are scared, worried, and afterward, you are relaxed, more in control, and confident. Exercise is a hell of a way to regulate your emotions also, essential for these dark times.
7) Reduce engaging the negative emotion systems. In summary, you have two emotional systems; positive and negative, and there are tricks you can use to go from one system to the other. For instance, the positive emotion system is associated with play, adventure, and goal-directed activity. In contrast, the negative emotion system focuses on threat and anxiety. So how do you go from one to the other? Turn a threat into play? Your anxiety system estimates how much of a threat something is by how afraid you are of it, so if you run away, then your body formulates the belief that what you run from must be really dangerous! Psychological research has shown that volunteering for the things you find frightening has the advantage of engaging the positive emotional system rather than the negative. So being forced to do things that give you anxiety against your will engages the negative emotion, while voluntarily facing things you find anxiety-provoking engages the positive emotion system. That means that your enjoyment or suffering in an activity is contingent on your willingness to participate. So the best attitude to have is not being dragged along by the heels, but to get involved! Suppose you perceive anxiety in social interactions. In that case, one way out is to voluntarily start to look people in the eye while speaking to them. soon your body will percieve this as normal and engage the play circuit to give you a much-needed boost. Most of our lives are ruined by continually avoiding the challenges which we need to grow and nature has actually built rewards for taking on these challenging situations.
So, in conclusion, we got this! You are, at least in part, an important part, in control of how you feel. The darkness, the despair, and the uncertainty of the future are all things that can be secondary to living life’s true task, whatever that may be for you. I’ve definitely been feeling the pinch lately, the hopelessness, the endless cancelling, failed promises, and lack of trust. There’s plenty to be mad about, but I choose instead to focus on the things I can control, and hey, that’s been working pretty well for me. So I hope it can help you too.
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