by Miffy Hoad, Development Officer, Mental Health Ireland
The Coronavirus pandemic is a global & local crisis. The Chinese character for word crisis consists of images that depict both danger and opportunity. This analogy might help to illustrate how choosing how we look at things effects our wellbeing and our ability to recover from adversity (without dismissing any real danger we have or are facing).
Maintaining our wellbeing is a daily work in progress. Good wellbeing doesn’t happen accidentally. It responds well to us engaging in simple activities like getting some physical exercise, having some meaningful social connection, being present in the moment, learning something new and giving our time and attention to other people. Good nutrition, hydration and fine weather all go a ling way to improve it too. It hinges on a whole range of circumstances, some of which we can control and some that we can’t. The thing to know is, while we can’t control every eventuality in our lives, we can control how we respond to them. For example, I can choose to go for a walk every day to help maintain my wellbeing. A 5km restriction on how far I can go isn’t my choice but how I respond to the restriction is. It can feel easier to berate this ‘stupid rule’ than to take responsibility for my response. Adapting to the situation might mean walking the same stretch of road several times to get in my steps and choose to be content with that choice. It’s a simple concept but don’t confuse ‘simple’ with ‘easy’, especially when the beach or woodlands you love is 10km away. Choosing can be hard and the path of least resistance can feel easier.
Another thing about wellbeing is it is closely related to resilience. They interact and when our wellbeing is eroded, so too is our resilience. Resilience isn’t accidental either. It rises and falls through-out our life time for all sorts of reasons, often due to circumstances beyond our control. The beauty of resilience is that we can learn skills that promote it. We aren’t born resilient. Some people will say that the-school-of-hard-knocks made then resilient while others will testify to a good work-life-balance that helps them to cope with what life throws at them. But if life throws enough stuff at any of us, we can go down. Our capacity for coping fluctuates. It can be as little a thing as being hungry that can affect my ability to cope with something that would be a breeze after I’ve eaten. You could look at it like a maths equation – the ratio of ‘life events’: ‘ability to cope’.
When ‘bad stuff’ is happening in our lives, our focus generally is on ‘getting through it’. We do what we can to cope, function and survive. It’s not until the ‘bad stuff’ is over that we get a chance to have a look at what has happened. Sometimes it’s not just one thing either. Sometimes it’s one thing after the other, after another. This is when the ratio really gets out of whack.
The Value of Reflecting
Recovering from adverse experiences isn’t a case of ‘toughening up’. It’s about what we choose to learn from the experience to apply to future experiences. If we ruminate on our experience of events, the potential is there to assign blame, either of self or another; of developing resentment; of rehashing and reliving the experience; feeling stuck with the difficult emotions from the time. If on the other hand we reflect on the experience, we can look at it from a fresh perspective; we are curious about our responses to the experience; we inquire about what helped and what didn’t at the time; we explore what alternative possibilities might have supported us better; We separate the opportunity from the danger– seek out the silver lining.
Reflective practices foster a compassionate response and an openness to learn and grow. This is the key to resilience. We look back to see how far we’ve come and in taking stock of the journey we are reinforced, restoring a healthy ratio of life events : ability to cope. This reinforcement serves us now and into the future.
Daily Reflective Practice
This doesn’t just apply to the big picture and big events. We can practice reflection on a daily basis.
- what worked well;
- on our achievements;
- what we learned today;
- how we might approach a task differently tomorrow;
- what and who we are grateful for;
- how we might practice kindness next time – to ourselves as well as others;
- We reflect using a lens of open and compassionate curiosity.
The process of emerging from an experience like we have had in 2020 is going to involve a lot of looking forward, looking back and more than a bit of looking around. Making reflective practices a part of our daily lives now will empower us in the process of adjusting to life with less restrictions.
How we choose to look at things will influence what we salvage from the time we spent during all these months. Whether we were cocooning, self-isolating, staying home to protect others, working in essential services, working remotely, home schooling, alone or together or any other constellation, we have all been weathering the same storm. The aftermath of the storm will be as different for each of us as the boats we were in during it. There is a universal experience though of being in this together – past, present and into the future.
While there will still be dangers to consider, so too will be opportunities to support our wellbeing & resilience, to reflect on how far we’ve come and in so doing emerge the better for having had the experience.