2020 is a year that no one saw coming.
Between health concerns, cancelled overseas adventures, job insecurity, not being able to see loved ones and a collective anxiety about the future—COVID has impacted all facets of life and has turned our worlds upside down.
We all know someone—or it may be ourselves—who is experiencing depression, anxiety, loneliness, exhaustion or are just feeling shitty. While most of us are aware that mental health challenges are a part of the human condition, those feelings may now be heightened during this global pandemic.
So we reached out to Christine Macfarlane, the President of New Zealand Association of Counsellors who has had over 25 years in the industry, and is a mindfulness and wellbeing educator. We learnt why it’s okay to not be okay, and the everyday habits to implement that may increase your mental wellbeing—from meditation and gentle exercise, to putting your phone down and spending more time in nature.
So without further ado, here are eight things to do if you’re feeling down.
Understand It’s Okay To Not Be Okay
Christine says the number one most important thing to know is that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to feel that this is hard, that every day life is a struggle. We have to give ourselves permission to feel and acknowledge these feelings. It’s okay to feel scared, alone, worried and isolated. This is something we have never had to deal with in our world. We are trying to navigate the unknown and are living with uncertainty. Don’t minimise your struggles. The more we push it away and pretend it’s not happening, it will come out in other ways such as physical health problems.
Acknowledge your feelings, breathe into them, and importantly don’t compare your suffering to someone else’s. All suffering is suffering and is relative. It’s not a competition.
Spend Time In Nature
When we spend time in nature, everything unwinds. All tension lets go. Being in nature gives you the sense that life is bigger than what is going on in your own little world, that’s because nature has its own cycles. Listen to the sounds of birds, waves crashing against the shore, the sound of wind through trees, and see the golden sun rising in the morning. You can breathe easier, away from cars and pollution.
Spending time in nature gives you a different perspective of your struggles and challenges. It doesn’t change our problems, but it gives us space to look at them, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, we are not human doings. We are human beings. When we are in nature we can just let go and be.
Take Some Gentle Exercise
Research has shown that exercise not only improves our physical health, it also has a profound impact on our mental wellbeing, too. Moving your body is one of the best things you can do if you have depression or anxiety, or to just boost your mood—as it releases feel-good hormones called endorphins. Regular exercise can also relive stress, improve memory and help you sleep better.
Christine says that while we do need high impact exercise at times, if you’re not feeling your best, try some gentle exercise. High impact exercise is great, but we also need to be doing low impact exercise that gives us time to breathe and reconnect with our bodies. Yoga, tai chi, swimming and walking are all great examples of exercise to do if you’re feeling down, though when it comes to exercise, the most important thing is to find something you like and that works for you.
Get Enough Sleep
We all know sleep is important for good health. But what happens if we don’t get enough? "Lack of sleep has such a major impact on our mood and overall mental health," says Christine. "It’s vital that we get seven plus hours a night." As humans when we don’t sleep enough, we find it harder to focus, are short tempered and have a lack of motivation and energy. We’re also more likely to make bad decisions and turn to quick fixes that feed us in a negative way.
So what are some ways we can fall asleep easier? Limit your alcohol intake as even though you may fall asleep quicker, it’s a disturbed sleep. Don’t have caffeine late in the day. Light candles and create a relaxing and soothing environment in your bedroom. Take magnesium. Have a bath before bed. Put your phone away. Read a book, or listen to adult sleep stories, which are soothing and can help you fall asleep. Find a sleep routine that works for you—we've got some tips here.
Practice Daily Mindfulness And Meditation
"Mindfulness is being present in the moment, aware of your environment, thoughts and feelings without judgement. Meditation is the training of attention and helps promote mindfulness in your every day life," says Christine. Studies have shown that practicing 10-20 minutes of mindfulness practice or meditation daily increases positive emotion, helps us to fall asleep easier and improves memory and attention. Mindfulness and meditation increase the grey matter in our brains that are associated with empathy, attention and self awareness. It also strengthens and builds the neural pathways in the brain and increases activation of the prefrontal cortex, which lifts your mood. Research has also show that mindfulness and meditation is linked to a decrease in depression, anxiety and stress. It also lowers the levels of the stress-hormone cortisol in the body.
So what are the best ways to practice mindfulness and meditation? "The best forms are the ones that you’ll do," says Christine. You can weave mindfulness into your every day life—like being present in the shower, going for a walk or drinking a cup of tea. You can also start every day with 10 minutes of meditation or yoga. These practices are proactive and preventative. Think of training your brain daily in the same way you go the gym to train your muscles.
Find And Savour The Joy In Your Day
"People think joy has to be the big stuff. But really it’s the little things," says Christine. Whether it’s a walk with friends, baking a loaf of bread or putting on some music and dancing—finding, appreciating and savouring the joy in each day improves our mental health. Taking in all the good in our world increases our gratitude, and research has shown that improves our general and emotional welling. As psychologist Donald Hebb once said–‘Neurons that fire together wire together,’ essentially highlighting that neural pathways are formed and reinforced through repetition.
If we are think bad thoughts, ruminate or obsess, then those are the neurons that will fire and then wire together, and continue to take us down a rabbit hole. If we savour positive experiences and appreciate the joy in life, those neural pathways will form and grow. Focus more on taking in the good and really savour those moments and there’ll be more of them.
Spend Less Time On Your Phone And Social Media
"We need to remember social media is a virtual world, one filled with judgement, fake news and rumour mongering, and overall it actually disconnects us from our real world," says Christine. Spending too much time online and on social media can take us down a road of comparison, where we feel guilty for not doing enough, or being enough. It’s just not healthy.
Unfortunately, most of us are addicted to being on our phones, so what can we do? Ask yourself, is this serving me? Is this helping me to be the best me? Is this helping my mental and emotional health? And if I am choosing to do it, I am choosing to do it with a mental awareness. That could mean I am going to spend 20 minutes talking to my friends, as opposed to mindlessly scrolling and seeing what everyone else is doing, says Christine.
Set boundaries and time limits. Turn off your alerts. And if you feel like you’re spending too much time on your phone, put it down and go for a walk outside.
Seek Professional Advice
If you are really struggling, please seek professional advice, advises Christine. Remember, a struggle for one person will be different to another. If you are finding it difficult to fall asleep, lacking motivation in the day or feel down for weeks, go and get some support. Everyone feels like they are the only one, though it’s a lot more common than you think. Many people are struggling and we need to encourage each other to get the support that we need, she says.
Getting support earlier means it will be less likely that you will experience a more severe and deteriorating mental health. When we seek help, it’s important that the people we speak to are qualified and belong to a professional association with a code of ethics. And just remember—you are not alone and there is support out there to help you.
If you or anyone you know needs support please contact Lifeline.
Image credit: MIKE VON, Mark Harpur, Stocksy