The last year hasn’t been an easy one in Hong Kong. The uncertainty surrounding the Coronavirus, coming hard on the heels of seven months of protests, has dealt a hard hit to many people’s mental health. If you or someone close to you is feeling stressed, know that you are not alone.
Everyone is struggling to some degree right now, which makes it easier to talk about our challenges. It is OK to say, ‘I’m not doing so great’. It is OK to say, ‘I’m struggling’. The more we are able to talk about things – whether to a close friend or a mental healthcare professional – the better that is for our mental well-being.
There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment – when will the schools re-open? When will the travel restrictions be dropped? Our brain craves certainty. Most of us don’t do so well sitting with discomfort, and so our brain tends to create stories about the worst thing that might happen. Simple things can end up looking catastrophic.
The good news is that we are hard-wired to be resilient. Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. It can fire us up to take on a challenge and become that better person. Often the deciding factor which determines whether we thrive or tip over into struggle is our mindset. We can learn a different response to stress, we can learn to see events through a prism that makes us more resilient.
You may have heard of Positive Psychology, developed by psychologist Martin Seligman. It is the study of human flourishing – the scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behavior, with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses. In the early days, it tended to focus on happiness studies, but in the last 20 years it has turned to looking at how to navigate struggle.
You may have lost your job or be concerned about family and friends back home – all this can cause hurt and pain. Positive Psychology helps us to get a perspective on our struggles and make meaning from what is happening. How we choose to care for ourselves during these times and the choices we make can either turn that pain into suffering or not.
Recognising that you’re struggling is the first step. Don’t beat yourself up about it – it doesn’t mean that you’re broken, it’s just a sign that something needs your attention. The next step is being able to ask for help when we need it. With the tools and knowledge to support your wellbeing you can to this struggle into an opportunity for growth and learning.
You may well be very good at looking after your physical body – or at least knowing what you should be doing – but not as adept at understanding what you need to do to be mentally well. The key is little steps. We have a tendency to rush in, expect to see changes quickly, and get demoralized and give up when we don’t. Instead, set yourself little goals and celebrate each success, however small.
Here are a few suggestions you may find useful. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellness, so if something doesn’t feel right to you, then leave it.
• Connect with others – Coronavirus has disrupted the regular pattern of our lives and many of us will be feeling lonely for the first time in our lives. Loneliness is something to be taken seriously, it is associated with poor physical and psychological outcomes. If social distancing means you can’t gather with friends, connect with them online or arrange to go for a weekend hike.
• Structure your day – If you are working from home, take time to set up a structure to your day that works for you. Commuting to work, chatting with colleagues, meeting a friend for lunch, going to the gym after work – may seem so mundane that it’s easy to overlook the powerful role it plays in our mental health.
• Exercise outdoors – the gyms may be closed, but the country parks aren’t. Regular exercise helps reduce anxiety and depression, and releases chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood.
Many of us are yearning for a “return to normal” as if normality were the most sacred thing. Others are already recognising that some things will never be the same – and that might be a good thing. I recently read a very good (and brief) book, “How Contagion Works”, by the Italian physicist Paolo Giordano. He encourages us to embrace this “time of anomaly”. Giordano writes: “It may be true that viruses have no intelligence, but they are better than us at this: they change, they adapt, and they do so quickly. We should learn from them.”
I like to think that we might use this strange time of the Coronavirus to learn and grow. The challenges are real and often painful, but we are not alone. Many people are struggling at this time which has put mental health issues in the spotlight. The first step is to talk to someone. I am available for counselling sessions Monday through Saturdays.