All of us have encountered challenging times in our lives, when we feel vulnerable to the strains of daily living. Some of these strains show themselves as a result of big events that happen to us or people we care about, or are merely geographically close to. Some of the strain is the cumulative impact of lots of little events that add up and threaten to push you over your tipping point of coping capacity. Both types of negative events - big and small - can have an effect on our wellbeing.
If you cross this with various cycles in our lives which mean that we are more vulnerable to the impacts of these big and small negative events, it becomes clear that it is really important that we keep an eye out for how well we can withstand these challenges when they arrive. At the time of writing this blog post for example, we are entering week 4 of January - about the time where those new activities designed to sort our lives out made in those New Year's resolutions are perhaps beginning to be very difficult to maintain. As a result, we can feel guilty, throw the towel in, and revert to old behaviours that we recognised we needed to change.
What do we do when we feel under pressure like this?
There are many strategies that have been put forward to help build our personal resilience and wellbeing. One of the most well-known and widely evidenced is the 5 ways to wellbeing protocol. You can read much more about that, starting here.
Here is another set of 5 practices that differ slightly from those 5 ways, designed to help you to focus on basic self-maintenance, and some reflection on what you want your life to be about.
1. Pay attention to the basics of diet, exercise and sleep. If you sleep badly, don't eat well, and allow yourself to get into poor physical shape, you become far more vulnerable to low mood. Daily activities can drain away what resources you have to cope and can more quickly get down if you haven't been looking after yourself well. The sleep you get before midnight seems to be better value that the sleep your get after midnight, so try to get to bed earlier. Watch your alcohol intake: not only are there extra calories in that and cardiovascular and other risks too, it can also affect your sleep quality and duration. Excessive dietary control, as well as excessive consumption, also carries a risk - potentially making you more irritable, tired and weak, and more likely to rebound into original eating habits. Exercise is good, but make sure you build up gently so as to avoid risk of injury.
2. Clarify your values and goals. How do you spend your time? One of the major reasons for low mood is a mismatch between what you really value and what you do. How this shows itself in your life can be hard to pin down, but often it is low mood and general dissatisfaction, perhaps even depression. Thinking about your values can sometimes feel self-indulgent. But it is key to our wellbeing. Write out a personal statement of values and goals - there's plenty out there to help you, like this. It will help you to figure out whether what you are doing in your work and your personal life is in tune with your values. If you find it is not, then it may help you to work out what sort of changes you may need to make to help you out of the hole you may have found yourself in.
3. Put pleasures into life. One of the perils of modern life is that we see extremes presented to us - by the media for example. We see people who are egotistical and narcissistic in everyday life too - and we steer clear of being identified as being tagged with that label. Sometimes, we oversteer. People can often not value themselves highly enough. We even effectively downgrade ourselves by denying ourselves pleasures. We can tend to put other people's needs first, and see ourselves at the back of the queue, 'when we get around to it'. The danger is that we never get around to it. Some parents can be like this. They put their children's needs so much above their own that they give themselves no personal time and space at all. Even if you don't think you deserve to enjoy yourself right now, try to make sure you do things you like doing. Putting pleasures into life - not just doing the chores and work because you feel like you don't have the energy for anything else - is a fundamental plank in building a platform of personal resilience.
4. Do not put all your eggs in one basket. Nothing goes well all the time. Everyone goes trough periods when work, or some part of work, is going badly. Or there are difficulties in close relationships. Or life in general seems to be full of problems. If you place all your sense of self-worth into just one aspect of your life - often this is work, or being a 'good' parent - there will be times when we can feel very vulnerable. When you do feel low, think about how much of your sense of self-worth os bound to just one aspect of your life.If your pattern of despondency or low mood suggests too close a connection with just one part of your life, its likely that you have too many eggs in that one basket. To protect yourself from this kind of dependency, its wise to have several parts to your life, work, friends, kids, pets, family, hobbies, inside and outside the home, social and solitary. At any point that one part of your life doesn't seem to be going well, you can draw comfort and support from other parts.
5. Build up supportive relationships. Having someone to confide in, be it a relative, partner or a friend is one of the most important forms of protection from becoming depressed with something bad happens. If you don't have a close supportive relationship, if your friends do not provide you with the support you need, then looking at how you can build up this support is one of the more important things you can do. Building up supportive relationships takes time and effort. As an immigrant to New Zealand, from the other side of the planet, I know this only too well. It doesn't happen overnight, and when it seems difficult it is helpful to remember that it can be done at any stage of life and that there are many steps along the way. Some tips for getting started include:
- Meet new people - put yourself in people's way by making contact with groups of people with similar interests, neighbours, clubs, voluntary groups.
- Build a friendship - focus on shared experiences, activities and pleasures. Do things together
- Consolidate friendships - keep in touch. Make regular contact. Become a good listener as well as a good talker
- Keep your friendships in good working order - look for ways to show you care, in good times as well as bad. Tolerate people's moments of bad temper, grumpiness or silence
- Use your friendships for support - do not run away from people when you are feeling low. Try to keep in contact even when you are not feeling social, or embarrassed about imposing on someone. Many kinds of relationships can be supportive, not just intimate ones.
Note though that a supportive relationship must not be a smothering one - we need our own independence and autonomy as well as support.
When good things happen to us, and when we can focus on practices that improve of self-care, it looks likely that not only do they make us feel better, but they actually result in a boost to our immune system functioning . Keep practicing these 5 strategies, and you will be well on your way to increasing your wellbeing, and that can include better functioning at a basic physiological level too.
For more, check out Manage your Mind by Gillian Butler and Tony Hope.