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Mental health check-in and tune-up for an unparalleled time by Steve Wickham


Predicting the progression of the pandemic, the sweep of variants, region to region, is about as fraught as speculating on a horse race or the stock market immediately prior to the favorite being scratched or a market plunge.

Whatever country we live in, however the journey of 2020 into 2021 has been like, we’ve all been seriously challenged, internationally, nationally, locally, relationally, socially, emotionally, financially, personally. Even as I type these words, I imagine people rolling on the floor laughing it’s that much of a cataclysmic understatement. What a toll it’s taken!

This past year has tested our mettle and beyond in so many ways, from lockdowns to job losses to extreme shortages of vital supplies to changes in everything from the way we celebrate weddings to the way we grieve at funerals. Holiday making has been transformed in unprecedented ways, essential workers have been pushed beyond the limit for month after month, and so very many people have died earlier than they should have. Then we pause a gasp for our nurses and doctors and hospitals.
No matter how many sentences I write on this, I still don’t feel I’ve scratched the surface.
What has possibly changed most of all is our bearing for where life’s at. In every realm of life, we’ve been challenged. We feel insecure about the longevity of everything; our work, our leisure, our homes, the futures of vulnerable loved ones, and especially our personal mental health, and that of those we care about.

There are those who have been blindsided by loss so great that dealing with the grief is overwhelming, and there’s no simple answer for recovery in those situations. These number the millions worldwide. Anxiety-related conditions we know anecdotally are more prevalent than ever. Stress is at an all-time high, more to the point we’re facing situations where we’re chronically stressed — the stress just doesn’t seem to dissipate.

Depression too becomes the lowest common denominator, usually because we’ve ‘stayed strong’ for too long. Learned helplessness is becoming the enduring reality for too many. Will we ever get back to a sense of normalcy? Or, do we need to get used to this sort of constant state of flux for the foreseeable future? These and so many more (including those we don’t even know to ask) are the 64-billion-dollar questions.

What can we do to retain or reclaim some sense of empowerment? Well, we need to stick with or get back to those things that have always worked; the things that will always work. For many it’s the case that new rhythms and routines need to be established.

There is what we might call a golden triad for health — sleep, diet, exercise — for one thing; some of the most sensible basics we can invest in for overall wellbeing. Attending to our physical health needs, I think, caters for up to half of our wellbeing needs overall. That, and being supervised by a medical practitioner so a holistic approach can be taken, including pharmaceuticals.

Just getting enough good quality sleep is a masterstroke to ward off depression in most people. A lot of anger and frustration and stress can be alleviated through at least three sessions of vigorous exercise each week. And eating good food in moderate portions is an incredibly powerful strategy all its own. Coming back to the spiritual triad — faith, hope, love — is the essence of keeping our soul nourished. We’re comforted that there is no shortage of opportunities to show faith in these uncertain times. Faith is measured by how well we trust. That will be a problem for those of us who have had, or who have, significant relational issues with others.

Faith stretches our trust in the direction of God. Having things to look forward to buoys our hope. Hope amends much anxiety, and I always find that when I have hope, peace and joy tend to be present as well. Love is the greatest test of all. Being able to love and to receive love is often, again, a test of trust.

Mentally, there are several psychological schemas to consider; for instance, focusing on the internal locus of control rather than having an external locus of control. Having an internal locus of control, I can decide how I react and respond to what happens to me. I retain my own empowerment. But I am disempowered if I feel everything happens to me and I have no control, and therefore I must blame others — because I believe I have little or no control. That is an external locus of control — everything that happens, happens outside of me. Study and adopt the internal locus of control; it’s powerful!

It’s similar to becoming focused on the things beyond my control — my circle of concern — instead of being concerned about what I can impact — my circle of influence. Nobody can live a productive life when they can’t exert control over their world to at least some extent. Study and adopt thinking that focuses on your circle of influence — what you CAN affect.

I have only mentioned two thinking schemas here. Another one worthy of looking into further is biases — what biases ought I be aware of that are impacting in some way my mental health.
Finally, a very important input to good or poor mental health is the issue of our relationships and conflict in them. Not many people have no problematic relationships, and toxic relationships are a significant stressor.

Probably the most important thing we can do is accept what we cannot change. This gives us huge perspective. This is about viewing life through the lens of objective truth. So many things that are within our circle of concern just don’t bear any significant additional thought, because we cannot change them.

What comes with acceptance is the peace of serenity. Part of this exercise is about looking at, facing indeed, those things we can only be grateful for. Today it was, “Wow, my body works, and I don’t have any diagnosed conditions that I know of.” It was also, “I’m thankful that we’re relatively financially secure at this moment in time.”

Gratitude will help a lot, and so will being disciplined about how much (or little) thought is wasted being frustrated about things that cannot be influenced or changed by ourselves.
Most of all, become conscious about how much you let guilt and shame inhabit you. Guilt only has a momentary purpose in helping us repent, then it’s useless and harmful. Shame is always harmful but facing it and recognizing it no longer serves you is crucial in moving forward. Then, there’s fear. Even more than ever, it’s necessary to identify fear and choose faith to counter it.

Be gentle with yourself, but also hold yourself to account.

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