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Things we can all do for our mental health

In this step we think about what all of us can do to manage our psychological health during COVID-19

Chris has reiterated the core factors that keep us feeling psychologically well. He also spoke about the importance of cultivating a particular type of awareness. Let’s explore this idea in more detail.

Taking a step back and noticing

It may feel like a small thing, but observing, noticing, and gaining some psychological distance from impulses, urges, and decisions forms a central part of most psychological therapies.

Psychodynamic therapy uses the term participant-observer for the role of a therapist who has to become half swept up in what’s happening, while half observing from a more neutral backdrop. One foot at sea, the other on solid ground.

From Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) we learn that we experience the phenomena of thoughts that don’t always reflect reality.

In mindfulness approaches we learn that we can take a step back from and observe not only thoughts, but also urges, feelings, and sensations as they come and go.

You’ll commonly hear therapists talk in a slightly odd way:

  • I felt I was being pulled into…
  • I had the feeling that…
  • I was mindful of…

What you’re hearing here is a gap between an impression, mood, or idea filling up someone’s mind, and another part of their mind that is attempting to observe this from a more neutral position.

As you heard in Week 1, during times of threat, our attentional focus is narrowed, and we are pulled to act. We are more likely to get swept up in urges and impulses without noticing our emotions or state of mind. Our capacity to reflect and think is one of the first things to go when emotions are heightened.

In the past few weeks I wonder whether you have noticed the following:

  • “I need to send this email now or it’s the end of the world.”
  • “We simply must meet this deadline or else…”
  • If I do not go for a run today I have failed.

It’s as if the idea of later or tomorrow disappears, and urgency seeps into everything. You may have also noticed thoughts like:

  • “That team really aren’t pulling their weight.”
  • “I can’t stand them right now”
  • “I’m really not up to scratch compared to them.”

Judgements about other people, ourselves, and groups can become heightened, as competition increases inexplicably, and there needs to be a “bad guy” somewhere – someone who is not doing what they’re supposed to. When we feel calm, such thoughts may be absent.

As many of you commented in Week 1, we can also get lost for some time scrolling through newsfeeds that take our minds in an unintended direction. In mindfulness practice, this is called being on auto-pilot.

Many learners in the first week helpfully reflected on how they have been thinking purposefully about how and when they consume media. Unfortunately, our minds can spiral down an internal newsfeed without the need for a phone! This is also important to notice.

This week, you’ll be hearing expert speakers talk about developing new routines, dynamics at work, and useful concepts when thinking about groups and systems. To translate this learning to your place of work or home, noticing and observing will be key. It will involve regularly pausing, taking a step back, and asking, “What is passing through my mind and my body at the moment?”

  • Am I more irritable than normal?
  • Is my heart beating faster than usual?
  • Is there an urgency that isn’t normally there?
  • Has my partner noticed a change in me?
  • What am I or my team being swept up in right now?

These are signs that we might be getting swept up in some way by the understandable anxiety that this pandemic and the ensuing vulnerability can create. Our task this week is to encourage reflection and awareness as we think of ways to adjust and adapt.

Attempting to bring a curious attention to the processes we observe, and noticing when we and those around us become swept into action, judgement, or impulsive decisions, will be key when applying this learning outside of the course.
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COVID-19: Psychological Impact, Wellbeing and Mental Health

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