11 Sep Are You Mentally Resilient? How to improve mental resilience as we emerge from a pandemic.
The current pandemic has stirred up a mixed bag of emotions and forced our lives into strange, secluded places. Government-mandated social distancing has forced people to be physically isolated from others. This act to physically distance people from one another, albeit extremely necessary, has no doubt caused many mental and emotional tensions across the board. We have been forced to stop our usual social interactions with friends and families, with sporting groups, schools and everyday mundane social interactions that we largely took for granted. As a result, our level of social connectedness has almost vanished.
Social connectedness is the idea that we feel connected to groups and people around us – and according to Edward Deci (Author of Self Determination Theory, 2012), this is an essential need for humans as we navigate through society and learn to function accordingly. Without meeting this one pillar of human connection, we struggle to find motivation and our mental health can suffer.
Staying connected although we are physically apart from our comrades has still been possible through the internet; social media, collaborating with work teams on new platforms and the new sub-culture that Zoom created, enabling us all to do interesting things (wine and paint, trivia, fitness classes and even birthday parties) virtually. But although it’s possible to stay largely connected, there has still been something (read: people) missing from our everyday lives – and we feel it every day.
A lack of social connection has been difficult, but more than that, we are forever growing more and more anxious. In February, a looming pandemic seemed to be approaching our shores and so did the beginning of our anxiousness. As March set in, so did the government regulations and the seriousness of the pandemic was upon us. Collectively we waited to hear more, and our anxieties swirled around us – stuck in our homes. April came and went with most people stuck inside while they learned to navigate their new identities as home-bodies and Zoom regulars. Then at the beginning of May, the light at the end of the tunnel started to appear – and so too did the ever-growing anxiety of returning back to normal. You would be forgiven if the mental and emotional rollercoaster of the last few months has you feeling stressed, flat, defeated or any combination of any emotion – we just weren’t really equipped to deal with this.
With that in mind, in order to breathe, get organised and be the best version of ourselves in the current climate there are a few small (very well researched) tricks to help you stay resilient and strong on your feet as we return back to the real world:
- Prioritise sleep. Lack of good quality sleep patterns can help contribute to poorer mental health outcomes. Research shows a clear link between sleep and mental health. According to the 2017 Vic Health Report, our current and future mental health outcomes are correlated with poor quality and lack of sleep. They found that having better sleeping patterns is associated with mental wellbeing across the lifespan.
When life is throwing curveballs, learn to prioritise sleep and keep a regular sleeping pattern if possible. Improve your sleeping patterns by having a regular sleep and wake up time, avoiding evening stimulants, having a comfortable sleep environment and spending time to relax before bed time. You should be aiming for around 7-9 hours every single night.
- Exercise often. Exercise as a tool for managing mental health has been very well studied. We know that using exercise to help deal with symptoms of depression and anxieties is an effective tool that helps us become more resilient when dealing with stress, alleviates high blood pressure and physiological symptoms as well as helping us to clear our minds and take the edge off.
Use the Better Being movement pyramid as a good baseline to get moving:
Regenerate: Do something everyday for at least 15-30 minutes to actively reduce stress as needed. This includes things like stretching, breathing exercises, massages, light swimming, and long walks.
Activate: Do something significantly more intense for at least 15-30 minutes at least 2 days a week. This includes things like cardiovascular activities or strength based exercise.
Play: Do something 1-2 days a week which you can engage with other people. This involves doing things like exercising with a friend, playing a team sport, or going for a cycle with the kids.
- Ensure you’re eating good, healthy food. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is where about 95% of serotonin is produced. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. The GI tract is lined with millions of nerve cells so it makes sense that the GI tract doesn’t just help us to digest food – it also is in control of our emotions.
It’s a good idea, especially when things are feeling overwhelming, to start paying attention to the foods you’re eating and hone in on your nutrition. Eat whole foods; meat and vegetables, and as little processed food as possible, being sure to eat plenty of colours and textures to make sure you’re getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals through your diet.
- Get connected. Social wellbeing comes from having good, meaningful relationships and feeling like we belong to certain groups of people; whether that’s our family, friends from school, work colleagues, training buddies of teammates from a sporting club – all of the relationships help us to improve our social connectedness. Having support from our peers has been connected to improving our resilience to stress and improves our likelihood of recovering from depression and anxiety.
With current social distancing guidelines still in place, set up virtual hang outs with friends and your usual groups and teams. Check in with friends and family and have conversations about each other’s mental health often to encourage openness and support.
- Practice gratitude. The idea of giving thanks for good things and people in your life has been well studied and has been proven to be an effective tool to help you improve mood and emotional wellbeing. In a study that had 300 participants, this was shown when participants were broken into three groups; a control group, a group that did expressive writing about past stressful experiences, and a group that specifically focused on writing letters that expressed gratitude. After just 4 weeks, participants in the gratitude condition reported significantly better mental health and this was further enhanced after 12 weeks. The act of simply writing down why you are grateful for someone or something had the power to improve mental health – very powerful.
When things feel stressful, or you feel some anxiety starting to rise, get in the habit of practicing gratitude. This can help you to see good things when everything else seems heavy. Write down 3 simple sentences every day:
1. What are you grateful for today?
2. Who are you grateful for?
3. What are you looking forward to tomorrow?
As we navigate ourselves back to reality as we once knew it, it’s important for us to look after our mental health. Get outside, get moving, eat well and check in with others often. Let’s make our post-pandemic selves the best versions – people who are physically, mentally and emotionally resilient.
 Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (p. 416–436). Sage Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446249215.n21
 Sleep Health Foundation. (2020). Sleep and mental wellbeing: exploring the links. Victorian Health Promotion Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/-/media/ResourceCentre/PublicationsandResources/Mental-health/Summary-sleep-and-wellbeing-summary-report.pdf?la=en&hash=767B3589F60B0122368567813204E46FDAA8EA5C
 Pascoe, M., Bailey, A., Craike, M., Carter, T., Patten, R., Stepto, N., & Parker, A. (2020). Physical activity and exercise in youth mental health promotion: a scoping review. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 6(1), e000677. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2019-000677
 Ozbay F, Johnson DC, Dimoulas E, Morgan CA, Charney D, Southwick S. Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007;4(5):35‐40.
 Wong, Y., Owen, J., Gabana, N., Brown, J., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2016). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192-202. doi: 10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332