Caring for your mind in a turbulent world
Events of the last few years have us talking about mental health more than ever before, but finding the best way to care for your own mental wellbeing is complex and different for each individual. While researching how to best care for myself and my loved ones, this is what I have learnt.
Understand where anxiety comes from
It should come as a surprise to no one that people experiencing poverty, food insecurity and unstable living arrangements are more likely to suffer from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and psychosis, and there is a growing body of research that proves this.
In the US, healthcare professionals have labelled these factors “social determinants of health”, and they include socioeconomic status, education, physical environment, employment, social support networks and access to health care. Having a secure home, eating a healthy diet, exercising, spending time in green spaces, and having enough money to pay for necessities contribute to a happier life, healthier life, but unfortunately the distribution of these benefits is hugely unequal around the world. Moreover, global living standards are getting worse, not better.
As well as living standards, there is evidence that trauma experienced by our ancestors, even going back many centuries, has an impact on our physical and mental health today. Professor Michael J Halloran explains how traumatic events like slavery and the Holocaust continue to be felt for generations: “a syndrome which occurs when a group has been subject to an unbearable event or experience thereby undermining their sense of group identity, values, meaning and purpose… and is manifest in symptoms of hopelessness, despair and anxiety (notably, among Indigenous people subject to colonization and genocide and Holocaust survivors).”
Scientists researching epigenetics believe that parents’ emotional trauma can actually alter the genetic make-up of their children, leading to biological changes that affect not just mental health, but can cause conditions like obesity and diabetes too.
Dr Nicole LePera says that having “emotionally immature” parents has long-lasting effects on children that remain into adulthood. “Being raised by emotionally immature parents sets us up for a lifetime of believing our role is to perform, achieve, or be responsible for other people’s emotions.” Parents who don’t demonstrate affection – whether through attention, hugs or saying “I love you” can lead children to believe they need to look after their parents’ emotions, along with the urge to want to fix other people’s problems too, often sacrificing their own needs and feeling anxiety and frustration when this doesn’t work.
There are of course many more factors, but understanding where our mental anguish comes from – rather than trying to rectify it – is the first step towards feeling better about ourselves. LePera notes: “The truth is your parents might never understand you, may never understand how childhood impacted you, or may never approve of you in the way you’re seeking. The gift of adulthood is: no longer looking for people to give what they’re not capable of giving.”
Practice radical self-care
Radical self-care is the concept of taking care of yourself first before attempting to take care of others. Self-care will mean different things to different people, and while it has become a catch-all term for the beauty and wellness industries, it was feminists Audre Lord and bell hooks who were among its first prominent advocates.
hooks wrote about the need for self-care to deal with the oppression and microaggressions she faced as a Black woman on a daily basis. In All About Love: New Visions, she said: “One of the best guides to how to be self-loving is to give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others… Do not expect to receive the love from someone else you do not give yourself.”
Tricia Hersey, aka the Nap Bishop, is one of a growing number of people advocating for rest as a form of self-care, but also as a form of resistance. Rooted in Black liberation and feminism, she calls for a move away from what has become commercialised wellness and to use rest as a way of dismantling the harms caused by capitalist structures.
To dive further into this, the Oxford Dictionary defines capitalism as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” Global events since 2020 clearly show where the pursuit of profit leads: great social inequality and environmental damage. (This article by ecological economist Simon Mair has a good explanation of what happens when we value work and profit over health and social welfare).
In a similar vein to Hersey, Black Women’s Day of Meditation is an initiative by women promoting mindfulness, breathwork and meditation to pursue both self-care and social change. Elizabeth Boston, one of three women who co-founded the initiative, says: “I was in a place where I was overthinking everything and I was constantly busy and making a lot of decisions quickly and without much thought. One day I decided to do a series of breathing techniques, and I started to feel a sense of gratitude. That spread throughout my body. I felt this beautiful mind-body connection that I had never experienced before.
“I started to research meditation, mindfulness and runner’s high, and how people can tap into certain healing elements of using breath,” she adds. “I realised that this is something that a lot of people, especially women and women of colour can use in day-to-day life, because not all of us can afford the wellness that’s out there these days. By incorporating it into my life, I saw my life change in so many beautiful ways.”
Address your work-life balance
People who have shifted to working from home since the Covid-19 pandemic may have found a curious mixture of new freedoms while also dealing with an increased workload. Particularly women, who are not necessarily gaining the same benefits as men as they take on additional caring responsibilities and housework while juggling work at home.
Blurred boundaries between home and work causes burnout. While it gives the opportunity to for example do the bulk of your work during the hours you are most productive, take a nap at lunchtime or go to the gym during a mid-afternoon slump, this balance isn’t easy to get right when there are meetings and demanding schedules. Consider this: if you can’t get the job done in the normal working hours set by your employer, the problem lies with the job, not with you. The most important thing about work I have learnt post-Covid is to log off on time.
While there are more conversations happening about mental health in the workplace, diversity, equity and inclusion coach Farzana Nayani wants a shift in their approach. “Are they translating into enough action for people to get the care they need? There’s this idea around mental health and wellness as something we need to practise. I’d like to deconstruct how that takes place. This is not an individual responsibility where I go to therapy and then this is all on my shoulders.
She adds, “Self care in a Westernised world is still very consumer-oriented, where we have to buy it. But what is not talked about is the inequity that caused the need for us to fill in the gaps that we’re missing ourselves. As a result, there’s a need for community care and to look at what environments we’re creating.”
Coping with bad news
Mainstream media has historically focused on bad news. (Try to remember how many uplifting headlines you’ve read in the past week compared to negative ones). Covid-19 lockdowns, the climate emergency, the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis are all happening at once, and the constant unfolding of disasters is leading many of us to keeping checking the news as a coping mechanism, an ingrained habit that makes us believe that if we are aware of potential threats we will be better able to handle them.
But the harm this causes to mental wellbeing cannot be underestimated. It is not helped by the fact that a huge portion of media reporting is not unbiased (in the UK just three companies dominate 90% of the national newspaper market).
Delete apps that issue news alerts from your phone and limit the amount of time you spend reading or watching the news. To counter misinformation, the UK’s News Literacy Network established by journalists, activists and psychologists, has put together a program to teach news literacy to young adults and children.
In short, this much I have learnt
- Be understanding of why you feel the way you do, and compassionate towards the feelings and circumstances of others.
- Don’t try to fix everything – take one small step at a time.
- Caring about yourself is as important as caring about other people.
- Turn off the news. Talk to the people you love instead.