It started on Boxing Day.
Around the same time every year, I start to think about the year we’ve had. The ups, the downs and the lessons learned. It’s a period of contemplation that I don’t plan for, it just seems to happen. I suppose it’s self-evident; it’s a moment in life when I’m less busy. I’m not working as much, so those thoughts that don’t have a chance to surface make their way to the top.
This year, the contemplation is probably more important than ever before.
We don’t need an obituary of 2020 – everybody knows the story. This isn’t the time or place to cry over the spilt milk. It is, however, an appropriate time to learn lessons from the experience.
The thing I have been most fascinated by over the last few months has been the reaction many people have to uncertainty. The perfect storm of misinformation, a lack of understanding, political and medical arguments, financial worry and the fact that we’ve never been in this situation before led to a huge amount of people suffering from a smorgasbord of mental health issues.
Amongst my friends and contemporaries, there’s been a real mixture of reactions. In general, there’s been a feeling of ‘let’s just get on with it’, but then that’s from a small microcosm of society – we live in middle class suburbia. We managed to maintain our jobs/businesses and we all have friends and family around us.
Despite this, in some notable situations there were reactions that surprised me. There are friends of mine who upon the announcement of a lockdown went into an immediate panic – locking down in the extreme, imagining a doomsday scenario and shutting themselves off from the world. They became extremely anxious and paranoid about any form of contact, be it from delivery drivers, post men, bin men etc.
I maintain that the long-term damage from this won’t be economic, it’ll be psychological. We’ll be more anxious, more selfish, more paranoid. For lots of us, our resilience has been broken.
Watching the news, the protests, the arguing, the social media and having conversations with others made me believe that this thing called ‘society’ is just a really thin veneer. The second something challenges our delicately balanced equilibrium, society wilts faster than spinach in a hot pan.
Don’t believe me? Look at the evidence…
Panic buying of everything when the shut down started, riots in the US, arguments over the wearing of masks, the 5G situation, the ‘sportification’ (is that even a word?!) of politics, whereby people support one candidate/party over another with a zealous fervent. It’s fucking chaos. And by the way, we’ve only just started – wait until the anti-vaccination movement get started with the mass vaccinating of the public.
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see a short term end to the arguing. The only answer to protecting yourself from a lot of this is to build more resilience.
Building Resilience – The Simple Way
In 2020 we’ve all had our mettle tested. Some of us passed. Many of us failed miserably.
I have an opinion around resilience that probably won’t win many friends, but it’s my party so I’ll pontificate if I want to.
It’s an easy get out to excuse a widespread decline in mental health with a ‘yebbut it’s been a stressful year’. I know it has. Of course it has. But tough times happen. As adults we have to be able to cope with tough times. If we crumple at the first sign of pressure we’re simply too soft.
I understand we all have a limit to our resilience, but I’d be pretty concerned if despite not losing anyone to the virus and maintaining a job, a roof over your head and food in the cupboard you’d descended into a very dark place. That’d be a rather large wake up call for me, highlighting the need for me to develop a more resilient mindset.
It’s at this point I should probably clarify ‘a very dark place’. I mean if you’ve had to resort to medical intervention to improve your mood. Of course we’ve all had crappy days/weeks but if you’ve maintained your income, your health and haven’t lost anyone during the lock down and still found yourself needing medication, perhaps use a bit of perspective on the situation.
It may sound like I’m being an insensitive arsehole and that I’ve gone through 2020 without issue, but that’s not the case.
I’m self-employed. I’ve had to cancel 2 full Active Retreats, losing me thousands in profit. My gym has had to close twice. At times I’ve had to cease personal training in the lockdown. Let me tell you, with a mortgage and a family to support, that’s not exactly a barrel of laughs. Still, it’s times like this you look for solutions to problems. You can’t dwell on them – they don’t go away like that.
As we enter 2021 and have a spirit of renewal about us, maybe it’s time to look at fixing problems.
I’m certainly not a mental health professional, but I can share what I know helps me to avoid anxiety and generally go through life without much in the way of worry. Here’s how I cope with uncertainty and help build my own resilience…
Simplifying Trumps Overwhelm
I’m aggressive when it comes to simplifying my life. Many years ago I gave up a job where I had 120 people underneath me, because the ‘noise’ was deafening. Everyone thinks their problem is the most important. I’d walk into work and see 150 emails in my inbox before 9.00. It was impossible to ever complete anything, because with large projects you have too many voices.
Now I simplify. I work with a handful of people, on projects I can offer real value to. I don’t over-commit socially (easy to do in a lockdown!) and I’m far more selective over what I say yes to.
By removing the noise in life you can focus on making the handful of things better and more enriching, whether that’s financially, spiritually, emotionally or however. Less quantity, more quality.
Positivity is Almost Always Helpful
There are some situations that are truly shit. There are far more situations that we make worse by focussing on the negatives. In a given situation I try to focus on the positives, because I find it serves me no purpose to focus on the negatives.
Acknowledge what has gone wrong, what is wrong or what could go wrong. Then fix it. Most importantly, learn from it and try not to let it happen again. Resilience is tested less if things don’t go wrong as often!
Case in point, losing the majority of my income in lockdown. I could sit and dwell on it, worrying about how I was going to pay my bills. Instead, I found it far more helpful to focus on ways to grow my income, which I did by taking on more copywriting work. I also reduced my outgoings considerably.
Bring Things Within Your Control
My personal belief is that a lot of stress and anxiety stems from a loss of control. I try to counteract that by ensuring I have as many of the important aspects of my life under my control. True resilience is arguably relying on others less.
I’m self-employed for a reason. I have my workload and my income under my control. I don’t answer to a boss, nor do I have someone who can fire me and therefore remove my income. I keep supplies of food at home – we’ve got another need covered. I save as much money as I can, so I always have access to money.
Increase the number of sources of income you have, so you don’t rely on a single source. That helps to relieve the stress of losing one.
Go on a ‘News Diet’
One of the things I have been doing recently is avoiding the news. It’s not because I don’t want to be informed, it’s because I don’t want to be surrounded by negativity on an almost non-stop basis.
It occurred to me recently that despite the endless negativity that we’re confronted by on the news, the reality is that very little has any direct impact on our lives. Despite this, we’re still left with a sense of things going wrong. If you surround yourself with negative images all day and night, or sensationalised versions of events, eventually you’ll begin to accept these as the norm.
Being on a news diet has been good for me. You can dip in and out if you want to stay informed, but the big issues have a way of reaching you. Delete news apps, don’t watch the news and don’t read the papers. You’ll be markedly more relaxed.
Reduce Your Social Media Use
I was scrolling through Facebook the other day and something occurred to me. My favourite football team Liverpool, had just beaten Wolves 4-0. It was a fantastic performance.
I follow the official LFC Facebook page and they’d announced the result. At the point, there were nearly 5,000 comments on their post, but only one was visible to me – a comment from a fan of a rival team saying that Liverpool aren’t as good as the team he supports.
I know how these sites work and how they try to spark ‘engagement’, by creating debate. What irked me about this particular incidence is how out of 5,000 comments, the one they showed me was from a rival fan. It’s easy for me to ignore it, but for many others it wouldn’t be and they’d have ended up in an argument.
‘Social’ media is now a place where conflict wins, and they’ll serve up as much as you can stomach. I now have a policy of I contribute to it, but I don’t consume it.
Get Outside More
One of the big revelations of the lockdown for us was the amount of walking we did. There were two main reasons we walked so much – the first was because we didn’t have a huge amount of other choice! The second was because the weather was great and it was a nice reason to explore.
Once we were out the additional benefits became really clear. It was great fun as a family. The kids (and us) were away from screens. We accumulated thousands of steps. We got to see new places. It’s a nice bit of gentle exercise.
It’s also psychologically freeing – I can understand why forest bathing, green therapy and the like are so popular. Being outside, surrounded by fresh air and nature really is medicinal. It gives you space, time to think, time to ponder and helps you to psychologically unwind.
Revert to Type
For me the most therapeutic thing I can do is to jettison the waste in my life. By removing anything superfluous, I feel mentally and physically lighter. At the start of every year, I do a bit of a ‘sort out’ and start the year with a clean slate. This year, I’ve gone a step further with a full, ‘root and branch’ effort.
Anything I use or come into contact with on a daily basis has been streamlined. My office, my emails, my to-do lists, my wardrobe, my work bag, my briefcase, my laptop, my washing bag, my car. They’ve all been cleaned, tidied and rearranged. If nothing else, it serves as a mental refresh of where things are! It also means I could donate an absolute tonne of stuff to charity, which makes me feel good as well!
I know that this behaviour suits me. It helps my mental clarity and productivity. You’ll have similar things that aid your self-care, so do them. Whether that’s sort out your belongings, walk in the woods, bake, do some exercise or whatever, jus do it. Start the year strong and build resilience early.
Build Resilience By Focussing on the Future – In Particular How to Improve It!
I believe it was Nelson Mandela who said “I don’t lose – I either win or learn”.
That’s the attitude I’m taking into the new year. Hopefully we’ll never go through another year like 2020 again, but if we do, I hope that we’re more prepared as a collective. Use the lessons learned in 2020 to build resilience – put yourself through tough experiences, whatever they may be. Get yourself out of your comfort zone – take on a physical challenge, leave your phone at home and go wild camping, learn a new skill – do whatever you need to in order to grow as a person.
Analyse your feelings – why do you feel the way you do? What can you do to rectify these feelings? What books can you read to help you? Is there a wellness practice you can embrace?
Look for answers before resorting to negative mindsets and medication. You’re far more powerful and capable than you might believe. Use this belief as a platform from which you can build life-changing resilience.
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