In my work as a coach I support women to have optimal wellbeing and be more of who they want to be. But I need to address the risks in pursuing the task of ‘increasing our wellbeing’. Because there is a ‘unicorn-like positivity lens’ which affects our perception of what it really looks like to thrive.
In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic I thought some of the ideas I have explored as a positive psychology practitioner with my share of recent challenges might be useful to you too.
In the last few years I’ve had death in the family, heart surgery for a child with subsequent homeschooling and last year I had 3 cases of the flu in my house. This has been fertile ground for learning the risks of chasing wellbeing.
Are you actually lowering your wellbeing?
In the face of these unprecedented times we are still desiring to maintain purposefulness and wellbeing (like I was last year). But let’s be clear, perceiving or promoting our ‘wellness’ or ‘thriving’ as a continuous state (and keeping productivity high) actually risks lowering our wellbeing (and consequently lowering productivity).
Well firstly, I urge you to not shy away from taking actions that promote:
-purpose or using your strengths
-positive leadership and
(Which research, and I’d say your own experience has shown; feel good)
But… attachment to ‘wellness’ as an ideal can:
-keep us going when we need to rest
-make us feel ‘not enough’ when we have our hard times
-keep us looking for a simple solution to life – which there is not and that can lead to existential crises.
‘Thriving and not surviving’ can make us feel like we need to ‘measure up’.
So, our definition of thriving needs to include a good dose of resilience, because even for those with usually positive habits and mindsets, the unicorn’s glitter rubs off sometime.
Sometimes we are hit hard with health traumas, challenges or changes thrust on us, worthy projects unhinged, career hitches, money troubles, kid troubles, love troubles or concerns for those we love the most, and they can indeed come like a set of triplets all vying for our attention at once… like right now with pandemic Covid-19.
If you are having a day, or some days, that feel hard. Know you are not alone. In the words of Glennon Doyle Melton – “life is brutiful” – and maybe right now you are facing a brutal bit. But you can bounce back.
Optimism and Resilience for Hard Times
Resilience is the ability to cope with stressors and we each have our own resilience that stretches with stressful situations – essentially how long it takes us to make lemonade with the lemons.
I personally was not granted the optimist gene to easily make lemonade and like the founder of Positive Pschology, Martin Seligman, I have had to develop my optimistic self-talk to help my mood in tough times.
We don’t always bounce back quickly. Especially if we are isolated from our all-important supportive social networks. And let’s face it, we are not all optimists or practiced equanimous meditators – we don’t always have what it takes to buffer the stress in the moment. But, let me give you permission to feel what it is you are feeling, so you can move through it to the other side.
We are, after all, imperfect humans in an imperfect world.
Let’s look at 5 ways we can build resilience.
Research shows social connections are one of the most critical parts of physical & mental wellbeing. This means building in reciprocity and care in the good times and bad.
Build a positive bank of connectivity all the time – connect authentically with friends/family/neighbours, help others where you can, have some fun. Try an isolation bin outing on FaceBook with a million other people (I wish that was around when I had the flu). Connect with nature.
Social resilience means also paying attention to building in positive emotions with a ratio of 6:1 positive to negative. Positive emotions like humour, flow, curiosity, compassion and gratitude are a much needed in times of challenge. These feelings unleash a chemical cascade that ultimately makes us feel happier and more optimistic.
Build a folio of the positives – gratitude jar, review bright spots before meetings/family meals, gather photo libraries that inspire you and remind you of your good times or achievements, do activities that create flow like gardening, singing, sports or games.
But don’t avoid negative emotions, let them flow through. It is when they get stuck that they create rumination loops and can spiral out of control.
BTW don’t wait for others to bring the sunshine – show emotional leadership and bring it to those around you.
The brain has a proven tendency to a negativity bias and so we need to train our thinking.
Your beliefs and explanations can make the situation you face bearable, or worsen it. Optimistic explanations improve your focus on what you can do when you find yourself globalising or making it personal.
Reframe your self-talk to be specific and external like: “this situation is a taking it out of me” or make it more temporary like: “I’m still learning this, I’ll be better at it in a few weeks”. Read more about Learned Optimism here.
Unfortunately when there is stress we can find ourselves in a spiral of lack, fear or worry and our habits can reflect this mental turmoil – reaching for sugar, coffee, alcohol or drugs to numb or lift our mood and staying up late worrying or distracting.
Relaxation of the nervous system is critical in times of stress so we can maintain our health, make better decisions and have more stable emotional responses. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker says sleep is essential for emotional regulation. Proper diet and water intake effect our nervous system positively and the mood-improving effects of exercise are well-known as we regulate our stress hormones better.
Meditation and mindfulness help us calm our stress & judgements. We then choose how we respond, rather than be automatic or reactive.
Mindsight – the act of watching our body, breath, feeling and thoughts – can also be a doorway into feel our “being-ness” or consciousness which can lead to us finding resilience in what mostly could be defined as a spiritual sense.
When you are not benefitting by reframing your challenges mentally, perhaps finding space between your thoughts and finding yourself as this deep ‘being-ness’ or as the thinker and ‘the observer of the thinking’ might be your respite and pathway to a deeper well of inner resilience.
All of these evidence based tools and habits provided me with some respite particularly in times of my ‘triplet-like’ challenges that I hope can help you in these days of Covid-19.
There will always be some tension to our human story or we would not be human, we would be angels, or AI, or dare I say, unicorns.
“Breathe deeply and know that if you let it come and feel it all – it won’t kill you. It will pass away soon enough and leave you better, kinder, softer, and stronger. Let the brutal make you even more beautiful.”
(Please note if you feel you are suffering for more than a few weeks in a depressed state then please reach out to a health professional. Also meditation is not always the best thing for depression but can cause anxiety. See a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction professional if this sounds like you.)