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Health is more than just physical

A silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, if you wish to see it, is that it has reminded us of the importance of slowing down and taking the time to appreciate the small things. But perhaps its most significant reminder has been that good health is not to be taken for granted – nor is it simply a given. Rather it is a privilege, one that is easily and often threatened, and something we must always prioritise and strive to maintain.

It has also reminded us that health is more than just physical. And while the seriousness and severity of the virus is undoubtable, so too has been its impact on our collective mental well-being. What we are now beginning to understand is that poor health isn’t just aches and pains, or coughs and colds. It’s also negative thoughts, anxiety, hopelessness, disengagement, withdrawal, stress, depression, and burnout – and the data shows we’re all feeling it.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, crisis support hotlines such as those offered by Beyond Blue, Lifeline and Kids Helpline have experienced a significant increase in calls since March last year. In August just passed, Lifeline broke its record – not once but four times over the course of the month – for the highest number of calls in a day.

As we reach the end of yet another year that has demanded far too much of us, taking the time to assess our well-being, both physical and mental, will be paramount. For some, this might start with getting back into a regular exercise routine, scheduling a dental appointment, or visiting our GP for a full physical.

When it comes to our mental health and resilience, however, the steps are far less obvious. How do we begin to assess the state of something as complex and intangible as our thoughts, emotions and outlook, our ability to bounce back from constant challenges? While there’s no simple blood test to diagnose negative thinking or scan to identify fatigue, there are a number of ways we can measure and ‘check in on’ our mental and emotional welfare.

Here’s how to perform a DIY resilience check.

Notice your moods and emotions. Confusion, anger, sadness, loneliness, and stress are all common emotions in response to something as significant and life-altering as a global pandemic, and it’s normal to feel tense, irritable or flat at times. However, intense or prolonged periods of negative emotions or low mood may indicate poor mental health and the risk of a downward spiral.

Take note of your emotions over the course of a week and notice how frequently they lean to the negative side. This is often one of the first red flags of mental ill-health, so tuning in to how you’re feeling will help you get on the front foot and get back on track sooner.

Check your thoughts. In times of isolation and uncertainty, our thoughts are more likely to become pessimistic and irrational, often leading to panic, stress, and anxiety that may be unwarranted. For this reason, it’s critical that we catch, check and change our thoughts to be more realistic and optimistic so we can maintain hope and rationality despite the events around us.

When you encounter a negative thought, pause to “catch” it, then “check” it to determine whether it is true, valid or helpful. If not, “change” it to be more realistic and positive. Being aware of our thoughts is important in maintaining a positive and optimistic outlook, particularly in times of uncertainty.

Consider your sleeping patterns. Adequate sleep is vital for a healthy body and mind, so if your sleep cycle is out of whack or you’re not getting proper restorative sleep, there’s a good chance this will manifest in the form of low mood, irritability, disengagement, or mental fatigue.

Assess your sleep habits by looking at your usual bedtime and wake-up time, the quality of your sleep, and how you feel upon waking. Cultivate better sleep habits by locking in your wake-up time 7 days a week, avoiding screens or blue light at least an hour before bedtime, and cutting out caffeine after 2pm.

Look at your relationships. Having strong, positive relationships with friends and family is vital for maintaining our mental well-being, but the impact of social isolation and constant lockdowns on an individual’s mental health can cause their relationships to become strained.

It is of course important to stay connected to loved ones and surround yourself with those who are supportive and understanding. However, do remember to establish and maintain boundaries as necessary – if you notice a particular friend is contributing to your mental distress, it might be a good idea to set some boundaries to prevent further damage.

Assess your diet. A nutritious, balanced diet is key for both mental and physical health, but in times of significant stress and uncertainty when our normal routines fall by the wayside, maintaining a healthy diet can feel difficult.

Take notice of your recent diet, including water intake. If you find yourself frequently ordering takeaway, opting for comfort food over more nutritious options, or perhaps under or overeating, this could be a sign of underlying mental distress. Get back on track by restocking your home with healthier options, setting hydration targets, and committing to cooking at home more often.

Revisit your exercise routine. Exercise plays an integral role in both mental and physical well-being by promoting cardiovascular fitness and boosting endorphin levels, resulting in enhanced mood. However, if you find you’re lacking motivation or feeling physically fatigued for weeks on end, this might suggest poor mental health.

Try to combat this by changing up your exercise routine and trying something new – whether that’s cycling, beach swims, or even a YouTube workout – to kick yourself back into gear and get your endorphins flowing.

Mental well-being is often seen as more difficult to measure and assess, meaning many of us will be guilty of neglecting it. Too many believe the absence of stress or anxiety equates to positive mental health, or that these symptoms will simply vanish once the pandemic is behind us, but this is far from true. Rather, like recuperating from a cold, recovering from the negative mental impact of the pandemic will require a number of careful steps and remedies to rebuild one’s resilience and get back to feeling our best.

Stuart Taylor

CEO & co-founder of Springfox

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