Psychological Skills for Mental Health, Wellbeing & Flourishing
Over the past few weeks, I've been writing a series of blog entries on Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity for Mental Health and Wellbeing. There are some great ideas on how to use movement and competition to lift ourselves out of challenging mental states. But what about the actual building blocks of positive mental health and wellbeing?
Being able to cope with life is an essential step on the path towards resilience and eventually flourishing. There are no shortcuts here. The path requires surviving the tougher moments and continuing to find meaning and purpose in life. It is through accepting the good and bad that we also find gratitude for where we are.
Spiritual traditions can offer much comfort and insights on how to cope with the challenges of life. Buddhism offers a way through and beyond suffering. Christianity offers a road to forgiveness. And Islam offers a path to acceptance and surrender. If we are spiritually inclined, these traditions also advocate the power of community. During difficult times these communities may help us to heal and move on. They can become rocks to lean on as we continue to find our way through and beyond despair.
But not everyone is spiritually inclined and even those who are can benefit from simple lifestyle reminders and psychology insights that can further our ability to cope and eventually thrive. Here are a few that have come up recently on the Inner Athletics Research blog as well as a few more that are worth keeping in mind.
1. Prioritise Regular and Deep Physical Rest
Summary: When we're experiencing a mental health illness or period of emotional, physical, or mental stress, fatigue is not usually far off. In these states, emotional and physical rest is critical before attempting to develop our cognitive functioning or ability to perform. It isn't worth bypassing this reminder. We will always be led back here if rest is what is truly needed for us to start the recovery process.
Action: Create a ritual of rest in your daily life. Don't skimp here on time. While you may benefit temporarily from a moment to breathe, counting to ten, watching TV or sitting down to meditate for five minutes, these quick fixes don't usually offer a positive lasting effect. What does is the practice of deep rest, or a practice of at least thirty minutes on a daily basis. Think of it as recovery medicine. It's absolutely worth the effort.
Options: Look for a restorative yoga teacher or yoga nidra facilitator in your area. If yoga or guided practices are not your thing, consider other ways to rest and create stillness in your life. Does being in nature help? Could getting out of town for a wilderness trip be a positive way to disconnect and switch off? Do you need to create more support systems in your life to give you the time needed to rest?
2. Choose to Cultivate a Positive Outlook
Summary: When we've experienced a prolonged period of stress, we may feel pretty low on energy and hope. We may even take it one step further and expect things to always go wrong. By focusing on the negative aspects of life, guess what happens? We find even more negativity to occupy and drain our minds! It's not that the negativity doesn't exist, it's that noticing it on a constant basis blinds us to the positivity that also exists.
Insight: A negativity bias and its close "relative", catastrophic thinking, can become behavioural patterns that are hard to break. But it isn't impossible to turn this way of thinking around. Positive Psychology researcher, Barbara Fredrickson talks about savouring positive experiences and emotions through a process called Broaden and Build. Build on the positive and you won't need to worry as much about the negative.
Options: Look for ways to emphasise positive emotions even during challenging times. Fredrickson explains here how science has shown how positive emotions can open up our outlook and bring more happiness into our lives. You may also want to "write yourself happy". Positive Psychology researcher, Megan C. Hayes PhD introduces the practice of Positive Journaling here.
3. Discover Your Attributional and Explanatory Styles
Summary: How you attribute and explain the events and experiences in your life can say a lot about your state of mental health and wellbeing, and potential to eventually flourish. Whether you process your feelings, beliefs, and intentions in an optimistic or pessimistic way can influence how you feel about yourself and your life over time. Social Psychology refers to this as Attribution Theory or Explanatory Styles.
Action: Take some time out of your week to pause. You may complete this exercise alone or with a friend, professional guide (e.g. coach, therapist, counsellor, teacher). Think of a few significant events that have happened in your life. Then consider how you have processed these events. What meaning did you extract from them? Was the meaning grounded in reality or fiction? Was it positive or negative? Are there any patterns here?
Options: In your everyday life, notice your reaction to events and people. Do you attribute these events and interpersonal experiences to yours' or their's internal characteristics (dispositional attribution) or do you assign the event to a factor beyond your's or their control (situational attribution)? How can you be sure that what you're attributing these events and experiences to is really what they are?
4. Learn How to Manage Stress in Different Ways
Summary: Stress management never goes out of fashion or gets boring. It's a simple fact. If you can't manage the stress in your life or work effectively then you will struggle to perform. Years of research has shown that over time, chronic stress will wear you down. Your cognitive functioning will decline and physical fatigue will set in. Mental and physical illness may follow, making it even harder to manage and cope.
Action: Movement relieves stress chemicals in the body. Find an optimal level of movement in your daily life. If you are an athlete or have a high level of strength and cardiovascular fitness already, consider the benefits of active rest days. Your stress reliever may come through hikes or walks in nature while someone who is less fit and sporty may benefit from more vigorous exercise or the social aspects of sport.
Options: Perhaps you already have a movement practice in place that is optimised for your needs but you still struggle to balance your stress. Take some time to reflect on the demands and responsibilities in your life. Write them down. Circle the essential ones. Put a line under the important ones. Put a line through the non-essential and unimportant ones. Get clear on what matters and delete the rest.
5. Live by Your Values and Reduce Bias
Summary: Life and work aren't much fun when we're not living and working in alignment with your values. When we disregard our values and beliefs, and conform to external expectations, group norms, or socially constructed values that do not reflect our own, we can fall into the trap of Cognitive Dissonance. Over time, this can create psychological stress and adversely affect our behaviour, emotions, and thoughts.
Insight: Cognitive biases can also limit our potential for positive mental health and wellbeing in everyday life. Are we someone who looks to confirm what we already think we know instead of keeping an open mind on what could also or instead be true (Confirmation Bias)? Do we look towards winners for inspiration and advice on how to succeed instead while ignoring the potential for failure? (Survivorship Bias).
Practice: Living by our values and seeking truth aren't feats that are accomplished overnight. If we have been living out of alignment with our values then time may be needed to course correct. Take one small step today and another tomorrow in the direction of what you believe. On reducing bias, try identifying your blindspots with others through the Johari Window model.
These are just five psychological skills you can develop. Each have been proven by science and research to be effective but the key is to first understand them and how they relate to you, and then find ways to integrate relevant practices of them into your everyday life. Practice is key to getting better at coping with life and moving beyond coping into a state of positive mental health, wellbeing, and eventually flourishing.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. Three Rivers Press: USA.
Hayes, M.C. (2018). Write Yourself Happy: The Art of Positive Journaling. Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.: UK.
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