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Mental Health Awareness Week: Taking time during the crisis to make wellbeing a priority

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, which aims to drive conversations on mental health to create lasting change, and in the current pandemic it is even more important to look after our physical and mental wellbeing. Here, Kirsten McEwan, Senior Research Fellow in Compassion Mental Health and Wellbeing at the University of Derby, explores ways to focus on your wellbeing during this time and the good things that are taking place around you.

By Dr Kirsten McEwan - 18 May 2020

The current health crisis offers an opportunity to make wellbeing more of a priority, and to continue to practice this as a new habit once the crisis has passed. In the same way we might train our bodies to be fit, or practice a skill, we can train our minds to promote our wellbeing and improve our relationships.

Take time to focus on the good things

When we feel threatened our attention becomes very narrowed and focused, like a spotlight on all the possible threats around us. With the media focusing predominantly on ‘bad news’ stories in comparison to all the good things that people are doing to help resolve the crisis, and all the people who are recovering and returning home, it’s easy to feel anxious and despondent. The World Health Organisation (WHO) have advised that to protect our wellbeing, reading the news should be minimised.

Engage with good news

Now is also a good opportunity to begin engaging more in the good things that are happening around us. For example, the majority of people who are staying home to not spread the virus, the health workers caring for patients and those who returned from retirement to do so, and the key workers ensuring there is food, water, empty bins and clean streets. There are also neighbours who quickly set up volunteer groups delivering food and connecting with anyone staying at home, the number of people who now nod, smile or say hello when away from the house, the neighbours who have started to speak to each other more and share resources. You could also look at alternative sources of good news, for example the Good News Network.

Practising gratitude

By deliberately focusing on the good things and practising gratitude for the small things, we are retraining our minds so that when things aren’t going so well, we can move on from it quicker and choose to place our attention elsewhere on better things. One way to deliberately practice this is by noticing a few ‘good things’ each day and perhaps sharing this practice with others. For example, ‘I noticed all the wildflowers in the park coming into flower, they smelt amazing. I noticed how much quieter it is without the traffic; I could hear birds sing and the wind in the trees from my window’.  Sharing the ‘good things’ over dinner with your household, or texting your good things to a friend at the end of the day and receiving theirs back can be a really helpful way to focus on the positives and connect with others.

Using compassion to work out what’s best for us

When times are tough, we need compassion. Compassion can be defined as the desire to engage with distress and suffering and find ways to alleviate or prevent it. So, when times are tough and we are experiencing anxiety, sadness, or anger, the question to ask ourselves is; what would be the compassionate and helpful thing to do right now? Sometimes, in the midst of distress this can be a tricky question to answer. It is often easier to be caring to others than ourselves. What might help is to imagine what would we do if a friend were struggling in this way? Or if we were the best version of ourselves, with qualities such as wisdom, non-judgement and kindness, what might we do for ourselves to make things better?

Safe relating

We are a highly social species, and so it is perfectly natural to feel lonely and isolated given current restrictions. This makes it all the more important to invest in those around us and really give them our attention and care. There are ways to safely connect with others, whether it is investing more in your relationships with the people you live with, getting to know your neighbours, or visiting one other person outdoors (under current government guidelines) while maintaining a safe distance, or just giving them a call.

Practice and resources - start small

Like learning any new skill, all of these things take practice, but practising for just five minutes a day is better than not practising at all. There are plenty of free resources to help with motivation and guidance too, for example:

Apps: Waking up; The Mindfulness app; Breathe; Headspace

Books: The Compassionate Mind-Paul Gilbert; Self-compassion-Kristen Neff

So, remember to start small and complete daily tasks to help you look after your physical and mental wellbeing.


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About the author

Kirsten McEwan in a nature environment

Dr Kirsten McEwan
Associate Professor

Most of Kirsten's research has focused on Compassion-Focused interventions. More recently her research has focused on nature-based interventions such as Forest Bathing (slow mindful walking in nature).  Kirsten's aim is to support the spread of these interventions to improve human health and wellbeing, but also to inspire more pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.

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