Mental health through a pandemic: how we can look after ourselves
As the COVID-19 pandemic throws our regular routines into disarray, this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was more important to observe than ever.
Here at Lantum, Natalia, our multi-talented Mental Health First Aider and also Engineering Manager, hosted a Lunch and Learn session for us about mental health: what it is, what good mental health looks like, and how we can look after ourselves and others.
So actually what is mental health?
“Everyone has physical health; everyone has mental health.” says Natalia. But the two are connected, with both good and poor mental health often presenting physical symptoms, like stomach aches or digestion issues. ”When I say mental health, I mean general wellbeing.”
According to the World Health Organisation, mental health is ‘the emotional and spiritual resilience which allows us to enjoy life and survive pain, disappointment and sadness. It is a positive sense of well-being and an underlying belief in our own, and other’s, dignity and worth.”
Despite being so fundamental, mental health still carries a certain stigma with it. While 1 in 5 people have taken a day off due to stress, 90% of them feel unable to tell their employer that mental health is the reason for their absence.
What counts as good or bad mental health?
Good mental health looks different and is different for different people,” says Natalia. It’s not just what good mental health looks like that differs between us; our reactions to stress also vary between people. While some people may bury themselves in work when they’re stressed, others may feel unable to settle on a task at all.
To get an idea of how broad these different reactions could be, we shared examples of how good or bad mental health might manifest.
Bad mental health examples included:
- Seeing the negative in everything
- Becoming overwhelmed
- Falling into destructive habits
- Feeling victimised all the time
- Numbing with TV, work or alcohol
Good mental health examples included:
- Feeling comfortable in your own skin
- Being able to make sensible decisions without being swayed by pressure
- Dealing with stress healthily and not burning out
- Not criticising yourself
- Being conscious and feeling present in the moment
Getting stressed isn’t necessarily poor mental health, says Natalia. “Stress can actually lead to greater happiness if it’s a little bit every once in a while.” But it’s when stress becomes too much or too persistent that it can lead to more serious mental health issues.
Natalia talked us through some possible indicators of poor mental health to watch out for - physical, emotional and behavioural, or at work. The main thing, she says, is to “be conscientious about what is the norm for someone, and what isn’t”. It’s also important to note that “this isn’t an indicator of lack of resilience, or inability to be happy… Everyone experiences poor mental health at some point.”
Dealing with stress at work
When it comes to mental health at work, “sometimes it’s just the checking in that’s the most important thing,” says Natalia. “A lot of this is being really conscientious and mindful of those around you.”
But while it’s important to check in on each other, no-one is a mind reader. “We want to look out for, be there for other people, but we also need to be able to take care and take stock of own mental health, and communicate our needs to other people,” Natalia says. Being able to communicate what will make you feel better is a great step to taking control of your mental health.
Asking for help is also important. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by work, Natalia recommends catching up with your manager to ask, ‘Can you help me prioritise?’ ‘Does all of this really have to get done?’.
She also introduced us to the concept of the stress container: a tool to help us consider our own capacity for stress, what contributes to our stress levels, and how close to that capacity we are.
She recommends taking stock of the things that are adding to your levels of stress, even writing them out. Asking yourself questions can also help: questions like, ‘Am I close to my limit? Can I remove any of these stresses? Are my coping mechanisms working? Is my container as big or small as I think it is?
The great things about this exercise, says Natalia, is that it’s “so practical”. Grabbing a colleague and going through these questions can really help to get a clear view of the problem, and work out what some solutions can be.
How do you switch off?
The Lantum team is working remotely at the moment, and being able to separate work from your relaxing evening becomes more difficult when you can’t just leave work behind in the office. Natalia asked us to share how we unwind:
- One person called their mum to chat about the day
- Another had established a routine: going for a walk after work and reconnecting with their partner, followed by dinner and TV
- One person enjoyed sitting in the garden, trying to befriend their neighbour's cats.
- Another even goes to a park at the end of the day to watch the sunset over London.
What do we do to maintain good mental health?
As Natalia says, “we are in a particularly stressful time.” Taking the time to care for our mental health, to relax and check in with others - that is what will keep us going. Part of that is monitoring where we’re at, as well as doing things that are nourishing for us. For the Lantum team, they looked after themselves by:
- Doing some exercise, like going for a long walk or doing yoga
- Laughing with friends
- Spending less time on social media, or in front of screens
- Using meditation apps, or other apps to help check in with how they were feeling
- And crucially, sleeping 😁
This pandemic has been unnerving and highly stressful for many of us. Hopefully, by taking the time to reflect on good mental health practices, we can equip ourselves to face its challenges with resilience and confidence.