Looking after your physical and mental health and wellbeing requires constant attention. There are many factors that impact your wellbeing which fluctuates in response to your life circumstances and experiences. In the Eat, Move, Be Happy Mental Health series, we explore the link between our physical and mental health more, introducing self-awareness as an important tool in helping you develop good health and wellbeing practise. See How Healthy are You? and How can we fight the stigma of mental illness? In Eat Better we also talk about the essential role of regular debrief time in helping you develop healthier eating habits.
When something is worth valuing, it also requires effort and energy to build and maintain. For example, people accept that relationships, be they with a partner, friendships or colleagues, need attention to be at their best. When learning something new or developing a skill, you expect to spend time to understand the theory and knowledge required and then to practise the steps in how to apply the knowledge or skill in the right way. You are prepared for this to take time, with some repetition, mistakes and for this not to go without a hitch or two along the way. No-one expects to be able to jump behind the wheel of a car for the first time and be an expert driver.
Maintaining optimum health and wellbeing is no different. It doesn’t happen by magic and requires energy and effort to understand your personal complexities and nuances that help you be the best you can be. You know yourself better than other people do.
This module looks at ways you can help yourself develop greater awareness of your health and wellbeing and channel your energy and effort more effectively.
It is too simplistic to think of awareness as a state of consciousness. You can be awake and functioning and still not be really paying attention to what is going on around you. You may be distracted with lots of other things on your mind. Driving is a classic example of this. How many times do you commute to and from work, or a regular destination, and have full awareness of every manoeuvre, gear change and other traffic? My guess is there are frequent times when you arrive at your destination without any real recollection to chunks of your journey.
This isn’t you being irresponsible. This is your autopilot kicking in. We form habits with routine skills, activities and behaviours; this is how we are wired as human beings. Think of your brain function like an iceberg. The vast majority of its function is below the surface and not visible. This includes emotions and feelings, values, beliefs and habits, whilst the tip of the iceberg, the visible part, represents conscious thought and is responsible for critical thinking, planning and analysing.
So the things you do with regularity and frequency become habits, which by definition means your level of awareness of what you are doing and how you are doing it reduces. When faced with a new skill or situation, your conscious brain function is responsible for working out how and what needs doing. You are much more aware of the steps required and pay attention to this and the results to track your progress.
This is described in the Stages of Learning Model.
Returning to the driving analogy, as experienced drivers the habitual function is responsible for much of the skill and behaviour application to drive the car. This means a driver is less conscious of the full driving process as they are functioning at level 4 in the Stages of Learning Model, unconscious competence. Their level of awareness of what and how they are driving is low and yet they are still able to drive.
Compare this to a new driver first sitting behind the wheel. Their level of awareness of the process and technical skill needed for driving might be somewhere between level 1 or 2 until they practise and receive some instruction. As their awareness increases and skill levels improve so does their competence. Learner drivers will function somewhere between level 2 and 3 as confidence improves and with practise they get better.
Until, after passing their test and driving more regularly, eventually this becomes an habitual process. This autopilot function applies to other aspects of your behaviour and skills learning, including how you approach your wellbeing.
Testing the Theory
Try this experiment.
- Fold your arms as you normally would.
- Now think about these questions:
- How long did it take for you to complete the instruction to fold your arms?
- How aware were you of the stages you applied to complete the action?
- With your arms folded think about words to describe how it feels.
- Unfold your arms and give them a tactical waggle.
- Refold your arms, the other way. Swap the orientation of your arms, for example, if you usually fold your arms with your right arm over your left, now do it with your left arm over your right.
- Now repeat the process of answering the questions, including:
- What similarities or differences did you experience with both arm folding actions? Which was easier?
- Unfold your arms and give them another tactical waggle. (It’s technical, it works!) Now fold your arms again.
- Which way have you folded your arms?
Our guess is that:
- The first time you folded your arms you did without thinking, within a couple of seconds of reading the instruction and it felt comfortable, normal.
- When you tried to fold your arms the second time it took longer because you had to think about which arm went where and how to complete the folding action. It wasn’t instinctive. You might even have had a couple of attempts to work it out.
- Once your arms were folded the second time it probably felt a bit strange and awkward. You might have been aware of your arms being folded and it feeling different. The first way was easier for you to do.
- Finally, when asked to fold your arms for the final time, you habitually folded them as you did in your first attempt. Your usual way.
So this presents a conundrum. You will have many habits around your approach to wellbeing, for example, your eating and exercise habits. How can you make conscious or deliberate choices to make changes if you lack awareness of what you are doing and how you are doing it in the first place?
As humans, we take so many things for granted which limits awareness of our own behaviours and of how this impacts others. Without awareness the danger is we become a slave to our routine, even with the simple things like tying your shoelaces.
Benefits of Greater Awareness
It makes sense that greater awareness opens up new opportunities to challenge your status quo. Just because you have always done something one way doesn’t mean this is the only way. And with better awareness comes learning and possibilities for different choices.
There are other benefits too:
- Greater self-awareness
How you think and feel about yourself is an essential element of emotional intelligence. Understanding more about your emotional triggers and possible behavioural responses can help you process and manage your emotions more effectively. This can help with feeling more in control and help you prepare for the situations you might find more stressful. It is also the start of being kind to yourself.
This can also help you spot patterns in your behaviour. Where do you regularly get stuck? Which barriers are harder for you to avoid? When are you more likely to succeed with a goal or task?
- More confidence
Through better understanding of what you are doing and how you can learn from your experiences to improve and progress. Often getting your head in the game is the hardest challenge – being brave to try stuff and focussing on what you can do, rather than what you think you can’t. This enables you to challenge the assumptions you make about you and your capability. Confidence is a great motivator. If you believe you can do something you are more likely to try stuff.
- Better relationships
Being more aware of the impact you have on others is another key element of emotional intelligence. Awareness of how people experience you can influence the strength of your relationships. Recognising how relationships add value to you, and how you add value to others is important to wellbeing. Greater awareness here can help with your ability to be compassionate to others and yourself.
Using Reflective Practise to Develop Awareness
Greater awareness comes from paying attention to the ways you think, feel and act as part of your experiences and then thinking about how you want things to be different. The act of reflecting.
For some people, reflection comes naturally. Thinking about past experiences, the impact and replaying elements. For others, it is less natural and takes more deliberate effort and energy. Neither is right or wrong; they are just different in approach and it comes down to preference.
Creating a deliberate approach to reflection is important. This helps you make sense of your wellbeing and learn what is working well for you. It also allows time for different choices and decisions, based on what you want and are aiming for.
Some Top Tips:
- Schedule time
This is a common barrier to reflection, “I haven’t got the time…’. This will take some effort on your part at the beginning. You may find it easier to schedule a recurring time to help create the regularity and frequency.
Try different approaches to see what works for you. Doing even a few minutes regularly is better than doing nothing. Little and often, as with most things, is a good plan.
- Be present
Give yourself time away from other distractions and interruptions so you can focus your attention on your reflection practise. Again, you might have to try things to see how this works for you.
I struggle to pay attention if I am tired or hungry so I avoid planning my reflective practise around meal times or later in the day.
- Write stuff down
At Eat, Move, Be Happy we have mentioned this before and encourage you to use our Debrief Template to help you. Thinking about your experiences and leaving any conclusions to memory means you are missing out on a crucial element of reflective practise; the what happens next stage. Plus, you never remember things accurately.
You can also use diagrams and drawings to help capture your reflections.
- Be kind to yourself
Reflection is not a mechanism to judge and criticise your thoughts and actions. There is no right or wrong way for you to approach your reflection. You are using this to help develop your awareness to inform your choices.
- Use a framework
- It is helpful to use a framework to develop your reflective practise so you achieve a balance between the extremes of paying no attention and overthinking. There are different frameworks, our Debrief Template being one. Another version of this is the What, So What, Now What model.
- See the Homework section for more details.
Remember that for routine behaviour and experiences you are likely to be less conscious of what is happening for you. In relation to your wellbeing, this might mean you take for granted how you feel physically and mentally and accept it for what it is. You might not even recognise there are differences you could make to your wellbeing, let alone know how to make them.
Paying more attention and developing your awareness of your wellbeing habits and assumptions can help you make some deliberate changes for the better.
The danger of doing nothing is you exist in your routine and potentially miss opportunities to try new things, challenge yourself, enjoy new experiences and meet new people. To be happier.
Using the What, So What, Now What model practise developing the skill of reflective practise and improving awareness of your approach to wellbeing.
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