Why Greater Awareness is Essential for Your Wellbeing

Ice berg with the tip showing representing conscious mind and the mass under the water line representing subconscious mind
Awareness require effort to become conscious thought

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.

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Is the Water Getting Too Hot to Jump Out?

cartoon frog leaping away from a pot of boiling water

I came across a story several years ago that I refer to frequently, including once in an interview. The boiling frog phenomenon describes how, if a frog is placed in a pot of boiling water it will immediately jump out, the water is too hot. However if a frog is placed in a pot of cool water and a low heat applied, the immediate surrounding is comfortable so the frog stays in the water.  Eventually the water heats up and gets too hot for the frog to jump out.  

I know that is a pretty grim analogy, however how often have you found yourself in a situation where you suddenly feel totally overwhelmed, helpless and maybe even hopeless? When you find yourself in this place, not only do you not know what to do for the best, but often you do not have the energy to do it. 

It is likely that your feeling of being overwhelmed increased gradually, much like the temperature of the water for the frog.  By the time you recognised the potential impact of the situation on your stress levels, it was too late to avoid that feeling of lack of control and hopelessness. Not a good place to be and a sign of chronic stress, or a long-lasting exposure to stressful triggers. 

Not all stress is bad for us. Some stress can be motivational, for example physical training is a way of putting your body under acute stress to challenge it to improve in either fitness or strength. Acute stress responses are also the body’s way for humans and mammals to prepare for fight or flight, an evolutionary survival trait. 

The trick is to be able to pay attention to the temperature of the water isn’t it? At Eat, Move, Be Happy we also think it is about paying attention to what is causing the water to heat up in the first place and having ways of cooling the water down, or of jumping out, before it gets too hot to handle.   

This article looks at ways you can improve awareness of your stress levels and what triggers an increase in stress for you. It also explores why some people appear to be able to cope better than others with more stress and ways you can be more effective at maintaining more acceptable stress levels more of the time. 

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It’s Ok to be Selfish…

Self-care is commonly referred to in relation to looking after mental health and wellbeing and is often mis-understood. I have heard it described as being indulgent or selfish, putting personal needs above those of others and as a practise for people who want to spend time alone.

Broadly speaking, self-care is about looking after yourself and it seems like common sense and pretty straight forward doesn't it? 

Human behaviour tells us time and time again that common sense is not so common. There are many examples of seemingly obvious choices that would benefit our health and wellbeing, for example eating less junk food, exercising more frequently and yet we don’t do it. We have looked at why this happens in What is Stopping you from Starting? 

Self-care is another classic knowing-doing gap (see Turn Your Plan into Action for more on this). On a basic level it makes perfect sense and not many people would disagree - and yet we don’t always think this applies to us. 

This article will help by:

  • Improving awareness of what self-care is and what it isn’t
  • Challenging thinking about your current self-care approach
  • Sharing practical Top Tips on how you can broaden your range of self-care resources and practise it more of the time.

Let’s start with one of our favourite stories…

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Look after your Wellbeing and Build your Resilience

What is Resilience? 

Resilience is often thought of as a quality that some people have and described as the ability to ‘bounce back’. Lots of social and psychological research confirms this is only part of the story.

According to the charity Mind:

“Resilience is not just your ability to bounce back, but also your capacity to adapt in the face of challenging circumstances, whilst maintaining a stable mental wellbeing.” 

This makes sense to us at Eat, Move, Be Happy.  We would also add resilience is learning from tough experiences, gaining confidence and growing emotionally stronger as a result. We particularly like thinking about resilience as something everyone can develop with practice, rather than a personality trait that people either do or don’t have. 

We all have resilience.  And it’s in our capacity to increase it.

This is where this story continues...

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Lessons from Lockdown

As this time of lockdown continues amid the huge impact of Covid-19 on our lives and lifestyle, I have been struck by the number of times I hear about what life will be like once this is over. Which got me thinking… 

When Lockdown is over...

The issue of ‘when lockdown is over’ seems to mean different things to different people. I hear about ‘looking forward to getting back to normal’ and ‘I’m going to keep going with my exercise…’ or ‘I can’t wait for this to all be over’. And in this time of uncertainty, one thing is certain, lockdown and the restrictions that come with it will not be over in the flick of a switch. I think a more accurate way of thinking about this is as lockdown relaxes. However, as the restrictions change this will also bring new levels of uncertainty and take time to adjust.

In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.

David Hollis

Which raises some interesting questions?

  1. How can we focus on the things that really matter to us and move forwards?
  2. How will we continue with the important things once lockdown relaxes?
  3. How can we get better at living with the uncertainty that impacts our everyday life?

So looking at these one at a time...

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Turn Your Plan into Action

This is the third step and final chapter in our Wellness Planning series..

The first step, Why considering a Wellness Plan is a great plan explores what wellness means for you. This is the foundation of your plan. It is a good place to start your planning.

The second step, Build your Wellness Plan gives ideas on creating a practical, personal plan using the 5 Ways to Wellbeing framework.

So the first two steps have all been about building your knowledge around your wellbeing. And this chapter focuses on using your plan to help you when you need it the most - turning your plan into action! This part is the doing.

Remember,

Without this step, nothing changes.

So now it's time for action!

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Build Your Wellness Plan

This is the second chapter in our Wellness Planning series. 

The essence of wellness planning is that we can help ourselves when we are not at full mental fitness by using our understanding of how we think, feel and behave when we feel great. 

A quick reminder of the 3 Step Approach:

  • Step 1 – Know Your Wellness

We covered this in the first chapter Why considering a Wellness Plan is a great plan! This explores what wellness means for you. The foundation of your plan.

A key thing to remember is that wellness is a personal thing and unique to each of us.

  • Step 2 – Build Your Wellness Plan

The focus of this chapter is to create a practical, personal plan using the 5 Ways to Wellbeing framework.

Create your road map to guide you when you feel less twinkly, more vulnerable and your resilience is lower. And do this... when you feel amazing!

The final chapter in this Wellness Planning series. This focuses on how you turn your plan into practical ways to feel amazing. The doing. Without this step, nothing changes.

yellow start on blue background with caption 'it's okay not to feel twinkly.'

So, we are ready to build our plan!

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My Whole Self Campaign – Changing Culture

My Whole Self is a campaign by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, on 18th March, 2020. It is 'calling on organisations to empower employees to bring their whole self to work. It’s better for everyone’s mental wellbeing and better for business.'

MHFA England My Whole Self campaign poster
MHFA England, My Whole Self Day March 18th 2020

What is our Whole Self:

"We should be able to bring all our identity to work - be that our cultural or ethnic background, sexuality, or health."

MHFA England

Thinking about it another way - being open about who we are and all the pieces that make up our whole picture. It makes sense, doesn't it.

And since an organisational culture is created and shaped by all the people who work, behave and act there every day, it also makes sense that these same people have a part to play in this.

So what role can we all play in shaping a culture that values and encourages people for who they truly are? How can we help take this beyond a campaign and make it a way of life?

My Whole Self - What is your picture?

silhouette of a head with 3 jigsaw shaped pieces missing

If there are pieces missing from a jigsaw puzzle the picture is incomplete and won't tell the whole story.

Missing pieces from your Whole Self is similar. The 'picture' won't look or feel right, for you or other people. Whether you leave out some pieces deliberately or subconsciously, living life like this can take a lot of energy and be draining and frustrating.  For example, not talking about anxiety or sexual preference in work for fear of discrimination or stigma.

If you don't bring all the pieces of who you are with you every day how will others see the whole picture as it's meant to be? And this doesn't mean the picture always has to be sunshine and roses; sometimes it will be raining and that is ok.

"When we’re empowered to be our ‘whole self’ at work we can build deeper connections. This helps us to be more understanding of our colleagues, so we work better together."

MHFA England

At Eat, Move, Be Happy we believe we all have responsibility for creating a safe space where everyone can all be their whole selves - whatever the context. And that starts with looking after ourselves - putting our own oxygen mask on first.

Put your own oxygen mask on first

woman in aeroplane seat with oxygen mask on putting an oxygen mask on a child sitting next to her.

Bear with me here... when you are listening to the safety briefing on a plane, the stewards demonstrate the use of the oxygen masks that appear if the cabin loses pressure. The instruction is always to put your own oxygen mask on before trying to help others.  If you can't breath you aren't going to be much use to anyone else!

And this philosophy holds true in every day life. Feeling tired/ worried/ feeling stressed, your energy levels and resilience are lower and typically it is more difficult to concentrate on what you are doing, let alone give attention to colleagues. 

Leaving part of your whole self behind has the same impact. In essence choosing to pretend or hide some of the essential elements of what makes you ‘you’ for whatever reason. Leaving out some pieces of the puzzle means others will experience only part of your picture.

Some of these elements are constant, eg your sexuality, ethnicity or cultural beliefs. Sometimes you experience specific life challenges, for example a relationship breakdown or bereavement, physical health issues or financial worries. These experiences help shape who you are and although are time specific, have the potential to impact your mental health and wellbeing and how others experience you. 

Putting your own metaphorical oxygen mask on, you look after yourself first. Dealing with the issues, whether constant or not, you are then in a much more resourceful place to build stronger connections, work collaboratively and offer support to others.

So how can we all play our part? Some questions worth considering:

  • What are the pieces that make up your complete picture?
  • How often do you leave some pieces behind and why?

Being our whole selves more of the time

At Eat, Move, Be Happy we believe bringing our whole selves to work is... 

 a way of "being", not just about what you are "doing".

A choice we make about all the elements of what makes us the person we are, how we embrace that every day and how much we share with others. 

Being our whole self is not always easy - if it were there would be no need for My Whole Self campaign! For some people, social stigma, misconceptions and ignorance can create fear, isolation and potential discrimination. Our articles What is Mental Health? and How can we fight the stigma against mental ill health? explore some of these issues in relation to mental health.

Being our whole self requires:

Honesty

Being honest with ourselves about the elements that make up our whole self. Ignoring part of our identity isn’t helpful in the long term. 

This requires effort and energy and a desire to work through challenges and take responsibility for difficulties we experience. It doesn’t happen by magic, and we may occasionally need help.

Courage

Being prepared to share our picture complete with all jigsaw pieces, however hard that may feel. This includes all the elements making up our identity and influencing how we think about ourselves and therefore how we behave and act. This is not about being perfect.

This is also being prepared to stand up for what we value and believe in. This may mean making difficult choices and calling it out when we face difficulty or challenge. This is not letting others off the hook, no matter how uncomfortable it might feel.

"Better to live with some uncomfortableness than resentment."

Brene Brown, Research Professor, Social Work

Kindness

Starting with being kind to ourselves. Only when we are kind to ourselves, give ourselves the time to make mistakes, learn and grow, can we be in a position to be kind to others. This is the oxygen mask theory. 

Being accepting that there will have times when life throws one of its curve balls, we will not feel great and may not be able to perform well. This may mean asking for help.

For more on life’s curve balls see Why Considering a Wellness Plan is a Great Plan!

"It is ok not to be ok"

Eat, Move, Be Happy.

Beyond the Campaign

Some of this stuff is tough. As before, if it were easy there would be no need for the My Whole Self campaign. 

To help you start understanding more about your whole self and how you can influence people and the environment you work in, complete the homework below. 

The rest of the Eat, Move, Be Happy Mental Health series also looks at raising awareness about mental health and wellbeing and ways you can look after your mental health.

MHFA England's vision is to improve the mental health of the nation.

"We want people to talk openly about their mental health without feeling embarrassed or ashamed."

Eat, Move, Be Happy

If more of us did this more of the time, we have the potential to shape the culture we work in and make a real difference - beyond the 18th March 2020.

Homework

Start building your wellness plan by going to Why Building a Wellness Plan is a Great Plan! and follow this series as it unfolds.

Answer the question: what are the pieces that make up your whole self? 

Consider 3 new ways to be kind to yourself and share with the Eat, Move, Be Happy online wellbeing community Peer Support Group.

Need further support…

If you are worried about your mental health please seek professional help and advice from your GP. If you cannot visit your GP and need urgent help, visit A&E. 

Other sources of help include:

  • The Samaritans who offer a free, confidential 24 hour helpline.
  • Mind a Mental Health Charity offering information and support line.
  • Time to Change working to end mental health discrimination.

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Why considering a Wellness Plan is a great plan!

time to plan text in a partial clock face with a hand holding a pen
Not everyone's favourite pastime ...

Continuing the Mental Health series by taking your exploration beyond broadening your knowledge and raising your awareness about all things health and wellbeing. Now let's talk about using some of that knowledge and awareness practically, every day. Turn your knowing into doing!

Wellness and planning - not exactly a phrase that runs off the tongue is it.

You might wonder what on earth is a wellness plan and why you even need one. That's ok. This chapter explains how we can all benefit from wellness planning and takes you through our 3 step approach to help build a practical wellness plan and help you put some of the stuff into action... pretty important, that last bit!

This next part of the Mental Health series focuses on why wellness planning is something we can all benefit from, what it is and how to do it. Let's start, in the words of Simon Sinek, with the why...

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How can we fight the stigma against mental illness?

We all have mental health - and yet stigma and discrimination associated with mental ill health are widespread and damaging.

60% of people with a mental health disorder do not seek help from a health professional.
"World Health Organisation 2019"

9 out of 10 people with a mental health problem have experienced stigma and discrimination.
"Time to Change"

The majority of people with a mental health problem wait over a year to tell close friends and family.
"Time to Change"

What are our misconceptions and assumptions and do we recognise them as such? What can we do to better understand mental health for ourselves and others and reduce the stigma against mental illness? And why should we try?

Lots of questions. Let's explore some possible answers...

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