Our fragile mental health

The pandemic has definitely shone a light on mental health and the impact the stress of this new way of living is having on individuals. Whether it’s genetics, how you grew up, your social group, your culture, or your life experience the underlying causes all need to be carefully considered when assisting mental health.

My recent experience is one of moving through grief and I can speak from that place where life becomes very dark at times. I learned early on the best way to manage this shift in mental state is to stop and focus on the breath. Initially, it wasn’t about a traditional style of deep meditation, that emerged a lot later, rather more just stopping what I was doing and taking a few deep breaths. This often occurred in the car at the lights where for a few moments I could pause and just breathe, long slow breaths that filled my lungs and offered a reset of sorts for my mind. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t breathe at all usually as I gasped for air on a trail hiking or cycling up a hill overwhelmed by emotions. But I always came back to the breath. It’s incredibly powerful and has become my go-to tool to change my frame of mind.

Life experience and those we surround ourselves with also greatly impact our mental health. At my fittest when road racing I immersed myself in cycling culture, surrounded by world champion athletes who pushed so hard each day to focus on and improve their fitness, nutrition, and recovery. I was inspired and similarly achieved great things in a very short period of time. My husband was a huge part of this, his motivation to train each day, eat well and support me was such a gift and saw me realise my true potential achieving my 40th birthday goal of cycling up Stelvio Passe, a mountain pass in northern Italy bordering Switzerland at an elevation of  2,758 m above sea level. It is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps. After 18 months of solid training, I reached the summit. One of the most challenging physical and mental endurance events of my life, and nothing more satisfying.

Lockdown has seen an increase in alcoholism or more generally an increase in the amount we drink, whether that’s just to relax after another groundhog day or to provide social fun at home with your partner. Now with the end of lockdown in sight I can see how detrimental it has been to the mental health of those around me, seen from afar, but still noticeable. I’m not talking about the obvious weight gains and yelling heard from across the fence rather the social media posts of negative and often despair from otherwise healthy and happy individuals. I worry about my friends, especially those that have lost their jobs who are slowly sliding further into poor mental health using drugs and alcohol to numb the realities of their new life.

Media reports an enormous increase in the recent need for essential mental health services. I think we can look closer to our community and help with day to day support and much has been written about showing kindness to your neighbours. I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful area surrounded by amazing women (mostly) who regularly check in on my son and I. I’d also like to think this extends more widely to pausing to say hello to the essential workers in our local supermarket, chemist and post office who facing customers each day have an extra load to bear. 

Coming out of lockdown it will be important to assess how we plan to live in this new covid-normal life and those we want in our immediate circle. Those that lift us up, allow us to reach our lofty goals and motivate us to live our best possible life, and protect our sometimes fragile mental health. 

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