Trim down your expectations to survive lockdown three and follow these tips to keep mentally fit, advises Dr Eithne Hunt, lecturer at the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy in University College Cork.
Last lockdown for me was like a slow puncture. A gradual reduction of joy in life. Not necessarily noticeable from day to day, no warning light on the dashboard, but strikingly so weeks on, when I was allowed to visit family, meet friends and shop for pleasure not sustenance, albeit it safely masked and distanced. The joy in those moments was a stark reminder of their absence in the preceding weeks.
And here we are again. Lockdown number three as a new year begins, a much more worrying landscape, the promise and protection of vaccines some months away for most of us. So, this new year for my health and wellbeing, I am trimming down and firming up only one thing – my expectations and associated habits.
US sociologist Christine Carter recommends aligning how we spend our time with our values, such that we spend 95% of our time on our top 5 priorities. I knew facing into this lockdown and resultant ‘homeschooling’ that our 11-year-old son’s wellbeing was top priority for my husband and me, as the school closure last spring had had a hugely negative impact on his happiness and health.
Naming this helped us figure out our (reduced) work schedules and also prompted me to let go of some activities and aspirations that are not serving me well, for now.
For example, I took a Twitter sabbatical (too much doom scrolling and blood boiling) and decided not to pursue inviting an undergraduate student to work with me this summer on a scholarship opportunity.
I cannot do it all right now, and something’s got to give. What are your top priorities, for now, and can you work towards aligning how you spend your time accordingly?
Another expectation I have trimmed down is daily exercise. My usual target, albeit infrequently achieved, is swimming or walking for an hour or so most days of the week. Now, my goal is the 100 days of walking challenge of 30 minutes a day.
Because I am not a natural lover of exercise, I hold in mind King’s College London physiotherapist Brendon Stubbs’ fascinating research which has shown that even small amounts of physical activity afford powerful benefits for mental wellbeing. Can you fit a little movement into your day?
To turbocharge the benefits of my walks, I try to get outside in bright, natural daylight when I can, knowing that this simple action can improve my sleep and by extension my physical and mental health. With enhanced sleep quality in mind, I’ve also tweaked my morning habits.
I now have only one cup of coffee per day. I’ve ordered a fancy new milk frother so I can enjoy the pleasure of a foamy cappuccino in the safety of home, until I can get to visit my favourite and sorely missed cafes again. I try to savour this one coffee as a moment of joy in the day.
In the session on Tending Joy and Growing Gratitude in the University College Cork Everyday Matters: Healthy Habits for University Life digital badge, we explore the work of Brene Brown who reminds us that “Joy is not a constant. It comes to us in moments—often ordinary moments. Sometimes we miss out on the bursts of joy because we’re too busy chasing down extraordinary moments”.
With extraordinarily joyful times pretty thin on the ground and our brains’ in-built negativity bias on the constant lookout for danger, activated more than ever by the omnipresent threat of Covid-19, we need to consciously look for the positive and tend the joy in our everyday lives, in the ordinary activities and exchanges that give shape and rhythm to our days.
As William Martin argues, when we find the wonder and marvel of an ordinary life, the extraordinary will take care of itself. How can you punctuate your day with small moments of joy?
As our day draws to a close, my son and I try to do a micro (3 minutes) mindfulness practice together, listening to the Headspace app. There is as yet no established minimum effective dose (MED) for meditation.
Instead, Richie Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of the book The Science of Meditation, points out that the MED is that which you can commit to doing regularly.
Three minutes of mindfulness daily wires that experience into our brains in a way that 45 minutes every couple of weeks does not. That’s why the 10% Happier podcast and app reminds followers that “even one minute counts in the #NewYearNoJudgment meditation challenge”. Can you carve out a few moments of the 1440 minutes in your day to just be?
Whether it’s deep sleep or daytime walks, frothy cappuccinos or micro meditations, can you trim down your expectations and firm up your daily habits to support your health and wellbeing in these extraordinary times? If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that ordinary activities matter.
Dr Eithne Hunt is an occupational therapist and lecturer at the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, UCC and academic advisor to UCC’s Graduate Attributes Programme.