For National Stress Awareness Day, Brendan Street, Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health, explains how creating a mental fitness regime can prepare us for the colder months, especially as we face another lockdown.

Stress is the perception that our resources don’t meet the demands placed on us. It’s a huge contributor to our overall mental health and wellbeing. A certain amount of stress in life is normal and can motivate us to act. However, too much stress can lead to mental ill health, or make existing problems worse.

National Stress Awareness Day aims to raise awareness of the effects of stress, and what you can do to manage it. 2020 has been a year where conversations about mental health are now more common than ever before, with many more of us now willing to discuss our psyches as well our physiques – not surprising given the impact of the COVID situation on our emotional wellbeing.

Ongoing fear, uncertainty, isolation and disruption to our everyday routines has taken a toll on people’s mental health. The Centre for Mental Health forecast that a staggering 10 million people will need mental health support in the coming months and years due to the pandemic.

But if we create coping strategies, and improve existing ones, we can ease our stress and build resilience against potential stressors as we head into a second lockdown this winter.

Riding out the storm

COVID-19 has affected every one of us. And although we’re all in the same storm, we’re riding the waves in very different boats. Some of these boats we inherited, with little say over their size and seaworthiness. Social, economic, political and cultural factors have all impacted on the resources used to construct and maintain our vessels – our ability to cope.

Some of us may have already experienced rough seas in our lives, such as relationship problems, financial insecurity, grief and loss, which perhaps left us with a less storm-ready boat to begin with.

We all came into this storm with unique ‘stress signatures’ – our own ideas about how best to navigate the choppy waters. It’s no surprise therefore that we react in different ways, sometimes coming together within our communities, and at other times finding ourselves deeply divided.

How you feel tomorrow starts today

Many of us are already experiencing a growing sense of unease at the prospect of a winter lockdown as the COVID-19 situation shows no immediate signs of subsiding.

As well as tighter restrictions – such as gyms, restaurants, pubs and non-essential shops closing – other challenges include uncertainty about how long the Government’s furlough scheme will last, Brexit returning to our newsfeeds, and the influenza season beginning.

All of these potential stressors come at a time when the lack of sunlight, shorter days and being cooped up inside already have a known detrimental impact on mood and wellbeing.

“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” – John F Kennedy

Mental health is far more than simply the absence of mental illness. It’s the ability of each one of us to reach our full potential, to be true to ourselves, leading a life of meaning and value, able to withstand the challenges we face along the way.

While the sun may not quite be shining at the moment, now is the time to invest in our mental health, by developing resources in order to cope with lockdown restrictions in the colder months.

Barriers to mental health support

First, we need to be able to access the necessary support. Unfortunately, there are still some barriers to getting the right help at the right time, and research has proven these barriers exist.

For example, men are far less likely to seek support for mental health than women, making up only 36% of referrals to mental health services. 75% of suicides in 2018 were males, and suicide represents the largest cause of death for men under 50.

Higher rates of suicide are also found in minority communities including gay men, war veterans, men from BAME background, and those with low incomes. Mind reports, for example, that existing inequalities have made the mental health of BAME groups worse during the pandemic, which is further compounded by disparities in access to mental health services.

And despite the fact that menopause is a serious issue for women in the workplace, almost half of women don’t seek any medical advice, and the majority state that they don’t feel comfortable talking about it with their line managers. One in four women even consider leaving their jobs due to menopausal symptoms.

How to improve your mental fitness

Many of us start building a physical training regime when we want to improve our physical fitness, perhaps for health reasons, or maybe to prepare for a challenge such as a 10K run. So why not work on your emotional resilience too?

Let’s embrace stress awareness day by planning a mental fitness regime to help us to prepare for another lockdown – and encourage our friends, family, colleagues and community to do the same.

A good starting point is to identify our healthy coping techniques. These can include hobbies such as yoga and cooking, and habits such as reading before bed and practising self care. When we’re faced with an increase in stressors, it’s important to make sure that we also increase these healthy coping resources, so that we can stay emotionally balanced.

Here are some areas we suggest you focus on. Within each, try and find which coping techniques work best for you, as you’ll be more likely to stick to them:

Good sleep routine – both stress and the lack of sunlight can affect your sleep, so creating a good bedtime routine can help you sleep soundly

Walking/exercise – getting your body moving is a great way to shake off stress, and it can also help you sleep better at night – why not try our new digital fitness platform, Nuffield Health 24/7, with over 100 workouts on demand?

Eating well – stress can weaken your immune system, so make sure you look after your gut with plenty of immunity-boosting foods

Worry management – it’s easy to get into a cycle of worry when you’re stressed, so to combat this you can use a technique called ‘Worry Time’ – setting aside time to worry about it later so it doesn’t interfere with your day

Regular contact with family and friends – checking in with loved ones and talking through any problems can decrease feelings of stress.

We also recommend our Mental Health and Workplace Wellbeing hubs, which offer lots of advice and resources to help you develop your mental fitness.

Adapting to the seasons

Part of being resilient is the ability to adapt to changing situations, so it’s important we learn to acclimatise to these tighter restrictions, just as we naturally adapt to the seasons. For instance, we may not be able to go to the gym right now, but we can still exercise outside – it may not be as pleasant out there as the spring/summer lockdown was, but it’s just a case of dressing for the weather.

Sometimes there is only so much we can do on our own, so if you need support, reach out to friends and family.
And if you need a bit of extra help, we also offer mental health support.
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