Preparing for the COVID Mental Health Crisis
"Preparedness is not a thing, it’s a mindset."
Vincent B. Davis, Director of Disaster Services, Feeding America
Despite what we may hear from higher-ups, being prepared is not about having a disaster kit, buying extra supplies, or having ammunition to protect yourself from others in need. Preparedness is a mindset and a lifestyle.
It’s what you do every day to train your brain and body to respond to emergencies from a place of wisdom rather than being hijacked by primal reactions that hinder our recovery and performance over time.
Now, more than ever, individuals and organizations need to prepare for what we all know comes next when dealing with disasters, whether they be natural or intentional. We must armor up our own internal resources, mental emotional and social fitness to strengthen our flexibility and endurance so that we can navigate these difficult times. And with that the opportunity to come through them better as a result.
I have long taught through my books, courses, and keynotes a simple framework for building brain fitness. This evolved over the past 20 years of research and professional work, but it started more than 40 years ago in my own journey.
When I was a young child, I began suffering from debilitating headaches and stomachaches before I started fainting from time to time. I truly believed my brain was broken because no matter how smart I was or how often I followed doctors' orders, I couldn’t stop my nervous system from shutting me down. The episodes became predictable, especially looking back on them now. A first date, a long flight, a job interview; not exactly ideal times to find yourself suddenly losing consciousness.
Although different medical experts offered different possible diagnoses, one theme was consistent. “It’s probably just stress.” As you can imagine, a child or teenager hearing they should "just relax" or "take a deep breath" is quite stressful indeed. So I guess my research started all those years ago, as I discovered techniques, some healthy some not, to calm my sensitive and stressed out nervous system.
Formally, I became trained in psychology, nutrition, exercise physiology, and integrative neuroscience, as I traveled the globe teaching others best practices. Informally I learned the hard way that what provided temporary relief didn’t work long term, as I became addicted to relationships, work, and other harmful habits.
I share this now because mental health is not something you learn, it’s something you develop. Like a muscle, our brain and nervous system are shaped by experiences, for good or for bad. And like a workout in the gym, we can intentionally develop our mental and emotional capacities of strength, flexibility, and endurance, so that we can move through life with less effort and more ease.
Experiencing our COVID crisis has created an unprecedented opportunity to explore, educate, and empower ourselves and others in extraordinary ways. For those of us who have lived with brain imbalances and mental health disruptions, perhaps we are the most prepared to weather the storm.
When I see the emotional roller coaster of life once again peering its unwelcome head, I know not to fight it but to welcome it in and allow it to do what needs to be done. For decades of experience with what I’ve come to call dancing with depression has taught me that when I try to push my feelings down or aside, they grow and spread like a virus in my own mind. Causing much greater pain and despair. But when I actually lean into the waves of emotion like a surfer who is mastered her craft, I always find a lesson that helps me improve myself, developing greater skillsets for the next swell.
As we look forward to the next few weeks and months ahead, we see clearly that the mental and emotional storms are coming. We must be prepared and build the necessary resources such as self-compassion, curiosity, and kindness. Like any good athlete getting ready for the big game, we don’t wait until the whistle blows to begin the competition. We learn what we need to know (assess), recognize the road will be intense and have setbacks from time to time (appreciate) and choose how we will train for today (adjust).
If we can set a solid foundation of awareness regarding what is needed to support brain health and performance, we can then guide ourselves and each other along the best path to prepare for the battle that lies ahead. With the confidence that we are part of a collective community who is ready and willing to support each other along the way, I know we will be able to not only survive these trials together, but we will become stronger, healthier, and more powerful to make positive change than we ever were before.
Note: I will be back soon to share my fab five fundamentals of brain health and tips to train three core brain fitness capacities over the next few weeks. Until then, please take good care of yourself, and each other.