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As coronavirus crept closer to the UK, as did the familiar tug of dread, lurching up from my stomach; the Ice Age relic reminding us to ‘stay alert’. A hidden threat surrounding family and friends, the inability to keep loved ones safe. Routines established to support well-being stopped without warning. Access to support networks blocked. I felt a tightening around my neck, stabbing in my hands and feet, metal upon my tongue, white noise jamming out lucid thoughts.
The panic-triggering memories of posttrauma and each day my breath quickened at fear of where this may take me. The daily energy it takes to rationalise thoughts is like a marathon and I am exhausted before opening my eyes. Yet experience informs me that I have a choice; I know that I am equipped to grow from this as I have before.
I reached for Shawn Achor’s Happiness Advantage. As well as supporting the journey towards posttraumatic growth, the Happiness Advantage provides strategies that will increase your ‘happiness baseline’. So how did strategies used to increase my well-being and support my growth following trauma, help me through lockdown?
Commit conscious acts of kindness
On 12th March, at the Downing Street Briefing, Sir Patrick Vallance countered the nation’s fears, with talk of an ‘outbreak of altruism’. I committed to using my expertise in leadership and education by coordinating support for vulnerable groups. Acts of altruism decrease stress and contribute to enhanced mental health; Achor recommends picking one day a week to commit five acts of deliberate and conscious kindness. Simon Sinek expands on this in ‘mindset moments’: conscious acts of kindness release oxytocin not only in the people sharing the kindness, but in witnesses who will go on to spread the kindness, leading to an outbreak of altruism.
Find something to look forward to
When first recovering from trauma this world had wider horizons and our plans saw us journey through Europe. Lockdown led to less options, but we retain optimism and seek gratitude in every day. Whether there is the chance to make a supreme hot chocolate, have a hot bath with a cocktail or camp in the garden, find an opportunity for ‘golden time’ in every day.
Infuse positivity into your surroundings
Make the most of your exercise time to get outside, to breathe in the fresh air and soak up some Vitamin D. Spending at least 20 minutes outside can not only improve your mood but improves working memory. Looking up from your phone gives a fresh perspective on your neighbourhood and stems your sense of ‘overwhelm’. If you are hitting ‘refresh’ as a strategy to protect your loved ones, take a step back and gain some perspective.
You can consider what are your sources and how often are you seeking updates? I added time limits (in settings) to social media and hid apps. This made me conscious of how my craving had become an addiction.
Playing the piano and swimming were two hobbies I excelled at in school and both provided me with sanctuary. Playing the piano, I find my flow and my breathing slows in time with the music. Swimming, I feel the same transcendence. I watch my fingers move through the water and my mind clears; my breathing deepens and paces with my strokes. White noise clears; this is my moving meditation. Research shows that in addition to meditation leaving us calmer, it can thicken the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory and shrink the amygdala which is responsible for fear, anxiety and stress. Mindful meditation and breathing raises levels of happiness and lowers stress as well as improves immune systems making us healthier overall.
We know that exercise gives you the dopamine ‘good feels,’ but it can also make you perform better at work because of the increased motivation and sense of ‘mastery’. While in lockdown, in the period March to April 2020 (compared to the same period five years ago), people in the UK spent an increase of 4.4% of their time keeping fit according to the Office for National Statistics. Whether it is going for a run, or tai chi in the park, boost your mood and your motivation.
Exercise a signature strength
Psychologists feel that building on our strengths is the key to well-being and happiness. The Values in Action Inventory assesses which of the 24 strengths are your ‘signature strengths’. If you incorporate key strengths into each day, you will feel happier. Love of Learning is my key strength, so I ensure that I take time each day to read journals or books, with my highlighters at the ready. I found in lockdown, I enjoy ‘distanced’ quizzes rather than games.
Spend money but not on stuff
The concept here is to use your money on ‘doing’, rather than on ‘having’. Many people in the UK have invested in improving their home environment during lockdown, with an increase of 23.7% of people spending time gardening and doing DIY in March and April 2020 (compared to the same time five years ago, according to the office of National Statistics). Spending money on ‘prosocial spending’, for others, can also increase our sense of happiness. The trend for ‘letterbox’ gifting has taken off and donations to charities can be best demonstrated in over £32 million raised by Captain Sir Tom Moore.
While there’s no expectation that anyone would be able to fit all of the ideas above into one day of lockdown life, there is evidence that by integrating these exercises gradually you will start to feel better, you will feel more motivated, more positive and essentially you will feel happier.
Growth through lockdown top tips
- 5 kind acts 1 day a week
- 1 thing to look forward to every day
- 3 gratitudes every day
- Review and reduce news intake
- 5 minutes deep breathing
- Move your body
- Use your talents
- Spend money doing, not having
Image credit: Freepik
Elizabeth Swan is a former headteacher, Sendco, teacher, published author, and keynote speaker.