“A lot of health professionals went through mental health crises as the pandemic was unfolding,” says Barbara Collen,* an emergency room nurse. “Protocols were still being figured out, and relying on a smaller supply of protective equipment than was needed added to the stress of the whole situation.”
There’s no doubt that our individual and collective mental health has been affected, but the lessons that started, and continue to emerge were not of defeat but of resilience.
We witnessed stories of fear-fuelled divisiveness, mostly over health regulations and immunization policies, but somehow, stories of kindness prevailed. That’s because no matter how troubling the events unfolding were, people dug deeper into compassion, reinforcing the collective belief in the greater good.
“What helped me a lot, aside from speaking to a counsellor,” says Collen, “was the knowledge that we [health] were all in the same situation, and that meant we could support each other.” Also, knowing that most people were supportive made a big difference.
Redefining mental well-being
The simplest definition of mental well-being? Our ability to cope well with whatever life throws at us, to appreciate our own potential under challenging circumstances, to work productively, and to contribute to our communities.
It sounds straightforward enough, as far as definitions go. When it comes to real life, though, we might find ourselves having to bypass some textbook definitions or at least having to constantly readjust them so they fit our needs and coping mechanisms.
Resilience is an important concept
In the engineering world, resilience is defined as the ability to absorb energy and resist shock and impact.
When it comes to us humans, though, resilience is as complex as we are. It means being able to care for ourselves so we can also care for others, remembering to focus not just on the stressful events unfolding but on what comes afterward. It also means being flexible and willing to learn, grow, and adapt.
Our ability to be there for each other is vital during any crisis. During the pandemic, people who had social support from family and friends and unrestricted access to emotional support reported increased resilience.
Eat well to boost mental immunity
Have you ever enjoyed a healthy home-cooked meal replete with nutrient-packed colours and textures and discovered that, not only did you feel more energized by the time you finished it, but your mental state was much better, too?
Whole foods are loaded with nutrients, including antioxidants, minerals, and fibre, that arm our gut with microbiota important for improving overall health, including mental health, through a connector known as the gut-brain axis. Certain probiotic strains also produce compounds that, through this connector, influence our mental state, reducing stress and anxiety and improving our mood.
Almost 95 percent of serotonin, sometimes called the “happiness hormone,” is produced in the gut. This is why, when we eat mostly fresh veggies and fruit, legumes, nuts, and seeds, we benefit from a steady production of mood-boosting compounds produced within our gut microbiome.
Get moving for better resilience
Being physically active will help boost your mood almost immediately, but when done regularly, it protects you from long-term stress and reduces your risk of cognitive decline down the road. That’s due, in part, to an increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neurogenesis and reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain.
Before you say time is preventing you from getting regular exercise, consider this: anything works. Go for a walk (exercising outdoors plus sunshine equals increased resilience), turn up the music and dance, or do a yoga session at home.
Regular physical activity also improves the diversity and richness of beneficial gut bacteria, which in turn helps alleviate stress and anxiety.
Practise compassion as a stepping stone to resilience
When people are faced with stressful situations, there is fear of course, but there is also the urge to help others. When we act with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness toward our fellow humans, we increase our own mental resilience.
“The pandemic and resulting regulations were scary for many people, which made them reactive, but withholding judgment and instead trying to understand their fear of uncertainty made it easier to forgive outbursts in others and act compassionately,” says Collen.
Because we’re each different, our capacity for resilience differs. But here’s the good news: we can train toward increased resilience, and we can do so through compassion—whether on our own through mindfulness, with the help of counsellors, or through a more formal and organized spiritual setting.
Regardless of how we get there, cultivating positive values and beliefs can improve our adaptability and strength as we go through life, allowing our resilience to grow as we traverse through challenges.
Supplements to support mental resilience
|omega-3 essential fatty acids||support brain health, and can help reduce anxiety and depression|
|probiotics||certain strains can help reduce stress and anxiety via the gut-brain axis or by reducing cortisol levels|
|camomile and lavender||anxiolytic and antidepressant effects|
|ashwagandha||reduces cortisol levels and improves sleep quality|
|Asian ginseng||may help promote calmness|
|holy basil||used to enhance ability to adapt to psychological and physical stress|
|rhodiola||used to help reduce stress, fatigue, and anxiety, and improve physical and mental fitness and resilience|
How did COVID makes us feel?
More than half of Canadians reported that their mental health has worsened during the pandemic, with women between the ages of 18 and 54 being most affected. The good news is that four in five Canadians said the pandemic offered an opportunity to reconsider their life priorities.
Adopt the new “F” word: Forgiveness
You may have heard it said that forgiveness does more for those who give it than for those who receive it. It’s true. Forgiveness increases self-esteem, emotional stability, and resilience. When we forgive and let go of resentment, we make it easier for ourselves to recover from stress and trauma.