By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week I’m talking about uncertainty – specifically, how to manage your mental health during times of uncertainty, whether big or small. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version.
A note about my break in April 2020
Before I jump into the episode properly, I want to give you a quick update on where I’m at after taking the month of April off. In March I was really struggling with my anxiety while the world seemed to be turning to shit overnight, as I’m sure many of you were, and I was dealing with the stress of things like my partner being exposed every day at work because the schools were still open here, and all of that meant I was finding it almost impossible to fight the ever-increasing sense of panic and dread I was feeling at the time, which I talked about already with all of you in the previous episodes.
What I didn’t discuss was that, at the same time as things were going from bad to worse, our cat Pushka (who was 17 years old and who has been with us since she was six weeks old) suddenly became quite ill and it was all too much to deal with. Unfortunately, it turned out that her kidneys were failing and the situation deteriorated so quickly that there was no option other than to put her to sleep on April 14. Even just saying those words breaks my heart – I know not everyone gets it when it comes to people who are super-close with their pets, but I loved that cat (and still do) like she was my own child.
When I had my breakdown in 2011 and then spent the next year and a half barely able to leave the couch, let alone the house, while dealing with crippling depression and anxiety, she never left my side once and would snuggle up against me to soothe my pain. At the time my partner was back and forth overseas for work for over 12 months, which was unavoidable, and if it wasn’t for Pushka then I would not be here today. When we had to decide to put her to sleep my heart shattered into a million pieces and it still hasn’t repaired and probably never will to be honest; I’ve learned to adapt without her and I’m getting better every day, but the pain is all-consuming. Ironically, I had originally planned back in February that next week’s episode, Episode 26, would focus on grief so yet again it appears that I’ve pre-empted a topic that becomes highly-relevant for myself around the time it goes out (which keeps on happening a lot with this show, so I’m thinking I need to do an episode on prosperity and abundance shortly so I can see what the universe sends my way!).
Anyway, I wanted to share that with all of you because my focus in Let’s Talk About Mental Health is to talk about my own journey with the ups and downs of mental health as well as sharing practical advice based on quality research. On with this week’s episode…
Dealing with uncertainty
I hope that all of you are starting to find things a bit easier to manage now that we’re slowly settling into this ‘new normal’. I have good days and average days plus the odd bad one, but thankfully they’re few and far between now compared to when it all started. I’m mindful and grateful that I have my health and I know how very fortunate I am to live in the country now; I miss the city sometimes, but I can only imagine how challenging it must be in a densely-populated area like a city with everything going on. I struggled with the impact on my fledgling business as a coach and speaker, but it is what it is and I have no control over it. I’m choosing to focus on the positives: I have a roof over my head, I have food on the table, and with my partner working full-time it means we are incredibly fortunate that we don’t have to worry about making ends meet. For anyone listening/reading who is struggling financially, my heart goes out to you and I say what I always say: focus on what is within your direct control, and take things one day at a time. Things are tough for many, but out of adversity comes opportunity so as hard as it may be find a way to focus on the positives rather than dwelling on the negatives, because like attracts like.
I see this time of uncertainty as a time of opportunity. There’s a quote by an anonymous author that goes, “When everything is uncertain, everything that is important becomes clear,” and it’s clear that things need to change because they just cannot go on the way that they were before. We might not all have wanted things to change, but change is happening regardless of what we want or don’t want so we may as well take the bull by the horns and steer it in the right direction. Real change isn’t safe and cosy; it’s scary and confronting and it shakes you to your very core, and if that isn’t an accurate description of what’s happening to the entire world at the moment then I don’t know what is!
My grandmother used to talk to me about making ends meet during World War II with three boys and having to feed them on rations whilst dealing with the uncertainty of her husband being away at war (and he eventually died in a P.O.W. camp). Over these past months, I remind myself of the amazing sacrifices my Nan made so that her children could eat – all while massive social upheaval was going on around her, and without the luxuries that we have today like FaceTime or Netflix or the internet.
We will adapt. We’ll adapt, because we have to. Humanity has learnt to adapt thousands of times or more throughout history and we will continue to do so long after we’re all gone. Life goes on. We work out what our priorities are, we do what we have to, and we adapt. You will be okay.
You might need to modify your life and your goals for a while, and that’s okay. Maybe it will make you look at things from a different perspective; maybe it will make you go down a path you might never have explored if this didn’t happen. When it comes to uncertainty, you can focus on the negatives, or you can focus on the positives – so even if it feels really difficult to get past the uncertainty and challenges, it’s in the best interests of your mental health and wellbeing to focus on the positive.
With that said, so many people online (which is pretty much where we all live now!) seem to be focused on telling us how to do more so we can pass the time quickly, but let me just say that you are under absolutely no obligation to do anything whatsoever with your time. If the best you can manage today is to get out of bed, good on you. If you’re able to have a shower, even better! There’s been such a focus on “go! go! go!” from Type-A people telling everyone how to make the most of this time and if that feels right to them then great and more power to them, but it’s not fair to make people feel shitty about themselves because they’re struggling to find the energy to drag themselves off the couch. If there’s one thing that’s been reinforced to me over the past few weeks, it’s that the physical effects of burnout (which I discussed in Episode 18) are all-too-real and can result in feeling heavy and lethargic, so if that’s happened to you at all then sometimes you just need to acknowledge that you feel a bit shitty with everything going on and give yourself a bit of a mental break. My thing with that is that you take the time you need to feel what you need to feel, but keep one eye on it – if it’s every single day for days or weeks at a time, then you need to speak to someone about it. Part of being a human being is about finding ways to deal with and adapt to the crap that life throws our way, and if you’re struggling to do that then the single best thing you can do for yourself is to reach out to someone and start the process of healing.
Things you can do to work through times uncertainty
With that in mind, let’s talk through some specific things you can do to make your way through uncertainty.
- Feel what you need to feel – instead of trying to distract yourself from your emotions, sit with uncertainty; feel it and process it. You need to feel what you need to feel, and there’s very few people who just think it’s business as usual anymore, so it’s okay to feel uncertain. You might even feel sadness over the things that have happened to you and your loved ones, or grief over what’s been lost. Feel it, and really process it, so you understand it and it can show you what’s really important to you. Sorrow can serve to shed a light on what really matters in your life. And if you find yourself feeling guilty about your feelings, shut that shit down. As long as you’re not being a self-absorbed arsehole or one of the monsters trying to make a profit off the suffering of others, it’s okay to feel sad or whatever even if you haven’t lost your job or your home or your health. Just because there are people worse off than you, that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel some type of way about your own life.
- Accept that what is, is what is – no amount of shouting or worrying is going to change things. What will be will be, so focus on what you need to focus on in uncertain times: you and your loved ones. I mean, don’t go all Lord of the Flies and treat everybody else like the enemy, but just let them be. How other people handle uncertainty is up to them.
- Control what’s in your direct control (words, actions, feelings) and let go of trying to control what you cannot control – by remaining focused on what you can control and letting go of the rest, you bring yourself far more peace of mind and clarity. A word here about feelings – your thoughts and feelings will often pop up out of nowhere and feel impossible to control, however you can choose to either give in to them or to observe them mindfully and consider what they’re trying to teach you. Most of our feelings are driven by our needs being either met or unmet, so the more you can focus on understanding what’s driving them and then responding, rather than just reacting to your feelings, the more you will begin to find some control over them. It’s not an exact science and it takes time, and you’ll never have complete control, but it certainly is possible to manage your feelings so you control them instead of them controlling you – I’ll be talking about this further over the next couple of months.
- Stick to a routine – get up at the same time, go to bed at the same time, have lunch at the same time. Why? Structure helps you to feel more in control of your immediate circumstances and makes it feel less like that week between Christmas and News Years when anything goes. Even if you’re just getting up at the same time to sit in your pyjamas and binge-watch stuff on Amazon or Netflix or whatever, it’s still a routine.
- Limit your exposure to stuff that adds to your uncertainty – I stopped watching the news years ago when I was in the worst of my depression and anxiety, because it just made things worse, and this is not the time to sit and watch news reports after news report showing empty streets and full hospitals. Don’t stick your head in the sand, but don’t overdo it – I check the news twice a day (morning and late afternoon) on the news website for the ABC in Australia, whose reporting is about as impartial as you can get (not perfect, but pretty good). And be wary about social media – I was sharing funny memes for a while on my personal Instagram account to lighten the mood, but now even those can be triggering if it’s a rough day, so choose what you consume.
- Celebrate the little things – this week the supermarkets reopened online ordering for click and collect, and I felt such joy! Become aware of the little things that are deserving of celebration because life is a collection of small moments.
- Put things into context – we’ve never had to deal with something like this before; the closest comparison in living memory would have to be WWII and the Great Depression… since the 1950’s onwards we’ve had a pretty good run (well, mostly – I know, there have been disasters and tragedies, but the scale of what’s happening now is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes). Feeling uncertain is probably a pretty realistic reaction to everything going on, so don’t beat yourself up. Be gentle with yourself – uncertainty by its very nature means ups and downs, so be gentle with yourself if you find that you’re having ups and downs.
- Be kind to yourself and others – you know how you’ve probably been up, down and all over the place with uncertainty and panic and fear and frustration and all those other awful emotions? So has every single other person in the world – even the horrible ones who carry on like this pandemic is a personal affront to their right to be a moron. Very few people like change or feeling completely out of control, so be kind to others and to yourself and remember that old saying: two wrongs don’t make a right (in other words, don’t add to the negativity that’s out there). I always say to feel what you need to feel, but when it comes to anxiety triggered by uncertainty you don’t need to feel it to know why it’s happening – it happens because of fear, and you can choose to let fear control you or you can choose to focus on hope and kindness and solidarity with your fellow human beings, which I find helps to gently lower my anxiety in those types of situations. So, be kind to others and to yourself.
- Take things one day at a time – I usually say this somewhere in every episode and it’s no surprise that I would say it now, because it’s more relevant than ever before. Worrying about tomorrow isn’t going to help, so focus on today and today only; do what you need to do to get through today and take things one step at a time. As long as it doesn’t harm you or others, then you do what you need to do.
- Less yearning, more learning – rather than spending all your time yearning for things to go back to the way they were, learn from this because things cannot ever go back; nothing will be the same again, and that’s actually a good thing. Things happen and it’s up to each of us to make sense of them and integrate them into our way of being. We are being given an enormous opportunity right now – this is a chance to pause, reflect, and decide what type of world we want at the end of all this. We need to learn from this. Because things cannot go back to the way they were. We’re all being shown that the only thing any of us know for certain is that our priorities are actually tied up in those we care most deeply about, which is as it should be.
When it comes to uncertainty, what it all boils down to is this: uncertain times can serve to be a catalyst for positive change because uncertainty challenges us to find a way to rise above pain and sorrow and grief, and instead to build something completely new. Out of adversity comes opportunity. You have a unique opportunity to reshape your life in any way you like so that you can focus on what really matters to you, and you have an amazing opportunity to contribute to shaping a better world by demanding that we learn the lessons we need to learn from all of this by ensuring fairness for all. This might be a scary time, but I for one feel that we stand on the precipice of something big, something exciting, and I plan to do my part, however small, to contribute to a better tomorrow.
To finish up, let me take a moment to share a quote about this week’s topic that I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the Greek philosopher Epictetus, and it is:
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”Epictetus
That’s it for this week’s episode. Next week I’ll be talking about grief – how to manage your mental health and wellbeing during times of grief. I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada. You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
Just quickly before I go, I’ve decided to stop the weekly Mental Health Talk newsletter for the time being as I need to find a way to balance my time with a number of different projects, plus it was important for me to find a way to ease myself back into my podcast work without feeling swamped – sometimes you just have to slow your pace down and do what you can manage! I may bring it back in the future, but for now I’ll just be focusing on the weekly episodes.
You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest – I’ve just changed the account name to better reflect the focus on mental health and make it easier for new people to identify what LTAMH is all about, so the new username is now @ltamentalhealth on all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest).
Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know because word of mouth is a great way to help other people find Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and I’d really appreciate it if you could take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform). Thanks!
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.