If COVID has taught us anything, it is the need to look for answers beyond the perimeters of that which we have always considered as our safe grounds. When your natural habitat is no longer a place of security, then you need to venture into newer land.
The uncertainty of a global pandemic has taken its toll on our mental health. Examining Dr Paulann Grech’s latest book, Dealing with Coronus, takes us beyond mental well-being during COVID-19 and into a discussion about mindfulness and what it means for our mental health.
I braced myself to read Dealing with Coronus, Dr Paulann Grech’s new book on mental health during the coronavirus pandemic, along the Marsascala promenade thinking that being outside must be good for my well being. I observed the late afternoon rays peaking atop layered homes, hitting me with the perfect amount of warmth. And as I sat positioned towards the setting sun, I couldn’t help predicting what bits of advice would beckon an inner (perhaps even slightly bitter) monologue.
Admittedly, there were thoughts and pieces of advice I had come across before, even ways of being that I proudly already adhere to. Yet so much of the delight and surprise came from being able to connect with the author, a person whose life was completely different from mine but who still faced daily struggles that I found endearingly familiar. From daunting Zoom calls peppered with ‘You’re on mute!’ to manic to-do listing in the middle of a sleepless night, perhaps it was these connections that made Grech’s mental health notes easier to take in rather than defaulting to defensiveness over why aspects of self-care seem unachievable.
The book opens with Day One of Isolation, 23rd March. I recalled the surreal feeling of an approaching Armageddon. Grech immediately quips with a light-hearted sigh that this is it, and will be it, for the foreseeable future. I found myself smiling as I was faced with a very simple message backed by a very simple justification: reflect and learn from that reflection.
Stop. Think. Reflect
But how does one reflect? Is it really that easy? Grech thinks so. The key is not to overthink it, she says. ‘The reality is that reflection is not rocket science — the real challenge is finding the time to do it! A good tip to reflect is to STOP, then try to look at an event or a situation by imaging that you are an external observer overlooking the scenario. What can you see? What interactions are going on? And, what could have been dealt with in a better way?’
By taking the time to sit with our own thoughts, we are allowing ourselves to learn. As one study from Nursing Education Perspectives in 2013 highlighted, self-reflection goes a long way in developing awareness and confidence in the learning process itself. Reflection may lead to future situations being handled in different ways. But it goes much further than that. Reflection can shape our understanding of the world and bring us back to the reason we do the things we do, rather than getting lost in the end product. Reflection begets questioning, which in the context of work and projects, may then develop into fruitful collaborations and a stronger end result.
As mental health comes to the fore, reflection crops up in more and more conversations about well-being. In fact, multiple magazines, websites, and newspapers have opened up dialogue with regard to mental well-being during isolation, such as: Time (Ducharme, 2020), WebMD (Gillihan, 2020), and the NY times (Goldfarb, 2020). Yoga and meditation are key practices that encourage us to keep our minds active and remove toxic relationships from our lives.
Although these are all valid in their own right, I was excited to read about the need to be creative. Creativity is a major player in mental health. It not only aids in dealing with crises, such as that pesky virus leaving us all in a state of constant uncertainty — COVID-19, if you weren’t catching my drift — but it also slows aging, reduces stress, and improves our overall well-being. Perhaps when we engage creatively, we realise our potential to create the next great work of art rather than closing our eyes and thinking, ‘I could never do that’.
Creativity is also a tool for managing unknowns. In other words, plan to wing it! Where would improvisation lead us in times of isolation? And what would emerge from working creatively together, perhaps not with a strategic approach in mind, but merely the act of gathering different types of people in a space to share ideas and engage in creative exercises?
Grech writes in her book that finding time to be creative and ‘get lost’ in an activity to the point where you lose touch with time, is essential. I asked her to elaborate on why creativity is so important: ‘Creativity is the antithesis of sickness and death, of worries and anxieties. When you are creative you ‘get in the flow’. It is this immersive process that gives that sense of fulfillment and meaning to one’s life.’
She adds, ‘To not be creative is to risk doing the same thing over and over again, never questioning whether things may be done in a better, more meaningful way. Being creative gives one a purpose and that is unarguably a super boost to mental health.’
Is this to say that creativity is the holy grail of mental health? I wouldn’t go that far; rather, creative practice allows us to tap into other parts of ourselves, to explore our mind to reveal new ideas. It gives us respite and a chance to remove ourselves from the doom and gloom of what is an unprecedented reality. So can we escape? Should we? Absolutely. Sometimes.
All this thinking has got me thinking: repeated messages of taking care of our bodies to maintain physical health and live longer are now being applied to mental health. If we take care of our minds, could this also contribute to an increased life span? Afterall, exercising our brains outside of its regular activities, making more neural connections with sparks of miniscule fireworks, suggests more productivity, less stress and overall improved wellbeing.
Engaging in creativity and reflection works our brain, and apparently, shockingly, our brains love working! Perhaps the kindest thing we can do for ourselves is ensure that we offer our minds a diversity of ways to keep the neurons jumping. This brings us back to the running theme present throughout Coronus: mindfulness. And although it may sound a lot like the consumptive proclamations of a self-identified yogi — feel your emotions, taste what you eat — it is no less important and relevant as we currently endure a second wave of the infamous virus.
In a word, mindfulness is awareness. To practice mindfulness is to be truly, authentically in the present — not just aware of our surroundings, but aware of ourselves, our feelings, and our bodies. There are many ways to be present, just as there are many ways that one can meditate. The most important thing is that we make an active effort to recognise the present, whether it’s simply acknowledging in our heads what we are eating in the moment that we are actually chewing, or observing what we see, hear, feel, and smell as we commute from one place to another.
Grech’s book intentionally ends with a challenge — as if everything stated above wasn’t challenging enough! She advises us to push ourselves beyond our boundaries, to take risks, and tick the boxes off our bucket lists with vigour. I asked why she decided to end the book with this particular tip in mind. Her response: ‘If COVID has taught us anything, it is the need to look for answers beyond the perimeters of that which we have always considered as our safe grounds. When your natural habitat is no longer a place of security, then you need to venture into newer land.’
She continues by stating, ‘When there is an earthquake, you need to hop off to avoid falling into the cracks. And that is exactly what most of us had to do when our routines came tumbling down on us. Whilst it was unsettling, it was perhaps a nudge to rethink our life and the way we do things.’
It is hard to deny that the global pandemic has forced nearly all of us to alter our daily routines. Perhaps in the act itself of doing things differently, we may begin to reflect on the way we live. We may begin to approach our jobs and our relationships with fresh perspectives and a renewed, motivated desire to take on challenges that had previously been laid to rest for millenia. And most importantly, we can do all of this mindfully.
Ganzer, C., & Zauderer, C. (2013). Structured Learning and Self-Reflection: Strategies to Decrease Anxiety in the Psychiatric Mental Health Clinical Nursing Experience. Nursing Education Perspectives, 34(4), 244-247. https://doi.org/10.1097/00024776-201307000-00007
Webb, G., & Chevreau, F. (2006). Planning to improvise: the importance of creativity and flexibility in crisis response. International Journal Of Emergency Management, 3(1), 66. https://doi.org/10.1504/ijem.2006.010282