Mental health is like the weather
I really like the description of mental health being like the weather. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s fair and sometimes it’s really bad! It de-stigmatises poor mental health as it normalises it and helps us see that we are all on a spectrum. Having had my own brush with panic attacks brought on by extreme insomnia I had to learn the hard way that it’s not binary i.e. the world is not divided into the haves and the have-nots when it comes to mental health. I had such a strong feeling at the time that “this cannot be happening to me”. Such an arrogance! I was firmly put in my place by my doctor saying quite candidly that I was precisely the type to develop panic attacks.
Thankfully, with all adversity comes learning. And I have learned a lot from my own experience and also from others. I seem to coach so many more people who have experienced bouts of depression, insomnia and anxiety since discovering I was also prone. I’m pretty sure that as my own attitude to mental health problems has changed so has people’s preparedness to open up to me. Maybe I was unintentionally signalling that you had to be on your game when you came to me for a coaching session. Or, maybe people are now just much more open about it. I will never know the truth of it but I’m grateful that I am now well equipped with some good techniques for calibrating and coping with mental weather. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad weather gear!
So here is some gear to help you battle the elements.
It starts with the basics. Are you getting enough sleep, exercise and are you eating healthily? I imagine these like fuel tanks. If any of these tanks is empty you are not going to function well. It’s unavoidable nowadays that there will be times you are running on empty but if it’s a few months and nothing has changed you need to recognise that something does need to change or you will, like I did, come to a grinding halt. Managing your energy is crucial and that’s about figuring out what zaps you and what ignites you. Make sure you do enough of the latter to help you cope with the former.
In my business, we do a lot of parental transition coaching. It’s so hard to manage your energy when you are a new parent. It can feel like you’re barely getting by. There will be days when you can’t tackle the big stuff and days, after a great night’s sleep, when you are raring to go. Choose one of those days to consider my next weather management tool.
This exercise is to help you manage your mental weather over the longer term.
First you have to imagine that you are one of those circus acts with 3 plates wobbling on sticks. One has Personal Fitness on it, one has Career Fitness on it and the third has Job Fitness on it.
The idea is, like in the circus act, you have to keep giving all 3 plates a little jiggle every now and again to stop them crashing to the floor. (When you’re a parent it feels like you’re also on a unicycle and juggling at the same time!) It is very important to keep checking in on your 3 plates. Let me explain the plates:
This is the day job. This is making sure you get the job done. It’s responsible for about 90% of the emails you receive and the meetings you attend. It makes up the majority of the tasks on your To Do list. It DEMANDS your focus. If you don’t look after your job fitness you’ll get fired.
Or will you?
In my experience there is a strong tendency among women (not exclusively I must say, it’s not all down to gender) to focus on the Job Fitness plate to the exclusion of the other two plates. This is not a good tactic. Nowadays jobs are not very well delineated and most of the people I coach simply cannot do everything that’s expected of them.
Most people’s To Do lists are still full at the end of the day and it’s rare that I meet anyone who successfully clears their inbox every day. This can lead to a real feeling of stress. i believe that being able to tick off a number of achievements each day is at the heart of motivation, and good mental health.
So, what’s the solution to all this stuff coming at you relentlessly?
Well, you need to look at jiggling the other two plates rather than overly focusing on the Job Fitness plate. This is counterintuitive because the job fitness plate gives the impression of wobbling much more than the other two. But that’s an illusion. It’s just that you’re standing right next to it.
The second spinning plate which is the Personal Fitness one. And this covers both physical and mental fitness. To be able to keep the Job Fitness plate spinning you actually need to pay attention to the Personal Fitness plate. If you don’t have your fuel tanks topped up as explained above, then you won’t be able to spin any plates at all. So, getting enough sleep, exercise and nutrition are essential. Feeling happy is also a requirement. Part of feeling happy is feeling that what you do has a purpose and it is meaningful and chimes with your values.
Does your job let you be your best self?
And that brings me to the third plate – the Career Fitness plate. This is the plate that often gets overlooked. It’s the less immediate priority. Focusing on your career rather than getting on with the job in hand can feel slightly self-indulgent. It’s hard to stand back and consider your strengths and what motivates you and where you could really add value. Doing this kind of self-examination is in our long-term interests but won’t get the day job done and so we find ourselves putting it off in favour of answering a few more emails. But you do need to jiggle this plate every now and again because once you find a job that does play to your strengths and chimes with your values and gives you meaning you will find that spinning the 3 plates is not hard at all.
Of course we can’t all be in our ideal jobs but we can strive towards it and that is the key. By having direction you can then help to sort out those endless tasks in your day job. You need to prioritise and so why not try prioritising by asking yourself the question, “which of these tasks is in service of my longer-term vision?” Prioritising like this is not self-indulgent, it’s just part of wearing sensible bad weather gear.
Geraldine Gallacher is Managing Director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy