By John Chacksfield MSc, DipCOT, PGCE – PhD Researcher, Faculty of Health & Wellbeing
This article comes at a time when we have another excellent opportunity to focus on equality for the one in four people in our population who has experienced mental health difficulties, namely Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, but also at the time in the run up to the General Election. As an observer of human nature, I could not help asking myself what the electoral candidates must be feeling at this time, and how the pre-election atmosphere must be affecting their mental wellbeing. I thought about standing for election, until I had the thoughts that comprise this article!
If I was a politician who had been in post but suddenly faced with an announcement of a ‘snap’ general election, what must I be thinking? I suppose the answer might fall into three main categories:
- Personal impact
- Competitive edge
- Image-related anxiety
Personal impact is clear. I would be feeling pretty stressed and thinking to myself, “Oh no not again!” After all the hard work of being elected the last time, I have to do the whole thing again, meet dozens of people, and deal with the anxiety of not being re-elected or perhaps assuming I am going to be elected but not wishing to be too complacent. If I had some mental health awareness, then I would be trying to mitigate my stress with a series of relaxation techniques, exercise, massage and other coping strategies. If I did not have any awareness of mental health, I might possibly have increased my alcohol or nicotine intake and be leaning on family and friends for support – whether they liked it or not. Am I stressed already? Am I, in mental health terms, now one of the one in four?
Competitive edge is what the electoral process is all about. Finding out about the latest manifesto announcement from another party and trying to think how I can reframe this to my best advantage, trying to keep on my toes and face the world, armed with the best thinking processes possible. I might worry about meeting key people and groups of constituents, making sure I know what to say to them. Thinking about my best ‘elevator pitch-type’ speech that might enthuse them to vote for me. The endless trudging around streets, talking to householders, some of whom I know will be planning to vote for the other party. Will forget the human being that is standing in front of them and discriminate against me because of my political association? Meeting and talking to people who want an argument, or people who I secretly know I might not like, yet I still have to maintain a face of respectability, while pounding down my inner prejudice and ignoring my favourite ego-defence mechanisms. (It’s ok, I can kick the door later).
That leads on to the whole issue of personal image. The major anxieties about horror stories of politicians pilloried by the hostile press and public embarrassment or the small and simple anxieties about what if my suit is unbuttoned during a speech and everyone laughs, not hearing my words. How should I dress? I cannot afford an image consultant perhaps. Does my hair look nice? Are my teeth shiny enough? Does my behind look good in this? These small concerns add to my anxiety and challenge my cool calm, professional exterior. Should I roll my sleeves up and drink a beer? Should I relax or be standing stiff-upper-lipped and stern? Should I bring a dog or hold a child? It is all about image these days. What should I tweet or type on Facebook? What picture might someone take and doctor then publish for the unsympathetic world to tear apart? Can I win friends and influence people? Will anyone put my poster in their window? Will they identify my sex, sexuality, gender, disability or ethnicity? Am I the ‘right’ category, will they still listen? Even if I believe in something else, how do I say the right thing? Should I say it, or should I retain the courage of my convictions and say what I really think? Which will win me the vote? [Inner scream!] How can I be me!? Needless to say I decided not to become a politician after all that, although I do acknowledge a secret desire to enjoy the power the role might give me, with snazzy coffee meetings at the Houses of Parliament and a genuine feeling of self-importance as I wear the costume of the role.
Thank goodness it is Mental Health Awareness Week! I have a reason to seek support, and this brings me to the next thing. Why do I only seek support now? What can I do to cope?
This applies to all of us working in an arena where we encounter people and/or take on huge workloads. We need to know both when we are stressed and what to do about it. Do we make a regular check on our own minds and ask ourselves, “Do I need a break?”
So, if you are reading this, I urge you to have a think about your day and your work pattern; if you take breaks or if you take time to look after your mind. We all seem to acknowledge that physical exercise is “good for us”, but how many of us apply the same thinking to out mental wellbeing?
Maintaining mental fitness is a daily thing. Practising mindfulness, for example or a relaxation technique, on a regular basis (daily is good according to research by Snippe et al, 2015) can make a huge difference to our overall mental resilience. Regular breaks increase our productivity (Ariga and Lleras, 2011) and a four day week is much better that five or more (Drexler, 2013). Exercise is great (Dishman & Sothman, 2017), so take a break and go for a walk between work. Seek help when needed, either via university support systems, such as the wellbeing team or via the chaplaincy; or via your own GP or personal networks.
The essence of the advice is that each of us needs to develop our own series of positive coping strategies that we actively engage with and repeat on a regular basis. This appears to have the effect of almost inoculating us against overwhelming stress.
I wonder if politicians, post-graduate students and lecturers will adhere to these guidelines.
More info is available at:
Ariga, A & Lleras, A (2011) Brief and rare mental ‘‘breaks’’ keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition 2011: 1-5.
Dishman, RK & Sothmann, M (2017) Exercise fuels the brain’s stress buffers. American Psychological Association. Accessed online at http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/exercise-stress.aspx
Drexler, P (2013) Why four-day workweeks are best. Accessed online at http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/24/opinion/drexler-four-day-workweek/index.html
Snippe, Evelien; Nyklíček, Ivan; Schroevers, Maya J.; Bos, Elisabeth H. (2015) The temporal order of change in daily mindfulness and affect during mindfulness-based stress reduction. Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol 62(2): 106-114.