Mental health: How to recharge these summer holidays

2021 has been another tough year. A Delta outbreak signalled the move from the elimination strategy to living with Covid-19 in our communities, which has undoubtedly caused stress and anxiety for many. As we approach the end of the year, how do we recharge and look after our mental health? Reporter Megan Wilson spoke to the experts.

“The recipe for a mental health crisis.”

That’s how Rotorua life coach Annie Canning described throwing Covid-19 and Christmas together.

Canning said feelings of stress and anxiety could be exacerbated at this time of year, and with Covid-19 having disrupted lives and routines “like never before”, she said it was essential to prioritise rest and recovery for physical, emotional and mental health.

As we head into a new year, and with the hope of leaving the worst of the pandemic behind, it’s important to take a break this summer to look after our mental health.

Experts said there were several simple ways to recharge this summer without going on holiday.

Put down your devices

Tauranga clinical psychologist Bronwyn Moth said disconnecting from technology was her number one recommendation for recharging this summer.

Technology meant people were “pretty easily accessible around the clock” and consumed a lot of information on a daily basis.

This, combined with a “social badge of honour” for working hard and staying busy, somehow fed into self-esteem, she said.

Staying off personal devices would allow people to relax and avoid “pushing information” into our brains, she said.

“I do think the pace of our world is becoming more and more frantic, and our brains just aren’t able to cope.”

Spend time in nature

Moth said being in nature or at the beach without technology worked well for relaxation.

“Connecting with people – actually being in the moment and enjoying activities and the people you’re with. Those sort of things … create this oxytocin release. It’s an incredibly restorative neurochemical.

“Often when we do the things that we love to do that are fun, it can bring us into the moment and that, of course, moves us away from that constant rumination.”

Canning said taking breaks led to increased motivation, a greater sense of wellbeing, better sleep and higher energy levels.

“Getting outside, digging our toes into the sand, or stepping into the bush support excellent mental health,” she said.

“We are blessed to live in a place that offers us so many natural attractions.”

Take "micro-breaks" and set boundaries

For those working through the holiday period, Moth said taking “micro-breaks” throughout the regular work week was important to ensure brains stayed focused.

One way of doing this was exercising while listening to the birds rather than music, with research showing even just 20 minutes in nature was restorative.

“I think we forget that in order to be productive and to enjoy life, our brains have to have regular breaks. Not just the big holidays but also hourly breaks, little daily breaks, little weekly breaks.”

For those who did need to check emails throughout the holiday period, Moth recommended setting boundaries by picking a time each day dedicated to working and then disconnecting.

Some research showed that after looking at a work email during downtime, it could take about 30 minutes to get back to the same relaxed state.

“It’s so important … something comes in, the neurons of the brain get excited and then that brings up other work thoughts and off the mind goes and we just leave behind our recovery time.”

Recognise and manage burnout

Moth said the unpredictability and disruption to people’s lives from Covid and economic pressures meant some people had been “running on empty for a long time”.

She identified the three signs of burnout as physical exhaustion, cynicism and detachment.

Cynicism meant having “a real negative view of pretty much everything” while detachment meant having a lack of passion and “not engaging in anything”.

“It is really important probably to get professional help if you’re to that level.”

New Zealand Psychologists Board member and Tāmaki Makaurau psychologist Dr Ainsleigh Cribb-Su’a said people experiencing burnout could withdraw or isolate themselves.

Staying active, connecting with others (even virtually), preparing healthy food, engaging in meaningful activities that bring contentment and joy would help alleviate this, she said.

Cribb-Su’a said “looking for hopeful things on the horizon” was really important to mental wellbeing during the Christmas period and in uncertain times.

Annie Canning's tips for managing stress and burnout

1. Plan, even if it is only one day at a time. Take control of what you can and release the rest.

2. Prioritise your self-care. Make a point of daily exercise, getting quality sleep, and eating well. Research shows our ability to manage stress is improved if we focus on those wellbeing pillars. It also supports a more robust immune system.

3. Do what you can to calm your mind and body. Try mindfulness, meditation, or deep-breathing techniques. Connecting with your body in this way enables you to better manage anxiety and feeling overwhelmed.

4. Getting outside and spending time in nature helps us to find balance, alleviates anxiety, and boosts resilience. Connecting with nature helps us to relax.

5. Reach out to others. Use your personal support systems or seek out a professional. A problem shared is a problem halved.

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