Since the first RU OK? Day in 2009, the 2021 version will have to go down as the most challenging yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health threat of the virus is challenging enough, but the pervading atmosphere of fear and insecurity, along with the measures to limit spread of the pandemic, have been equally onerous.

Among the latter are social distancing, lockdowns, limitations on freedoms, homeschooling, social isolation, queueing for COVID tests and vaccinations, job and financial insecurity, and pivoting so much that we have a bad case of vertigo.

RU OK? Day is a brilliant and timely initiative aimed at preventing suicide by encouraging people to ask colleagues, friends or family how they are – how they really are.

It’s amazing that we rarely ask someone how they are and pause long enough to actually listen to the answer.

Conversely, if we feel down, we rarely give an authentic response if asked. Our desire not to trouble others with our burdens not only leaves us feeling down, it also leaves us isolated and unable to avail ourselves of the support that we both need and that others would be more than happy to provide.

Strangely, we’re generally more than willing to show compassion and support to others in need, but we rarely show the same compassion to ourselves.

Taking care of others

But how do we care for others without the burden?

Perhaps the answer lies in a distinction between empathy and compassion. Being able to empathise with others is important, but often, when confronted with another’s suffering, we empathise in such a way that we feel distress similar to the person experiencing the hardship.

This is known as vicarious stress and, if surrounded by a lot of suffering, such as during the pandemic, it can lead to carer fatigue and burnout.

Whereas the effects of empathy are mixed, the picture with compassion is more universally good for ourselves and others.

Some people mistakenly think mindfulness is a distraction from our worries, but it’s the other way around.

Interestingly, there’s something innately good about helping in times of need. We all know this from experience, but it’s never more obvious than when dealing with adversity – for example, when communities are uplifted and unified by acts of bravery, selflessness and generosity during natural disasters.

Even if we aren’t directly involved, we all know how inspiring it is to see such acts.

Research only confirms what experience shows us. When we help others, or feel compassion for someone, a series of positive changes cascade from the brain to the body that mitigate many of the negative impacts of stress. This helps to explain why people who experience multiple stressors in their lives are far less likely to fall ill if they’re regularly engaged in helping others.

 

A need to focus on solutions

It’s well-documented that there have been higher-than-usual rates of mental illness during the pandemic, but there’s little point in defining and measuring problems without focusing on solutions.

Clearly, we all need to play our part by following the best medical advice about how to mitigate the risks and effects of the virus, but there’s much more we can do to help ourselves and others.

Mindfulness may be one approach that can sustain us during these challenging times. Here’s why.

  • It’s an antidote for the unhelpful but compelling habits of rumination and worry that feed depression and anxiety. Some people mistakenly think mindfulness is a distraction from our worries, but it’s the other way around. Worry is the main distraction from life, and mindfulness is the remedy for distraction.
  • It therefore helps us to focus our attention and energy in the present moment on the things we can control, and conserves the precious mental and emotional energy we commonly waste in worrying about things we can’t control.
  • It helps us to distinguish between real and imagined stressors. Foresight and planning are good, but catastrophising is not. The real and present challenges we can do something about, but when battling the imaginary ones, we’re in an unwinnable war. “What is” is a lot easier to deal with than “what if”.
  • It conserves energy. It’s like we’re collectively running a marathon, but thinking about the steps in front of us can be exhausting and oppressive. Mindfulness of the present moment helps us to remember to focus on just taking one manageable step, one moment, and one day at a time.
  • It helps us to move on from the past and to be more mentally flexible when the situation requires adaptation and innovation.
  • It helps to put us in touch with our intrinsic motivation for why we live and work. Extrinsic motivators – such as money, position and status – are always far more insecure and dependent on circumstances, but if we remind ourselves why we’re doing what we do, and the important role this plays in the wider community, then we’ll have a deeper motivation to sustain us during insecure times and circumstances.
  • It helps us to cultivate compassion, first for ourselves and then for others. Mindfully cultivating compassion helps to switch off the negative emotional and physical effects of vicarious stress, activates responses associated with positive emotions, and supports the natural desire to help others.
  • It fosters more prosocial attitudes and behaviours that enhance our ability to act with cohesion. This awareness increases our responsiveness to the needs of others, and others’ responsiveness to our needs.

Many people have used and displayed these qualities during the pandemic. So, if we continue to cultivate practices and behaviours that will truly sustain us in these challenging times, then there’s every chance we can be more than just OK; we may even grow through adversity.

Let’s start by first being compassionate to ourselves, and then being interested in the wellbeing of those around us on RU OK? Day.

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