Looking up under lockdown

Keeping spirits high during these strange times

Yikes. Over a year without writing a blog post. Rest assured, I’m still alive and well, and I hope you are too.

It’s probably the understatement of the year to say that life for us all has changed markedly over the past few months. It’s like we’re all stuck in a holding pattern, our lives seemingly on pause with lots of whispers of this being the ‘new normal’. We’ll see.

I originally intended to write this post to reflect on my projects and personal development over lockdown, hoping I’d take a look back one day in the future and remind myself that I didn’t completely squander this time at home.  But the more I wrote, the more I realised that this unusual period has been challenging for people’s mental health, so I ended up writing this post to offer some words of advice having been through a similar experience in the past.  The current restrictions on our lives has had a toll on many people’s mental health, so I hope that if you have faced similar difficulties you might find some of my experiences useful in your own recovery.

Recognition of mental health difficulties

Once you’ve recognised that you’re having challenges with your mental health and need to seek support, you’re half way towards your recovery.

How can you identify this? Perhaps you’ve had difficulty focusing on the present moment: full of regret for past experiences, and anxiety for the future. Maybe you find you’re easily triggered and lash out at your friends and family for trivial reasons. Perhaps you struggle against nasty thoughts in your head and find your only solace comes when closing the bedroom door and getting into bed. You might even find that muttering words to your loved ones involves too much effort and go an entire day without saying anything.

If any of this sounds familiar, you need to take action soon to avoid escalating your troubles further. Here’s 7 changes I’ve made in my life to bring my mind to ease which may help with your recovery.

1. Meditation

The word meditation tends to conjure up images of peaced out monks sitting cross-legged in the middle of nowhere, but in reality, it’s a practice that’s accessible to everyone. Meditation at its simplest is just bring yourself to be aware of the current moment.

For me, I started meditating between 10-20 minutes a day using the popular app Headspace. The first part of the exercise is to take notice of the sensations of the body, and being aware of the motivation and intention for the exercise. The remainder of the exercise simply involves sitting in silence observing the inhalation and exhalation of the breath.

Having meditated every day for the last 9 months, nowadays I notice less background chatter in my mind; better articulation of my thoughts and improved problem-solving ability. Being more mindful, focusing on the present has noticeably improved my attitude. I feel like my mind is ‘soft’ and malleable now.

Most importantly I’m able to recognise when my mind has drifted from the present and bring the focus back again, helping to break cycles of rumination and give more attention to my daily activities.  I’m less snappy and more empathetic with those around me. I’ve also grown more accepting of past mistakes and less bothered by thoughts about the future. Recognising my own failings and accepting them has also made me less judgemental and more compassionate towards others.

2. Staying active

I remember Boris’s address to the nation well. One form of exercise a day, he said. Little did I know, this is something I took to heart as an opportunity to get myself into shape, with surprising implications for my mental health.

As the shops closed and the world fell quiet, for the first time in my life, I put on the trainers and went for a run. Unsurprisingly, just 250 metres later, I almost collapsed in a heap. But with perseverance and consistency to run every week, in a matter of 4 months I managed to extend my distance to 5KM and complete the circuit in 23 minutes. Nowadays with my trainers I feel like there’s no stopping me.

Even more so than the running, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) classes over Zoom were brutal. Being punished with burpees for not keeping up with my colleagues was admittedly misery but easily the most effective physical workout possible. Thanks to Joe Wicks, who is my remote instructor these days, I’m not even thinking of re-instating my gym membership any longer.

It’s astounding that without any gym equipment at all, I’m fitter and stronger than ever before. Just using my body weight (and maybe some additional tins of beans for good measure) did wonders for me. Now, I’ve never done drugs, but the endorphin rush after intense exercise gives me a feeling of being high. For hours afterwards I’m buzzing and motivated to power through my day.

3. Physical nourishment

Related to fitness, properly nourishing your body has a direct impact on your mental health.

Primarily, this relates to around to what we eat and drink. Our bodies are nothing but an accumulation of all the food and drink we consume. This has a direct impact on how our minds function. Eating should be the most important part of our day, alongside good quality sleep, and requires careful attention to what we consume. I could write a whole post on this, but let me keep my advice (based on my own dietary principles) to five points:

  1. Consider the volume of food consumption. Eat slowly and chew, without any distractions, and pay attention to when your stomach says you’re full. Eating while sitting crossed legged on the floor is a great way to do this.
  2. Introduce lots of variety in your meals. Keep switching them up to ensure your body is maximising absorption of a variety of vitamins.
  3. Get a good balance of proteins, fats and complex, wholemeal carbohydrates in every meal.
  4. Avoid processed foods, especially ready meals, which have been mass factory produced and include preservatives – especially excess salt and nitrates. This means using fruit and vegetables, ideally organic, arriving in your kitchen similar to how it came out of the ground. The same goes for animal products.
  5. Make sure 2-3 portions of fruit and vegetables are consumed in their raw form daily to maximise vitamin intake.

It’s important to occasionally visit your GP for a blood test to check that your vitamins and iron content is normal. Supplement with multivitamins if necessary, but consuming these foods naturally is preferred.

Cooking and eating mindfully elevates the experience of mealtime. Meditation has gone hand-in-hand with the cooking to make it more enjoyable, helping me pay more attention to each chopping and stirring action as opposed to my mind being elsewhere. And eating mindfully means that you savour the delicious flavours and maximise the return on all your hard work.

4. Opening up

A problem shared is a problem halved, as the saying goes. I’d wholeheartedly vouch for that. We – especially men – tend to internalise our emotions and have fear that sharing this too openly is a sign of weakness. Being prepared to be vulnerable and not fear judgement is a courageous but necessary step to be on the road to recovery. Moving past that invisible barrier and pouring out the thoughts to close friends and family is one of the best remedies for unbottling emotions. All it takes is connecting with someone willing to listen.

Some things are too difficult to talk about, even to those who are most cherished to us. One suggestion would be to contact your local council, with whom you can talk to a mental health advisor sessions before being enrolled on a 10-week online CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) course. CBT uses scientifically proven tools and techniques to help challenge thoughts. I used to be sceptical of these tools, but having taken a course, I do feel that they help rationalise thoughts objectively by deconstructing them to identify their triggers and resultant emotions/feelings. These courses are proven to be effective, but it requires commitment and you get out what you put in.

The Cognitive Triangle. Cognition, The Cognitive Method, and… | by Michael Patanella | Real Life Resilience | Medium

The Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviours cycle is a useful technique for breaking down difficult thoughts and escaping cycles of rumination

Finally, in the absence of being able to share the most challenging of thoughts, I’ve found that recording myself talking and hearing positive messages in the sound of my own voice as an uplifting voice of comfort. Occasionally journaling about my day and putting ink to paper was another way to relieve any pressure in my head. Even writing this blog post is also a great form of therapy for me.

5. Reconnecting with nature

‘Gardening adds years to your life and life to your years’, as they say. Growing veggies was another feel-good activity, with some nice juicy rewards in the autumn.

It’s during the night hours that we often struggle most with our mental health. Since we’ll never have perpetual daylight (which would be severely problematic in other ways), we need to embrace the darkness rather than hide away from it. I find that simply looking upwards on a clear night’s sky is a blissful experience. Lying down and staring towards the stars invoked a sense of curiosity and awe. It also reminded me how incredible it is that life exists on this tiny rock circulating in the vast expanse of the universe. The recognition of how fragile life is brings a sense of gratefulness and privilege to be alive and healthy against all of nature’s odds.

This feeling of being small was exacerbated when trying out some new water sports over the autumn. Being thrown by around by water while surfing in St Ives, and falling off my paddleboard into the sea in Dartmouth not only a reminder of my own mortality but also gave a massive adrenaline rush, a fun distraction from normal life and a refreshing perspective to see the world.

Paddleboarding on the Thames and River Dart was a surprising but effective exercise in lifting my mood

On days off from my intense exercise, I’d head off for long hikes into the forests which was another opportunity to focus on the present. I’d remind myself to be attentive to the scent of wilderness, the feeling of wind blowing in my face, and the feeling of my feet on the ground. I find walking to be the best opportunity to challenge thinking and an omnipresent reminder of the distinction between the physical world – the things we can see and touch, right here and now, and the thoughts in the head which don’t exist and is self-created fiction. For that reason, I would recommend scheduling downtime from technology, especially social media, which often invoke a sense of longing and anxiety that we don’t realise until we disconnect and tune-in to our real-world environment.

6. Listening to music

Music for me has been an escape from the monotony of life and that reassuring, comforting voice and an overlooked factor in overcoming mental health difficulties. Listening to artists like The Score helped me connect to a voice, but also relaxing jazz and upbeat music have helped quell my frustration. In the absence of any pubs or clubs, there’s nothing like belting out your favourite tunes at the dead of night in the comfort of your living room to let off some steam.

7. Education

If I was to pinpoint one lesson that has stuck with me most across the various books and videos I’ve read and watched recently, it has been around self-compassion and acceptance. Many of us judge ourselves more harshly than we’d treat others, especially when we make mistakes. Loving yourself for who you are, embracing your imperfections, and reminding yourself that you’re human is the best formula for self-acceptance. There’s no such thing as regret and mistakes. We always ever react in all scenarios in life with the best knowledge and experience we had at the time.

A few other key learnings from a few books over the past few months:

  • Homo Deus: We only act the way we do because of the chemicals in our body reacting to external stimuli. Arguably, there’s no such thing as free will…
  • Atomic habits: The power of good habits and aiming for small but continuous improvements in your life (1% and the power of compounding). Streaks are powerful in forming lasting habits.
  • The Little Big Things: Being grateful for the little important things in life, like one’s health and freedom. Being optimistic to find a path forward in difficult circumstances.


I’ve had a stark realisation that negative thoughts, however painful it is to experience, is an entirely fabricated experience in the mind. It’s all in the head – not in the physical world – and it’s important to remember the difference between the two. Few in this world truly know how to master the incredible power of the human mind, but simply recognising when your own intelligence has turned against you is the first step in overcoming mental health difficulties.

People tell me that keeping busy helps to solve a mental health crisis, but I think that just enshrouds problems and doesn’t resolve them. They’ll remain in the back of your mind, forever gnawing away at you. Unveiling and exposing those deepest insecurities is the only solution, and then rationalising them through scientific methods, talking about them, and meditating.

I’ve mentioned this before on my blog that mental health matters as much as physical health. Just like one would visit a doctor after an accident without thinking twice, speaking up and sharing with mental health difficulties should invoke the same instinct. There is no shame in doing so.

We all have our bad days – me included. But because of these practices, I find them far less intense and more transient than they were in the past. I hope you find the above suggestions uplifting and help you through your difficult patches too.

Stay safe.


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