What does one do when 'mindfulness' and remedies for 'reducing stress' are promoted everywhere, yet the surrounding society and economy is not conducive to such inner peace?
This blog is a reflection piece on the current themes I've observed as a therapist and person living in Canada. Specifically, I want to highlight the implicit shaming and sense of guilt commonly experienced through repeated messaging about improving mental health without having the systems in place to support it.
Mental health and wellbeing appears to be supported by our society if you look to the messaging in schools, the many holistic approaches to self-care being promoted on social media, new businesses that advertise "nervous system healing" through cold plunge therapy, and the supplements being marketed by online influences, making bold claims about how it extinguished their depression.
Yet, what do we say about the hard-working people who engage in all of the self-care practices; meditation, socialization, sleep hygiene, nutrition, therapy, and work - who are still stressed to the limit and barely keeping their head above water?
- Hustle Culture, the Economy and Mental Health
- Social Media and Mental Health
- Where do we go from here?
Hustle Culture, the Economy, and Mental Health
'Hustle culture' refers to the idea that competitiveness and the constant push to produce more, means that work consumes such a large amount of your time that you have little left to live your life.
What I've observed about Western society's values is that they will look different depending on the context and area you're analyzing. Let's start with basic needs. According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, our physiological and safety needs are our priority for survival (refer to image below). After these needs are met, we're likely to have more capacity for tending to love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
Image source: Plateresca / Getty Images from thoughtco.com
Our core values vary as individuals, but perhaps humans share a few: security, belonging, and connection. Unfortunately, the current systems in place seem to undermine them.
It's no surprise that work and the economy, specifically, the cost of living, impacts our stress levels, mental health, and wellbeing. Many people I've worked with have struggled in either one or both areas. Hard-working people everywhere are faced with inadequate compensation to accommodate the ever-increasing cost of living, and/or unrealistic work demands for any human being to sustain without burning themselves out.
The year 2023 has seen inflation, mass layoffs, New Age AI chatbots, war, political polarization, and unfathomable housing prices. In an increasingly competitive society, people feel the pressure to prove their value; to be more. Many are living in survival mode out of necessity.
When people come to therapy under these circumstances and wonder why they 'can't relax', all I want to say is "You're not crazy." It's like being in a high-speed car chase and you're mad at your body for not being relaxed. Your body is having a natural response to the environment; in the car chase scenario, your heart rate is elevated because it's helping you stay alert and responsive. Similarly with the current state of the economy and society, you may feel stressed because things are stressful.
Social Media and Mental Health
Social media is a tool that can be used for increased awareness, connection, and knowledge. It has obvious perks: keeping up to date with friends and family, immediate inception of knowledge, creative inspiration, and opening your eyes to novel experiences [albeit, vicariously through others].
The drawbacks are well cited in the literature and even in the documentary/drama, The Social Dilemma. Research shows mixed results; some studies indicating that social media use is positively correlated with mental wellbeing (Seabrook, Kern, & Rickard, 2016) if the right social factors are at play. Of course, more time spent on social media and negative interactions online has been associated with depressive symptoms (Seabrook, Kern, & Rickard, 2016; Ivie, Pettitt, Moses, & Allen, 2020; Lin et al., 2016).
Globally, the number of people with smartphones vastly outweighs the number of people without smartphones (Howarth, 2023). Those who are active users/scrollers of social media are aware of the bombardment of sponsored ads, political messages, mental health tips, and risk of unhealthy comparison of lifestyle, bodies, and relationships.
If used without boundaries, social media can fuel anxiety, depression, and feelings of inadequacy. It shows people the 'grass is greener' without context. It highlights the reality gap of what you wish you could have or how you should be living without seeing the struggle in the process of arriving at a desirable outcome.
In other words, it can create an illusion that you're doing it [life] wrong and somehow you could always be doing better. When used without boundaries and awareness, you may feel more dissatisfied with your own life, drained, demotivated, overwhelmed, and lonely. Not an ideal recipe for mental health.
Taken together, our online habits and the current state of the economy; it's no wonder that Canada and the world are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Spoiler: there's no magic wand or quick fix.
I don't pretend to have the answers, or at least not satisfying ones. There is no quick fix for issues that exist systemically that no single individual has control over.
The list below is not exhaustive. ACTion Psychotherapy would love to hear your ideas for what you have found helpful living through these stressful times. Leave your input by sending us a message here!
Tips for Protecting Your Mental Health Through Stressful Times
- Communicate boundaries or limits with work. Try to set realistic expectations with your manager [use your judgment for what is appropriate and how much you're willing to extend your boundaries]. You have influence over how this message is communicated in a way that feels authentic to you and upholds your integrity.
- Learn to set emotional and mental boundaries with work to close your work day. Even small rituals around bedtime can provide a sense of control, predictability, and nurturing that your brain associates with 'winding down'.
- Be mindful of content consumption and comparison. The internet exposes us to a particular group of people in comment sections. Practice observing your reactions to consuming content and know when it's time to take a break.
- Practice mindful and 'boundaried' news consumption. All news sources have political biases. Be cognizant of the biases in the content you consume and try to access information from multiple sources to form your own perspective. Be respectful of your limits and when to take breaks.
- Prioritize self-care. Carving out time to give back to yourself in whatever way you can each week is imperative to preventing burnout. It's not a luxury, it's a need. It's okay if some weeks self-care looks less than ideal.
- Talk about struggles with trusted others. Sometimes the people in our lives are 'fixers'. Start your hangouts with a clear statement about what you need (e.g. "I'm not looking for solutions. I just need to vent about this and have an open discussion,"). Seek out people that can validate your experience and sit with you in acknowledging how hard life is right now.
- Focus on the 'controllables' and make room for feelings of uncertainty. Often feelings of overwhelm can be helped by identifying the specific worries, practicing radical acceptance of emotional discomfort, and redirecting attention to the things you can control one at a time.
- CAMH: The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. The crisis is real. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real
- Howarth, J. (2023, January 26). How many people own smartphones (2023-2028). Exploding Topics. Retrieved from: https://explodingtopics.com/blog/smartphone-stats
- Ivie, E. J., Pettitt, A., Moses, L. J., & Allen, N. B. (2020). A meta-analysis of the association between adolescent social media use and depressive symptoms. Journal of affective disorders, 275, 165-174.
- Lin, L. Y., Sidani, J. E., Shensa, A., Radovic, A., Miller, E., Colditz, J. B., Hoffman, B. L., Giles, L. M., & Primack, B. (2016). Association between social media use and depression among US young adults. Depression and anxiety, 33(4), 323-331.
- Mcleod, S. (2023, October 24). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
- Seabrook, E. M., Kern, M. L., & Rickard, N. S. (2016). Social networking sites, depression, and anxiety: a systematic review. JMIR mental health, 3(4), e5842.
- The Social Dilemma. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, Exposure Labs, 2020. Netflix, netflix.com/title/81254224.