How mindfulness can improve mental health

Angela Logan, May 22, 2020 6 min read

If you’ve never tried mindfulness as a practice, Mental Health Awareness Week is a good time to give it a try, and giving it a go is a lot easier that you might think. Lockdown has given most of us a lot more time at home, but that doesn’t necessarily equal more downtime. Whether you’re home educating your kids, constantly reading the news, worrying about a million different things, or all of the above, it’s actually a really good time to try and become more mindful.

Sonja Montague MacKay founded The More Human Company after she came through a particularly bad experience of burnout, with the aim to share what she learned and prevent others from getting to the same point she did. 

Being a founder herself, she has an interesting perspective on how mindfulness can particularly benefit founders and leaders. She recently held a virtual session with the founders from Fintech 2.0 to get them thinking about their own mindfulness journeys and how it can benefit not only their personal and professional lives, but also that of their employees.

Here, she talks to us about the most important things to remember when it comes to starting your mindfulness journey.

Burnout creeps up on you

I spent 17 years working in government and international economic development. I’m a type A, and was working non-stop with a lot of balls in the air. Eventually I burnt out completely and got diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. It forced me to stop and shine a light on how I was actually living life. Chronic fatigue is both a mental and physical condition. It affects you cognitively, and it affects you physically; extreme exhaustion, inability to concentrate, memory loss. It manifests itself in many different ways.

On my road to recovery I had to learn some very hard lessons in order to get well again, reflecting a lot on both my work life and my personal life. It takes time to do that and it changed my life completely. I asked myself two questions: How did I get to this point, and how do I make sure I never reach it again.

Recovering made me want to help people prevent themselves from getting to the stage I got to. That’s why I started The More Human Company.

Living life full-on, 100% of the time is unsustainable

So many of us don’t listen to our intuition, we just ignore it and push it down because we don’t like what it’s saying. It’s hard being a leader, but to take care of yourself and have a better work life balance is actually a way of supporting the team you lead.

Founders are particularly vulnerable to burnout

When I reached breaking point with burnout, I didn’t have the language to communicate with people how I was feeling and what was going on. Being a perfectionist and something of an overachiever, I just kept going. I was trying to be a good leader, a good wife, a good daughter, I was trying to do everything for everyone else. Founders can often be like this – you have to have a certain drive to run your own company. 

A founders internal drive is key, but it’s also so important to pause and bring awareness to how you’re living, and the personal toll it may be taking. You might find yourself exhausted all the time, or finding it hard to focus, or you’re grumpy a lot. 

Burnout can be on a spectrum, and the solution isn’t one size fits all – everyone has their own stress threshold. If you’re running hard all the time, you often don’t see the impact on you and those around you until it is too late. Learning to pause, take a beat and tune into your body can help you catch things early before you reach your stress threshold. 

Be open and talk about the pace of work. Listen to your team and encourage them to speak to you and their colleagues, in order to create a healthy level of stress in your company.

Get curious about mindfulness

If you don’t have any experience in mindfulness, the first and most important thing is to get curious. At The More Human Company we start with breathing. Just pausing to take a deep breath is mindful and starts to balance your nervous system and reduce stress. Equally, simply taking time to do something you enjoy without getting distracted is a practice of mindfulness. Make it easy for yourself to succeed.

Understand what it is that brings you joy, right now. It might be dance or going for a run, or cooking – you can bring mindfulness to anything that you do. It’s really about being present and aware. Whatever you choose to do, you need to do it in a singular way so that you’re focused and not multitasking. For some people it may be playing music, maybe they love cooking for themselves or for someone else, perhaps it’s arts and crafts. Whatever it is, focus and enjoy the moment – that is a mindful practice.

It’s important to resist technology when you’re practising mindfulness. I would encourage people to try and be offline and just be with themselves. 

Practice makes perfect

If you’re interested in starting mediation, like everything, you have to practice to feel the benefit. It takes a minimum of 30 days to form a new habit, so you don’t want to change too many things at one time. You want to change your brain in a positive way, and through the repeated practice of meditation you can learn to take that deep breath and respond to your stress trigger points from a place of calm and not a place of high stress.

Check in with yourself: how am I feeling? Is this making a difference? Am I sleeping better? Am I more engaged with people around me? Am I enjoying the downtime? It is about slowing down, enjoying life. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be productive and creative, doing less allows us to have greater productivity and creativity. 

Leadership and mindfulness

Mindfulness, compassion, selflessness, kindness, all those things are really amazing traits and practices to bring into a leadership role, but to make it more impactful, a leader needs to think of how it can cascade across the entire company. It’s so important to think about how you want to show up at work and how you can better communicate with your teams. It enables leaders to create truly human centric organisations.

Dimensions of wellbeing

At More Human, we focus on six core dimensions to incorporate mindfulness and other leadership and wellbeing practices. The first dimension of mindfulness is career well-being: you need to make sure you enjoy what you do and feel that it has meaning and purpose. Physical is the next one: think about how much sleep you are getting, how much exercise, and what kind of foods you eat. 

The third one is emotional – being able to regulate your emotions. It’s important to be able to identify when you’re getting stressed and have a practice to manage that. The next one is social. Are you able to build and maintain strong emotional bonds with people? Think about your support network. Loneliness can often be mistaken for exhaustion. 

Number five is spiritual – this can be any form of spiritual practice, whether that be prayer, meditation, chanting. Anything that makes you feel more connected. The final one is financial. If you don’t have a strong financial footing that’s also going to lead to a lot of stress and anxiety which can lead to burnout. 

Make your own recipe

Think about how you feel about all these different elements of life and how you can increase the quality of them. You need to create your own recipe to build stress resilience. Building mindfulness and wellbeing will feed into how you show up as a person, in your everyday life, and how you show up as a founder and a leader. 

Gratitude is the antidote to anxiety 

If you’re feeling anxious, focus on something that you’re grateful for and positive emotions will start to uplift how you’re feeling. You could do this over the dinner table, or on WhatsApp with a friend, but if you just share one or two things that you’re grateful for every day, you’ll start to focus more on the positive than the negative. 

Negativity bias makes you dwell on the things that are negative in our lives, rather than positive. It takes three positive interactions to counteract one negative interaction. So it’s really important to build up gratitude to reduce anxiety. 

And finally, take a breath

Make mindfulness simple and start with three deep belly breaths. Breathing, like leadership, is a skill and the more we practice the better we become. Building in a mindful pause into your day, hits the reset button, giving you mind and body time to rest and restore. Try it right now and notice the difference mindfulness can make.

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