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How well-being can help people get through hard times

My first job out of college sucked the soul from me.

My degree turned out to be more of a coupon with an expiration date than a ticket to a fulfilled life. I didn’t prosper on any level, and it began to affect my mental health. I had thoughts of suicide because if this was as good as it got, I didn’t need to suffer through the pain of living a crappy life.

After all, when an animal was in pain or suffering on our Wyoming ranch, my dad brought out his Remington 30.06 rifle and put the miserable beast out of its misery. I needed someone to put me out of my misery; it took a while to realize that the someone would need to be me.

I had a few hard years. It took a while for me to get my act together enough to move on to another career that would provide a sense of meaning and purpose. In other words, a life trajectory that led to a sense of well-being.

I’m not the only one who seeks well-being in their current circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken us to our roots and left us questioning how or if we can ever regain our balance. Those who work in the medical professions feel an acute threat to their well-being as yet another surge is just one more burden on top of an already untenable situation.

Business owners, first responders, teachers and students also struggle to navigate their footing during these hard times. We’re all in the same bucket, some more than others, but no one has been left unscathed by the pandemic.

Well-being is defined as seeking the positive qualities of our life’s experiences. It’s more than fleeting periods of happiness. It’s the broader notion of personal fulfillment. It also means that we are willing to suck up temporary deprivation or frustration to help us work toward inner satisfaction. We may need to forfeit our obsession with feel-good moments and stop complaining long enough to gain perspective and find joy and contentment in the long run.

Let’s take a closer look at how well-being can help people get through hard times:

1. Well-being allows us to cope when feeling overwhelmed

Most of us can withstand a bump or two on the road and move on. But, when hard times are sustained over a period of months, even years, it can leave us feeling overwhelmed. We have too much to do and not enough physical or mental energy to do it.

It’s important to note that even people who are not busy can feel overwhelmed by circumstances they can’t control. It’s a state of mind as much as physical exertion. Our mind races as our body tries to keep up.

We most often feel overwhelmed when we’re up to our eyeballs with work and tight deadlines. We can’t physically be in two places at the same time, but as often as not, being overwhelmed is also about managing our thought processes.

Our mind races in all directions, and this how our thoughts can overwhelm us. Yes, it’s good to be aware of all possibilities of a situation, but we also need to understand that worrying won’t really change the reality of your situation.

Mental well-being describes your emotional state and how you’re coping with life. Your mental health is affected when you feel overwhelmed. If your job is the cause, take the time to remember why you chose your profession. Better yet, examine whether it will still allow you to pursue your interests, values, and life purpose.

If it is, plot a timeline to where you can realistically expect a light at the end of the tunnel. If there is no end in sight, re-evaluate your situation because you may need to formulate an exit plan.

How to make it work for you: Don’t push away the thoughts produced by a racing mind. Instead, observe and accept them. It’s important not to judge yourself on what you’re feeling, either. You need to connect with that part of your brain that is aware of, yet separate from, your thoughts. When you do this, you reduce the thought’s emotional charge and are better able to move on.

2. Well-being produces deeper social connections

One of the best outcomes of social well-being is that it produces a solid social network. It creates a sense of satisfaction with other people and other communities because it requires a shared moral standard.

It’s been argued that a community brings you together with other people whereas a tribe isolates you from others. This is misleading, because we all need to find those special people who will always have your back. They produce a social and psychological safety net, so it’s essential that you find your tribe within the larger community.

The good news is that you don’t need legions of people in your tribe. Just a few, or even one, is enough when you’re going through hard times. It’s more important to have fewer people around you who matter rather than a large group with whom you have loose social connections.

Don’t lower your standards and surround yourself with people whose only goal is to make money or buy expensive stuff. The reason is simple: People with higher levels of well-being surround themselves with people who value relationships and not material possessions.

It’s also important that you not settle for people who are convenient because they are in close proximity. It’s great if your next-door neighbor or office mate also views the world through the same lens as you do. But if they don’t, make the effort to cast  a wider net and seek out those people who truly “get” who you are.

How to make it work for you: Be honest and vulnerable with people you trust. You don’t need to make friends with everyone; when it comes to relationships, always strive for quality and not quantity.

3. Well-being makes mindfulness easier

Mindfulness means staying present in this moment, rather than daydreaming about the future or ruminating about the past. Mindfulness is easy when you’re sitting on a little cushion, a lit candle in front of you, and a hot cup of tea in your hand.

It’s a lot harder to remain mindful, however, when things are stressful or emotionally demanding. Ironically, mindfulness feels most out of reach when you need it the most.

It takes a strong mind to rein in our thoughts when we’re stressed and anxious. Left on its own, our brain will fret about past experiences that are similar to the ones we’re facing, or worry about how things could unfold in the future. Our mental energy is sapped by useless thoughts and opinions.

For this to make sense, we need to understand that the brain is designed to be changed by our experiences. They are the things that stick with us. The person we’ve become boils down to what we’ve paid attention to in life. Have we focused our attention on things that are useful and enjoyable, or have we let ourselves become preoccupied with worries and self-criticism?

Invest your life wisely in the years that are given to you.

How to make it work for you: Mindfulness allows you to peek inside so you can understand yourself better. Mindfulness of your past helps you understand yourself in the present. Answer these questions:

  • How did your parents respond to your wants? What did you learn about wanting while growing up?
  • As an adult, how have others responded to your wants? How have you been supported? How have your wants been ignored? How have you felt about all of this?
  • How has your past affected how you go about meeting your wants and needs today?
  • Are there any changes you’d like to make?

4. Well-being allows you to appreciate nature

Growing up on a cattle ranch, I learned to appreciate the smells of nature—even the pungent ones. I loved the sound of horse hooves pounding on hardened earth and the mist of dust that settled on clothes and hair.

There is nothing more soothing than the smell of rain in the air that refreshes both earth and soul. So yeah, I love nature.

Scientists love nature, too. Research suggests that a connection between people and nature brings a range of positive benefits. The relationship between nature and well-being produces intrinsic motivation and life satisfaction.

There are three reasons:

  1. Our ancestors' well-being and survival depended on connecting with nature
  2. Natural environments are restorative; they provide effortless stimuli and engage involuntary attention without the need to constantly monitor our behavior
  3. Exposure to natural environments elicits a variety of stress-reducing psychophysiological responses. In other words, contact with nature can reduce stress levels.

Unfortunately, scientists confirm that Americans on average spend 92% of their time indoors and as a result, both our physical and mental health are suffering.

"Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”

            ~ E.O. Wilson

How to make it work for you: Neuroscientists recommend a nature pyramid to reduce stress and be healthier:

  1. Spend 20 minutes in nature three times a week. Leave your cell phone at home because people who used their cell phone saw no improvement in cognition or feelings of well-being.
  2. Find five hours each month to spend in a semi-wild environment, like a state park. Spending time in wilder spaces seems to produce more benefits.
  3. Take three days a year off the grid in nature. Think of it as an extended mindfulness retreat because your brain starts to generate more alpha waves, the same waves that increase during meditation when you lapse into a state of flow.

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Get Quy's new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles" as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths." Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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