Flourishing in stressful times: Ideas for self-care using PERMA
At the time of writing, the debate rages on about the proposals for children to return to school. Plans are made and unmade. We veer between information overload and a distinct lack of communication. Emotions are running hot on all sides. While we rightly think about the potential stressors that children have faced during the pandemic, it’s also been a difficult time for the adults in their lives. Self-care should be high on the agenda; after all, how can we hope to contain and co-regulate with children’s emotions if we’re overwhelmed by our own?
This blog looks at the PERMA acronym coined by Martin Seligman. There are five elements within this construct of well-being and they continue to be popular aspects of the Positive Psychology approach. I think it’s a helpful framework to keep in mind as we strive to look after ourselves. While I mention some ideas related to each construct below, everyone is different and you will be the best judge of what works for you. Whether you’re a member of staff in a school, a parent/caregiver or a professional, it’s more important than ever that we manage our own stress.
What makes you feel good?
Rick Hanson talks about the brain’s built-in negativity bias. A relatively minor problem may be perceived as far worse when our coping reserves are depleted and we are being bombarded by stress. We need to off-set this bias and tune out negative thoughts and feelings with a focus on the positives. How do we savour moments in the present, reframe the past and be hopeful about the future? Barbara Frederickson outlines how positive emotions broaden and build our psychological resources. Ultimately, they generate optimism and helps us to persevere when the chips are down.
· Indulge in your favourite TV, movies & music – things that make you smile, laugh and relax.
· Play games with family, friends and work colleagues.
· Physical exercise and breathing techniques.
· Getting out in nature.
· Pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations around you.
· Reflect on “Three Good Things” or “What Went Well” each day.
· Keep a gratitude diary and tease out the smallest things which you cherish.
· Make plans for the near and distant future, so that you have something to look forward to.
What are the things that help you lose track of time?
When we feel anxious or panicky, we can easily replay difficult moments from the past or worry about the future. The physical and psychological symptoms of this anxiety can make it hard for us to truly enjoy our down time. The Engagement aspect of PERMA owes a lot to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his concept of “flow”. This is about being completely absorbed in an activity – we are deeply immersed, fully focused and can stay within the present moment. Everyone will have different means of achieving flow depending on their circumstances and the examples below are just the tip of the iceberg. The activities which work for you should be both challenging and fulfilling.
· Spending time on a puzzle or board game.
· Playing a musical instrument.
· Yoga or meditation.
· Writing a story, poem or blog.
· Being creative through drawing, painting or cross-stitching.
· Participating in individual or team sports.
· Working on a new display in the garden.
· Practising new cooking and baking recipes.
· Making a photo collage or video of a recent trip.
Who brings you joy, peace and support?
Something Dr Bruce Perry said, which I never get tired of repeating, is that we are biologically predisposed to be in relationships. We learn how to understand, regulate and cope with our emotions through our interactions with others. Therefore, social connections are a very powerful buffer of stress. Problems don’t feel as bad when we have someone who can lend us their calm brain to reflect on situations and co-create solutions. The power of relationships works both ways – not only is our well-being enhanced through how others interact with us, but we can also have a positive impact on our friends, family and colleagues through simple acts of compassion and thoughtfulness.
· Organise catch-ups and get-togethers with family or friends, in person or online.
· Show your appreciation for work colleagues.
· Share photos or souvenirs that remind you and a significant other of good times.
· Use active listening and empathy when supporting someone with a problem.
· Spend a few minutes chatting to a stranger.
· Write a message to a relative or friend that shows “I’m thinking of you”.
· Send a thank you card for someone who helped you.
· Remind someone that you love them.
What things are meaningful and worthwhile to you?
This aspect of PERMA is about being part of something which transcends our individual lives. Random acts of kindness can have a profound impact on our own well-being. We may be drawn to larger causes within society which motivate and inspire us. Alternatively, there may be more personal pursuits and endeavours that give us a sense of purpose and direction. Meaning is important in instilling a sense of belonging and foundation – these can anchor us during times of stress and provide a positive outlet to take our minds off our worries.
· Engaging in spiritual activities.
· Make a donation to charity.
· Send a care package to a family in need.
· Fundraise through an individual or group challenge.
· Volunteer your time in a community project.
· Share knowledge and teach others about a special interest.
· Commemorate a loved one’s memory.
What you do want to achieve and when?
This final element of the construct is concerned with the goals we set for ourselves. During difficult periods in our lives, it can be easy to think that we are achieving little and we become more prone to procrastination and avoidance. Having something to work towards and experiencing a sense of competence and mastery are important for cultivating hope. We will of course be proud of what we accomplish, but simply making progress should be satisfying in itself. A key aspect in treatment of depression is boosting our levels of activity, but we need to begin with small steps rather than giant leaps.
· Make a “To do” list and prioritise “Must”, “Should” and “Could”.
· Keep your goals SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
· Take on new jobs and responsibilities which motivate you – a different role at work.
· Start a project which you can work on over time – some DIY in the house.
· Learn something new – try out some webinars and podcasts.
· Set an exercise target – incorporate the activities into your daily routine so that they become rewarding and sustainable.
· Change your work-life balance – use a planner or schedule to help you organise your time better.
Reflecting upon the five elements of PERMA will go a long way to supporting our general well-being. Various forms of media would have us believe that we are hurtling towards a return to “normality”, even if there are initial adaptations to this reality. But if you are someone who was struggling to cope when things were normal, let alone during the sudden upheaval of COVID-19, perhaps now is the time to really think about the changes you can make. Changes which not only reduce stress and improve our mood, but also enable us to truly flourish and build resilience for future challenges.
References and Further Reading
· Frederickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. American Psychologist, 56 (3), 218 – 226.
· Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: How to reshape your brain and your life. London: Rider Books.
· Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
· Stewart, N. (2020). Happy Children Wellbeing Webinar. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=g7il-VzJkpY&feature=emb_logo. Accessed on 1st June 2020.
· White, J. (2017). Stress Control: A mind, body life approach to boosting your well-being. London: Robinson.