“There’s that underlying sense of angst,” says Dr Addie Wootten. “We still don’t really know what the future holds, when we’ll return to normal or what that normal will be. That will definitely be having an impact on general wellbeing…”
The Smiling Mind CEO and clinical psychologist is reflecting on the mental health challenges that many dads are battling with during Covid-19. Exacerbating this strain, she adds, is the pressure of trying to work from home while looking after your kids, plus the potentially terrifying repercussions on your livelihood. In short, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and shit-scared right now, then you’re certainly not alone.
Luckily, Dr Wooten has got runs on the board when it comes to dealing with shell-shocked men grappling to make sense of unsettling new realities. For years she worked in hospitals to support men and their partners during treatment for cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. “That’s a pivotal time in anyone’s life that can really threaten or confront your beliefs about the world and your identity.”
Finding that men often felt uncomfortable talking to a psychologist about their personal issues, Dr Wooten began exploring alternative tools to support mental health and started to build digital programs. This led to her current role as CEO for the not-for-profit organisation, Smiling Mind, which sets out to offer pre-emptive mental health support. Following a huge surge in downloads of its free meditation app – an average of 2500 parents have signed up each week over the past five weeks – Smiling Mind has now launched its new Family Program, developed in collaboration with Medibank.
Here Dr Wooten shares three tried-and-tested tactics for you to protect your mental health and stay calm (even when there’s a host of excellent reasons to lose your shit).
1. Build a new normal
If you’re feeling slightly derailed it’s not surprising. Covid-19 has obliterated many of our familiar habits and coping mechanisms. Obviously, that’s disorientating but you can take action to find new footholds within the chaos.
“Whatever you can do to feel a bit more normal within this abnormal world will help with mental health and wellbeing,” Dr Wooten says
Start by setting a daily routine for yourself and stick to it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s getting up at the same time each day or walking the dog before breakfast, just as long as you establish a tangible pattern “Structure helps us feel in control and it gives us a sense of security.”
Establishing new routines can also really help your kids to cope during this unsettling time. “They definitely feel more safe when there’s an understandable and expected routine,” Dr Wootten adds. “Even if it doesn’t noticeably help you, it will definitely help your kids.”
2. Establish firm boundaries
“At the moment your commute is not very long. It might only be two steps from the kitchen into a spare room,” Dr Wootten says.
The issue here is that previously you would’ve used that time for yourself – even if it was just zoning out on Instagram or listening to a podcast. The upshot is that you’re robbed of that time you’d normally use to decompress.
The way we’re operating now, the walls between work and home have suddenly disappeared. You need to set up new boundaries to replace them. “If say you’re splitting the parenting duties across the day and you’re on dad-duty from lunchtime till 3pm, then it’s really important to own that and not work during that time,” she says. “Tell your colleagues what’s happening – most workplaces at the moment are very supportive of the changes we’re having to put in place.”
Beyond that, however, you also need to “try and dedicate some time for yourself”. Whether it’s exercising, calling a mate or going for a quick walk, it’s not self-indulgence, it’s giving yourself some vital mental space. The bottom line: if you look after yourself, you’ll be better placed to looks after your family.
3. Finally get around to giving mindfulness a go
Mindfulness, Dr Wootten explains, can help us become less reactive and observe things without flying into an emotional response. “That’s a really powerful tool to navigate that pressure-cooker environment that we currently have in many of our homes,” she says. “Because when people are very reactive that can lead to significant mental health problems like symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks or depression.”
The Smiling Mind app offers easy-to-follow guided meditation exercises that range from two to 45 minutes. In addition, the new programs designed specifically for families offer your household ways to cope with different pressure points throughout the day (trying to put the kids to bed, anyone?).
“It’s about trying to help parents set up routines and practices that support calm,” Dr Wooten says.
Frankly, what dad couldn’t benefit from a bit of that?