Three psychological “nutrients” that keep our minds healthy
Read time: 9 minutes
While we’re all currently stuck at home and being bombarded with information on how to protect our physical bodies from harm, I have a growing concern that people aren’t quite equipped with the proper information on how to protect their mental-health during these tough times. Our Instagram stories are filled with simple, helpful, and inspirational advice, like keeping active with home workouts, but you can only workout and read for so long before you get bored. And boredom is what we’re at war with while stuck in isolation.
It’s when we don’t know what to do with our time, that our mental-health starts to deteriorate. It’s when we’re bored, that our mind automatically slips into the depths of worry, panic, anxiety and loneliness. When our minds start slipping into these negative thought patterns, we start to look for short-term solutions, like numbing the pain with alcohol, or a bottomless family pack of mini eggs. These short-term solutions to our boredom may temporarily seem harmless, but can easily get out of hand and create bad habits, which can then spiral downward into some serious long-term problems like addiction. We have no idea how long this isolation may last, so it’s time to be proactive and learn how to kick boredoms ass in Covid quarantine, with some help from a leading psychology theory.
Our body clearly has physiological needs, such as water, vitamins and minerals. If we were forced to go without any of these physiological needs, our bodies would start to deteriorate. If we’re consistently deprived of vitamin C, it leads to scurvy.
Our mental-health has it own needs that parallel our physical-health. Needs that, when deprived, can cause long-term mental-health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Imagine that your mental-health is kind of like a houseplant. When a healthy houseplant isn’t getting watered enough, it shows symptoms, but not right away. If it’s getting enough water but isn’t ever fertilized, it’ll slowly start to wither and die because it’s not getting the nutrients it needs. BUT, if you do feed that houseplant enough Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium, it will THRIVE. That happy houseplant would be super green, and grow uncontrollably. In short, the plant would be happy 🙂
Ultimately, what we need during these tough times is to create an environment full of nutrients for our mental-health houseplant. We want to create an environment where we grow, where our mental-health is fertilized properly. We want out mental-health houseplant in quarantine to be green, plush and growing rather than allowing it to brown and wither because we don’t pay attention to it. Now, what is the fertilizer, what is the Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium for our mental-health houseplant?
In Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s groundbreaking psychology research for “The Self Determination Theory,” they’ve found that our psychological health depends on three things, three nutrients. These three nutrients, when deprived, are what start the slow downward spiral into chaos. These three nutrients are Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.
So, just add as much of these three nutrients into your daily life as possible while you’re stuck at home and you’re good…
Just kidding… It’s way more complicated than that. So here’s an attempt to explain what these three things are, and how we can implement them into our quarantined lives.
Being in quarantine, we’re being deprived of relatedness. I recently asked on my Instagram what people missed most about pre-corona virus “normal” life. The majority of answers were “missing family and friends,” and “missing hugs.” When we do things that make us feel more connected with people and more loved, it’s like miracle grow for our mental-health houseplant.
Top tip for more Relatedness in quarantine: Use social media, but in a healthy way. Don’t just look at people’s stories, interact with their stories. We can use social media as a tool to connect rather than a tool to promote our life’s highlight reel. You followed that person for a reason, so you shouldn’t be worried that you’re not “close enough” to DM them. And let’s be real, we all love seeing an orange dot with big number inside of it on the top right hand corner 😉
Social distancing’s biggest side effect is that it lowers our Relatedness levels. So we need to go hard on the next two ingredients in order to balance the health of our mental-health houseplant.
I’ve already written quite extensively on the topic of autonomy because it’s a complex topic, so if you want a thorough understanding, go check out this article. But to summarize, autonomy is when we feel like we’re in control. We generally feel like we’re in control when we CHOOSE to do something. As soon as we have no choice in a matter, our psychology feels out of control, and therefore doesn’t receive any of the essential autonomy nutrient.
We’ve all experienced this at work when we’re told what to do, rather than asked to do something nicely. Even if the task is the same in both situations, we’d always rather agree to do something, than be ordered to do something, because we feel like we have a choice when we agree, which makes us feel autonomous.
Top tip for more Autonomy in quarantine: Schedule your time. Scheduling is being in control of your time, it’s choosing what to do with your time, which can kill boredom. If boredom is “not knowing what to do with your time,” then the only way to battle it is to control it, and we can do this by scheduling.
The reason we feel so good completing daily to-do lists is that we have a feeling of control throughout the day when crossing things off. When we feel in control, we feel safe and can relax.
When we’re bored and default to watching TV because we don’t know what else to do, we’re being controlled by the feeling of boredom. We may think that TV watching time is relaxation time, which it can be, but when we watch too much, our darkest thoughts pop up. This triggers worry, anxiety, panic, and buying too much toilet paper.
When you’re being controlled by boredom, you’re missing an opportunity to fertilize your mental-health houseplant. If you simply schedule TV watching time, you’re in control. #mindhack (If you think you can just schedule TV time all day, read on.)
Humans LOVE understanding things. Competence is another form of miracle-grow for our mental-health because when we learn, we generate a feeling that “we’re now more capable of controlling the chaos around us, and are therefore more likely to survive.”
Competence is tight with autonomy, they’re best buds, sort of a 1+1=3 situation. When we build competence, when we get better at something, we create the feeling of autonomy. When we understand things, we feel in control. #doublewhammy
Top tip for more Competence in quarantine: Learn something NEW, or practice something DIFFICULT. Building competence is when we meet a challenge with the best of our current skill. Imagine you’re playing a video game. If you’re on the easiest difficulty and win all the time, you’re going to lose interest, you’re going to get bored because you’re not being challenged. On the other hand, if the difficulty is too high, you’re going to quit because it’s too frustrating. You must find the balance where your skill matches the challenge. When you find this balance, you‘re rewarded with the feeling of achievement, which is another form of miracle-grow for our mental-health.
Watching TV is relaxing, but it’s the equivalent of having the difficulty setting on our video games too low. There is no challenge (unless you’re trying to understand “Westworld.”) So we THINK we’re going to relax, but we end up getting bored and the dark worrisome thoughts pop up again. We unknowingly crave challenge, so when Netflix is asking if you’re still watching, maybe it’s time for some fertilizer, time for something challenging instead.
Competence building is where I believe we need to spend most of our attention while we’re in quarantine. If social distancing is what we can do to combat the physical spread of the corona virus, building competence is what we can do to combat the symptoms of loneliness that inevitably come from the lack of Relatedness in our lives right now. We need to recognize when the video game level is too easy, and bump up the difficulty a bit. You can pick up Duo-lingo and learn a language, start writing that book you’ve always planned, or dust off those piano keys and learn a couple Coldplay songs.
Whatever activity you choose is up to you. But, I’ve come up with a “golden rule” that will help us all determine whether our daily activities will make our mental-health houseplant thrive or wither:
Basically, we should do more things that make us forget about checking our phones.
If you’re checking your phone every 5 minutes, you need more challenge, you’re stuck on a level that’s too easy and your mental-health houseplant will soon start to wither. If you “get lost,” and don’t even think about checking your phone, you’re mental-health houseplant is THRIVING.
If we can all learn this subtle art of fertilizing our mental-health with the three essential nutrients for a happy houseplant, we can come out of these weird times with skills that will increase our happiness well beyond the threat of COVID-19.
What creative ways will you increase your Relatedness, Competence, and Autonomy in quarantine?
The plant analogy, and all of the science behind this article all come from the book “Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness” by Richard M. Ryan (Author), Edward L. Deci (Author)