Depending on your personal situation, the pandemic has likely hit you in different ways. Still working versus furloughed or unemployed, front line staffer or laptop tapper, trying to parent or living alone – there's a million shades of specifics, in this strange scenario. One unifying factor is that this has been hard.
Data shows that the nation's mental health is sliding – figures released last summer indicate that rates of depression had doubled through the pandemic, at that point – while research from King's College show that in lockdown 1.0 two thirds of people reported poorer sleep. One possible manifestation of spending most of your time locked away, maybe not putting on your go-to mood-boosting outfits or feeling the vindication that comes with nailing a presentation, is that your self-esteem has taken a hit.
While there's a lot that's beyond any of our control, here are some easy ways to give yourself some uplifting vibes.
It isn’t rocket science, but no one else can do it for you.
1. Future proof your feed
In one small study, researchers from Cornell University in New York found that students who sat in front of their own Facebook profile reported a greater boost to self-esteem than those who sat in front of a mirror or pictures of themselves.
They suspected that the boost was down to the way in which social media gives you control of how you present yourself to the world. As for the overall impact of social media on self-esteem, the jury’s out, with most studies pointing to a need for further research.
But if your own consumption is dragging you down rather than building you up, there are steps you can take without going cold turkey. ‘It’s easy to forget how much control you have over the content you consume,’ says Dr Sarah Vohra, consultant psychiatrist, author and WH columnist.
‘Next time you’re scrolling through your news feed, tune into how it makes you feel and unfollow or mute any people or accounts that have a negative impact on your mental wellbeing, then replace them with accounts that inspire.
'It’s about making your social media more representative of your life and your interests.’
2. Take up life drawing
Virtually, of course. If sketching the form of a naked stranger sounds like another addition to the never-ending list of hen do activities you’d sell a kidney to avoid partaking in (see also: cocktail making and games of Mr and Mrs), then hear this: committing the curve of an elbow, ankle or penis to paper could improve your body image.
Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University carried out three studies in a bid to establish the extent to which life drawing is effective at promoting body image.
They found that attending a class for six weeks significantly improved trait body image (body appreciation and pride) and reduced social physique anxiety, positing that doing so provided the participants with realistic depictions of what bodies look like.
3. Breathe easier
At the risk of sounding like a team leader on The Apprentice, you’re doing it wrong. ‘The way you breathe is controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS) and it will change in response to your environment – but breathing is the only function governed by the ANS that is completely under your control,’ says Richie Bostock (@thebreathguy).
‘Slow diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, the driver of your parasympathetic nervous (rest and digest) system.’
If counting your inhales and exhales is maths you don’t have time for, you can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system by making your out-breath longer than your in-breath. Wondering what feeling calm has to do with feeling good about yourself?
Research published in the journal Body Image earlier this year found that becoming more aware of your internal body signals (yes, breathing, but also heartbeat and feelings of hunger) can promote positive body image.
4. Talk someone up
Turns out that gossip and self-esteem go hand in hand –and not because you’ve had your skirt tucked into your knickers all morning. Speaking positively about fellow humans can have a corresponding effect on yourself-esteem.
Researchers from Staffordshire University quizzed 160 people on their gossiping habits, self-esteem and social support, and found that more gossiping correlated with greater social support.
In a follow-up study, 140 participants were asked to talk about a fictional person positively or negatively, with those who described the character positively reporting feeling higher levels of self-esteem. Start spreading the good gossip.
5. Strike a power pose
The idea that standing in a powerful position can boost your self-esteem gained traction from a 2010 study and subsequent TED talk by one of the authors, Amy Cuddy.
She and her team claim that posing in ‘high-power nonverbal displays’ (hands on hips, legs spread) can increase testosterone and decrease cortisol, while also increasing feelings of power and tolerance for risk.
Before you climb on to the table mid Zoom call, beating your chest, know that despite multiple attempts, researchers have failed to replicate their findings and, today, the theory that power poses can influence your hormones has been widely discredited. Cuddy has since softened her claims, highlighting that power posing can still have a meaningful impact on emotions.
6. Get some balance
As wellness clichés go, #balance is up there with hovering your phone above your brunch. But if applying the concept to your nutrition and fitness regime is a tried-and-tested formula, know that it can work wonders for your self-esteem, too.
‘You might not be able to stop every negative thought that comes to mind about your body image and abilities, but what you can do is challenge that thought so it doesn’t hold so much power over you,’ says Dr Vohra.
‘If your instinct when you look in the mirror is to reel off a list of flaws, challenge yourself to match each negative with a positive; this doesn’t have to be an aesthetic quality, it can be a positive trait you possess.’
Have we mentioned how kind you look today?
7. Cook up a storm
Buying ingredients and standing over a hob can feel like admin you can't be bothered with right now, but know that the simple act of carving out some time to make a meal for yourself can be a form of self-care.
For starters, a review of cooking interventions in therapeutic settings found that inpatient and community-based cooking interventions yielded positive influences on socialisation, self-esteem and quality of life.
We’re not advocating you go full-on 50s housewife and have dinner on the table by 7pm, but take the same care-filled approach to cooking for yourself as you do would if you had a friend round to eat (miss you, rule of six.)
‘Eating alone is a way of saying, “I’m important,”’ says Dr Jen Nash, clinical psychologist and creator of online nutrition programme The Eating Blueprint. ‘It’s treating yourself as you would a friend or partner and it’s good for your self-esteem, which we often underestimate the importance of when it comes to countering low mood and anxiety.’
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