Anyone who knows me well is aware that, underneath my attempts to maintain a cool and calm exterior, I’m actually a very impatient person. I want to have finished that article, got in shape, painted my nails, by next week – no, by tomorrow – no, now! Over the years I have learned to practice what I preach: that making meaningful change takes time, and to work on one thing at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed.
But there’s more to it than that. Many of us are interested in self-improvement, but haven’t always done the groundwork to make it effective or productive. We want to be better, stronger, the best versions of ourselves that we can be, but have we looked at the building blocks of wellbeing to see whether they’re in place so that we can do the work we want to do? There are lots of different ways we can consider the building blocks of wellbeing, but one of the most helpful ones is in the context of Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs. If you have done even just a little study of psychology, you will probably be familiar with this model, but it’s useful to revisit it, and is hopefully really interesting if you haven’t come across it yet.
The hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s model is a theory of motivation which posits that humans have 5 levels of need. In his model, we must fulfil each need before progressing to the next level. So, physical needs like breathing, food, water and sleep are the most essential needs. If we can fulfil these, we can think about safety: shelter, and different forms of security such as within a family or employment. The next level is love and belonging – relationships with partners, friends, family and community. Once this is in place, we can work on developing self-esteem, which essentially means valuing ourselves, and esteem and respect from others. Finally, we can work towards self-actualisation which represents factors like creativity, problem-solving, spontaneity, lack of prejudice, morality, and acceptance. Self-actualisation is about becoming what we are capable of becoming, and fulfilling our potential.
As such, a lot of celebrated people in their fields including dancers, scientists and athletes could be called self-actualisers by striving to, and becoming, the best they can be. And most of us probably want to get to that point, but we can’t do this unless the needs lower down the pyramid have been met. These lower needs are essential, are required early in life, and are often innate – for instance, we don’t need to learn how to breathe! However, they are easily forgotten or neglected, especially in challenging times. For instance, sleep and good nutrition tend may go out of the window during times of stress. So it’s worth focusing on these essential needs so that we can then start thinking about the levels higher up the pyramid which are less necessary, but can be learned and developed at any stage in life.
What are the basics?
If we think about these lower levels of Maslow’s model, we could consider many things to be one of ‘the basics’, including having a regular routine, personal hygiene, and taking any required medication regularly, which are often neglected when individuals are struggling with their mental health. If you are finding it hard to maintain routines and look after yourself (e.g., getting dressed every day), you might want to speak to your GP to get some support.
In the rest of the article, I’m focusing on four key areas that research has shown are directly linked to mental health regardless of whether or not you have a clinically diagnosed disorder.
Research into the link between nutrition and psychological wellbeing is a fast-growing area – for example, there is evidence that a diet consisting of highly processed foods is associated with anxiety and depression. Being in the dance world, you are likely to have sound knowledge of nutrition and hydration and you probably know what you need to change in your diet (if not, this IADMS resource paper offers lots of advice). Although there is a history of insufficient calorie and nutrient intake among some dancer populations, I hope that individuals training and working in dance can feel empowered to look at their diets in relation to all aspects of their health.
As someone who has been through the long, slow process of helping babies and toddlers learn how to sleep through the night, I know only too well the importance of a good night’s sleep! Poor sleep is associated with anxiety, irritability, difficulty coping with daily stressors, and problems with focus and concentration. So take a look at your sleep hygiene: maybe you could be more consistent with your sleep and wake times; avoid screens in the bedroom; have a wind-down routine; write any worries down before you go to bed; get more exposure to natural light (particularly in the morning); avoid intense exercise in the evening if you can - although if you perform regularly or teach evening classes, this last suggestion may not be possible. There is some useful information from the NHS here.
Meaningful social connections are essential to our wellbeing, and are important in relation to both the security and esteem levels of Maslow’s pyramid. We are a social species and positive relationships are crucial not only in terms of our survival within a group, but are also a key predictor of happiness. Research has shown that loneliness is linked to greater incidence of, and poorer recovery from, depression and anxiety. Social relationships have the most positive effect in the context of people we know and trust, but research is now showing that even brief interactions with strangers – chatting to someone in a queue for instance – can positively boost our wellbeing and help us to feel part of a community. If you are struggling with social relationships, you could work with a coach or therapist to learn how to build trust, rapport, communication and assertiveness skills.
Exercise is often known as a magic bullet because it has such profound effects on both physical and mental health. Exercise releases many of the family of ‘happy hormones’: endorphins, which are associated with pain reduction and greater pleasure; serotonin, which helps to prevent anxiety and depression; and dopamine, which is associated with enjoyment and reward. And the really clever thing? Exercise not only increases our wellbeing in the moment, it increases our sensitivity to it in general life. My body and mind always tell me when I’m lacking in this area – I have less energy, have more muscle tension, and am more irritable. You might be doing lots of movement in your studies or work, so you could think about alternative forms of exercise to dance, such as running or Yoga. If, like me, you are more desk-based in your work, you may need to find a way of building regular exercise into your weekly routine if you do not already.
The bottom line
When you think about it, these ‘basics’ are not really basic at all – they’re fundamental to our mental health and, without them in place, truly fulfilling our potential is likely to be impossible. Once you’ve got the basics sorted, then you can start thinking about self-actualising and reaching those bigger life or career goals. In the next blog I outline some practical tips for making change, so take a look at that one, too!
Do you need some help getting the basics right? Coaching might be useful for you – get in touch with me to find out more.