Friendship Bench

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As the vaccine rollout continues and the world begins to open up again from the deep isolation of the pandemic, a lot of us are left feeling anxious and stressed. Mental Health Awareness Month gives us all the opportunity to take stock, consider our state of mind and take action. Because the best time to take care of our mental health and strengthen our ability to cope with change and uncertainty – is right now.

That’s according to psychiatrist (and Elevate Prize winner) Dr. Dixon Chibanda of Friendship Bench, an organization that trains Grandmas to provide free talk therapy from benches in their communities. “If you’re stressed and dealing with negative thoughts, you need to break the cycle.

Our thoughts influence our feelings, which influence our behavior. It’s difficult to change our thoughts and feelings, but dealing with behavior is easier because it’s mechanical.

Change the behavior and the feelings and thoughts change too.”

So that’s where to start. And the best time to start?

“In the morning when you wake up. The brain works in cycles, so it’s more susceptible to change in the morning. If you’re struggling, start with something simple: change the time you wake up or change your morning routine.”

When it comes to actions we can take today to protect our mental health for the future, Dixon’s advice is clear. “Right now, people should be asking themselves: what are my anchors, and how can I strengthen them?

“Every human being has anchors – they’re what you fall back on when faced with adversity – or even if you’ve just had a bad day. Take time to think about what your anchors are, and nurture them. Because the key to dealing with adversity in the future is cultivating ways of dealing with it now.”

Common anchors – and how to strengthen them

Focus on relationships:
“It’s important to have people you can turn to. Who makes you happy? Connect with those people. Reach out to old friends – rekindling a relationship can be very positive. ”

Get more sleep:

“One of the most important anchors is sleep. It’s so critical in terms of how we function. Make sure you’re getting enough for you. That’s fundamental.”

Read a book:

“Reading is therapeutic. It’s never a waste of time. I mean reading outside of your work or profession. I love reading novels – and I make time to do it every day.”

Get some exercise:

“There are so many benefits from exercise. Whether it’s going for a walk or finding a sport you love. I love to run, I love to teach karate.”

Hang out with some animals: 

“Animals are great therapeutic support. I have dogs and ducks and chickens and fish and I talk to them all the time. Being able to relate to another sentient being is powerful and soothing.”

When our own mental health is taken care of, we are better able to help those around us. Read Dixon’s guide to supporting others in isolated times.  

Inspired to learn more about Friendship Bench, and the impact and importance of therapeutic conversations and connections?

Watch Dixon’s TED talk.

Looking for other ways to get involved?