Disclaimer: This blog about wellness does not include any kale smoothie recipes, “expert’’ exercise or diet advice, or even a picture of me with my arms outstretched to the sky telling you how amazingly #blessed I am. If you want that I suggest you go to your teenage daughter’s Instagram feed.
Instead, I’m discussing jam jars and how I use these to try to achieve wellness in my family of four kids while working full-time.
In a happy coincidence, while I was drafting this blog about wellness - what exactly it is and how to achieve it - I had the radio on and heard an interview that really resonated with me.
The interview was with former British prime minister Tony Blair’s chief strategist Alistair Campbell. Alistair is now a mental health campaigner after suffering depression and psychosis and having a brother who struggled with schizophrenia.
He shared an ingeniously simple way to explain wellbeing that encapsulated how it is more than physical health, but also doing a variety of activities - as well as having the curiosity to try new ones - all of which help deal with stressors in life.
The 'jam jar' visual aid is the brainchild of Jehannine Austin, a professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia.
Dr Austin says every single person has a 'mental illness jar'. Each of our jam jars can be filled with genetic vulnerability factors (hereditary disposition to mental illness) and environmental or experiential vulnerability factors (such as stress at school or work).
Feelings or episodes of mental illness such as anxiety and depression, which are increasingly prevalent in young people, occur when our jam jars are filled to the brim.
But, Dr Austin says, we’re not stuck with our jam jar being a single size. We can make our jars taller with 'rings' of protective factors. These are activities that help us build resilience to life’s setbacks.
Sleep, nutrition and exercise
The fundamental protective factors are good sleep, nutrition and exercise.
The first two of these factors are quite straightforward and most of us know about how to achieve these things - even if we’re not always perfect at doing them!
Exercise - and additional protective factors - are where wellness starts to get individual and much more interesting.
When my son was young he was enrolled by his father in Auskick the first year he was allowed to join a club. There he ran around in the general direction of the ball but tried to avoid contact with it, or anyone else, before we ended his misery. Meanwhile, he’d begged me to take him along to gymnastics with some of the girls in his class, something I was happy to do. He doesn’t do gymnastics anymore, but for a few years, his love of it kept him active, helped him develop friendships and gave him confidence from what he achieved in the classes.
For Alistair Campbell, one protective factor was playing music, specifically the bagpipes. The bagpipes don’t work for everyone - and many of you will be thinking ‘thank goodness for that’ - but it’s those personal preferences that make our lives and our world so fascinating and enriching.
So wellness is about being open to new ideas, trying different activities -whether sporting or creative - and embracing the fact that what can work for one family member may be different from the norm.
My family knows I need some quiet time each day, which usually happens early in the morning while exercising. They also know I’d love to have more time to do more creative pursuits, such as the handicraft activities I enjoyed so much when I was younger (as my daughters enjoy) but that is a work in progress.
Service and spiritual life
Meaningful activities such as volunteering and/or spiritual life is another important protective factor for many people.
These activities make us feel like we’re helping other people, animals or the environment, giving us the satisfaction that we’re making the world a better place. This can be especially important for young people who often like to sense that they are part of a bigger movement.
As I write this I’m feeling quite guilty about not doing more for the community with my children. I’ve seen first-hand what a grounding and enriching impact community service can have on teenagers, especially when a very strong service program is offered at their school.
When I expressed my sense of failure in this area to the teacher who organized one of these service programs, she reassured me that it wasn’t so much the time spent volunteering but the commitment and enthusiasm with which that time was given. She said it was therefore important to find a cause that resonated with the kids and she suggested it could start with something as easy as taking refuge dogs for walks - a good holiday activity!
Social connections with friends and neighbours are also important to everyone, though play a bigger role in some people’s lives than others.
And, as I’ve just done on a Sunday afternoon, goofing off with the kids, playing crazy made-up games on the trampoline, is great for connecting with each other.
It was around this time I asked my teenage son what wellness meant to him. His response: “It’s something that helps you become a better person and leads you to a good future.”
His answer reflected the dynamic nature of wellness.
Wellness is not some state we reach, like attaining that elusive 'work-life' balance. It’s an active process of continually trying new things to build a healthy and fulfilling life as we all develop and change. And it's not comparing yourselves to someone else's highlight reel on social media!
This article was written by a Trinity College parent who wishes to remain anonymous.