One word that I have never heard so much than over the last three months is “unprecedented”. This pandemic is unprecedented, the way we’ve had to change the way we live is unprecedented in how we shop, communicate, learn, work, celebrate, mourn… “socially distance” wasn’t even a term on anyone’s radar. But the fact is, things have changed, and we can’t be certain, nor can the top scientists really, when things will go back to “normal”. I’m sure even when they do, things won’t be quite the same.
So what do we do in the meantime? How do we deal with this uncertainty? There was a slight element of novelty to start off with and a sort of adrenaline, fight or flight response in all of us, that we just needed to do what we could to get through. But after over 3 months and even with some restrictions lifting, perhaps that is all starting to take its toll. It’s starting to get quite draining working from home, speaking to colleagues, as well as family and friends over a computer screen, trying to interpret the tone of one dimensional typed emails; homeschooling teenagers or younger children who have no real contact with their peers and friends to whom they would offload things. Sharing the same living-space day in and day out for work, as well as play, is hard. It is really hard. There’s so much potential for a lot of pent up stress, for things to build up and bubble away.
But I think the main problem with all this is the fact that we haven’t been able to even relieve stress and deal with these challenges in the ways we are used to – like going to the gym, popping out to the pub, the cinema, friends houses, church, mosque, synagogue etc, coffee shops, swimming pool, exercise classes and so on… Taking the children to the park is not even straightforward, with not being able to take the kids on the swings. And until recently, the possibility of going on a summer holiday was non existent, and even this is still quite uncertain.
You may have heard the analogy of the stress bucket, or stress container. I heard about it on a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course¹. Stress, COVID or no COVID, is a fact of life. It builds up and, depending on our vulnerabilities and present resilience, we can only hold a certain amount of stress. The more stress we are under, the more our bucket fills. It can build and build and inevitably overflow. We all have coping methods that help relieve stress, or ‘open the tap’ to relieve stress/stop if from overflowing. There are really helpful ones, and some less helpful ones. The less helpful ones you could see as a dodgy tap, not properly emptying the stress container or blocking it completely. Examples might be drinking, eating excessively, overworking or, a common one, bottling things up or keeping things to ourselves. We carry on, not realising that this is very detrimental. At some point it will be too much. Overflowing looks different in different people, but indications of it could be irritability, anger, tearfulness, panic attacks, generalised anxiety, depression, physical health problems or what some might describe as a “breakdown”.
Do you recognise any of these? What are your coping strategies? MHFA England suggests exercise, talking to a friend and hobbies. During this lockdown I’ve noted and experienced that we’ve had to get more creative and intentional about how we manage our ‘stress bucket’. I’ve seen people getting into art (I know a family who have been painting together, love their different interpretations of things!); discovering gardening (even if it’s keeping a couple of houseplants going!); learning to make bread; creating intricate lego displays; engaging more with exercise from home (I’ve heard Joe Wicks is popular?!). It’s amazing how resourceful we can be.
But if you’re feeling a bit cooped up and need space from family, perhaps this could be a time to go solo, reflect on things. What gives you joy? I’m not talking about gleeful sunshiney happiness, I mean a deep rooted sense of contentment. Watch the Disney Pixar film Inside Out if you want to know what I mean…
Take a walk and, whilst walking, try some mindfulness – if it’s a new or odd concept, I recommend accessing some free meditations from ‘Finding Peace in a Frantic world’ ². Simple hobbies might be colouring, puzzles, card games, baking, cooking, cross stitch, learning something new (e.g. I’ve been learning sign language!) discover some new music or watch a classic film you’ve never seen before. Be open minded – try it and if it’s not for you, move on and don’t beat yourself up! Talk to someone – this is getting easier as we can meet up with people outside at a social distance. Carefully consider who you see – you don’t need to see everyone – choose trustworthy and kind friends to talk to! Really consider social media and whether it is a positive, enriching activity. Is it adding to the stress bucket?
For me, the one ‘thing’ that helps is learning just to be. It has taken me many years but there is an element of acceptance needed, to acknowledge the here and now and not fight it. No it’s not an ideal situation and I’m not underestimating the gravity of the hardship for many, including loss and sacrifice. But the here and now daily struggle of lockdown won’t be forever. Getting angry at it, impatient or blaming others – this is only damaging to ourselves personally. Let go of cynicism. Picture yourself 30 years from now describing to loved ones, children, grandchildren of what it was like – that we got through it, and how much we learned about ourselves.
In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf”.
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