Guest blog by Anne McKechnie, specialist in dealing with trauma
There is no denying this is a very difficult time for us as individuals, families and societies. The best way to look at it is as a type of bereavement. We have lost our previous lifestyle and sense of safety. Some may have considerably reduced contact with family and friends, to the extent that important life events cannot be celebrated or marked in our usual social ways. Advice, guidance and restrictions seem to change daily. There is uncertainty and anxiety about jobs, income as well as health. Moreover, we do not know when this will end. This all leads to a coping style which is very similar to that associated with bereavement.
When we experience an important loss, we go through a series of emotions – shock, denial, guilt, anger, sadness until we finally accept the new status quo. At first, those emotions shift and change very rapidly, so we feel, for example, sad one moment and angry the next. Over time, the emotions continue to change, though less rapidly, until we come to a level of acceptance and calm. The difficulty we face at the moment is we do not know what the new normal will be, so the time to acceptance will take longer.
While we are processing all of this, our brain has reduced capacity for other tasks and demands – so we feel more tired or our concentration is less good than before.
There is a risk with increased home working and social isolation that moods can dip and anxiety levels rise. This is a very normal reaction under very abnormal circumstances so a certain level of feeling fed up and anxious is to be expected. Below are some well-established approaches which will help keep us all emotionally healthy.
Working from home
- Keep as much to your normal routine as possible i.e. when you get up, when you eat, etc.
- Resist the urge to stay in pyjamas all day. While you may not need to dress in work wear if you are not doing face-to-face calls, getting dressed will bring that element of routine.
- Structure your day so it broadly conforms to work schedules i.e. Start and stop at certain times and schedule in coffee and lunch breaks.
- When working, try to do so from an area where you do not normally sit e.g. a different chair to your usual.
- At the end of your working day, create an “airlock” between work and home life. This may be a ritual around tidying away lap tops, phones, notebooks etc. You may also want to change your clothes
- Set up groups for on line “work huddles”.
- Set up on line groups with colleagues for lunch and coffee breaks where the rules are no work-related chat.
- Arrange regular remote catch ups with friends and family.
- If you live in a busy house, you may find yourself losing patience with others. Be aware that this is normal but will need managing – try and take time away from one another as much as you can.
- Social inclusion is very important in maintaining mood. Many communities are setting up support groups for the vulnerable; engaging in such groups or even letting a vulnerable neighbour know to contact you if they require shopping etc. will help build that sense of social inclusion
Activities and Interests
- During downtime, vary the activities in which you engage – a variety of online activities, watching TV alongside non-internet interests- reading, board games with other members of your household, jigsaw puzzles etc. Resist the urge to spend lots of time on line.
- In down time consider engaging in a new or, up to now, delayed chore or activity.
- Engage in as much exercise as possible – current advice is that going for a walk, run or cycle is good as long as you keep physical distance of 2 metres from others. Gentle exercise in the home is always possible, be that yoga, small weights etc. if you are concerned about disturbing neighbours.
- Engage in as many enjoyable distractions as possible.
- Be realistic about what you can achieve – the stress we are feeling is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. Stress limits our energy and ability to concentrate.
- There is a temptation to constantly listen for advice on updates on the current crisis. While it is important to remain up to date, we have to limit how often we read or listen to information. Limit your reading or listening to mornings and early evening. If you have updates coming through to ‘phones, limit how often you attend to them.
- It is also important that you ensure you are receiving accurate information from reliable sources.
Anxiety and mood management
- If you find you are fretting over the news or latest advice given and your anxiety levels are rising, take time to either write them down or share them with another in your catch up calls. It is vital however that you contain such anxiety by limiting the amount of time you spend on such worries. Permit yourself e.g. 10 minutes of “Worry time” at set times during the day and NEVER during the night. Set a timer to tell you when to stop and if you find yourself worrying in between your permitted “worry sessions”, gently remind yourself that you will have time to worry again later and you deserve time away from such anxieties to build your resilience.
- We are hardwired as human beings to be alert to anxieties in the middle of the night which is why mid-night worries are always far worse than at any other times. It is therefore important to practice good sleep hygiene. If you unable to sleep within 15 minutes of trying to do so, get out of bed and either move to another room or sit somewhere else in your room. Do not look on ‘phones or other devices. Do not drink caffeinated or alcoholic drinks or smoke. If you feel anxious, write down your fears but do not read what you have written until the next day – when you will doubtlessly see how invalid they often are. When you feel sleepy, get back into bed. If you are still unable to sleep, engage in the same routine. Similarly, if you wake in the night with anxieties, this routine is also recommended. We must remember that sleep disturbance is not unusual but worrying about it just makes it worse.
- For those of you caring for children (as parents or, remotely, professionals) this will be a tough time balancing their needs with those imposed by various restrictions. All children go through a developmental stage where they become aware of human vulnerability and anxiety levels may escalate when this is combined with current health fears. Equally children need to be helped to develop skills in managing anxiety and fear; while as adults we may want to make them feel better and avoid distress, we must help them develop tools to manage feelings that can be overwhelming. Books such as Starving the Anxiety Gremlin by Kate Collins-Donnelly or the Young Minds website have excellent advice on managing such normal feelings.
Finally, we must all remember this will pass. We may face increasing restrictions over the coming weeks, but keeping safe levels of social contact via the means of connectivity we have at our disposal, alongside managing normal anxiety and low mood at such abnormal times will get us through this and build resilience both as individuals and groups.
Anne McKechnie is an independent consultant forensic clinical psychologist with over 30 years’ experience of working with trauma.