Date: 16 Feb 2021
Experienced counsellor, Ros, shares her thoughts on the continuing lockdown and offers advice on how to manage its impact on our mental health.
I am finding this new lockdown hard. I don't know about you? Anxious and helpless feelings rise up out of nowhere and it seems to be taking so much more energy and more resources to maintain a sense of equilibrium. Things definitely feel up and down and when I talk to family, friends and clients, those feelings seem to be pretty universal right now.
Do I think that I have a mental health problem? No. Do I think that my mental health is being challenged and I am having to dig deep to stay well? Yes.
More than ever 'mental health' is being talked about and I am not sure if the way it is being discussed is always useful. I wonder whether it might be a good time to check on our definitions of this much used term.
Here is my understanding. As with physical health we all have mental health and it is a continuum. (Interestingly, if we do not use 'physical health' as a negative term why do we do that with the term 'mental health'?) Sometimes our physical health is challenged in a way that we can manage alone, a bit like stubbing our finger, sometimes we might need minimal assistance from another and sometimes we may need someone else's expert intervention, as we would for a broken limb. In my view, it's the same with our mental health. Normal mental health means we manage the ups and downs almost without noticing. Poorer mental health gets in the way of us functioning as easily as we usually do and we may, or may not, be able to recover using the 'tools' we normally use, or it may mean we look for ideas elsewhere. Bad mental can cause us to freeze and blind us to our normal coping mechanisms, rendering us, if not helpless, with a feeling of helplessness.
This new lockdown seems to have evoked a great deal more anxiety and feelings of helplessness than the first. Why? Well, we are tired, we might say we are suffering from pandemic fatigue. We have spent almost a year engaging every bit of flexibility we can muster. Many of us feel that at work the goalposts seem to be on wheels, they move so frequently and that goes for our social life too. It is January, not April. The weather is colder, the nights are longer, it is harder to spend time outdoors, which we know helped in the summer. The media sends out an unending barrage of fearful messages. Hospitals are full, death tolls are rising. It fills our minds with so many things that we have no control over. We may have been ill with the virus and still be trying to regain our fitness, or may have lost someone close to us. Is it any wonder we feel helpless and anxious.
The everyday connections we had last February have waned. They are still there, just like the waning moon, but anxiety can bring doubt. We can find ourselves not keeping in touch with the people who formerly sustained us, colleagues, family and friends, in case we burden them, or we will look weak in some way. Perhaps we forget that us contacting them might help them not feel forgotten. I hear from people that they are also reaching out less often in the belief that others are coping, so they should be too. We are all very good at making assumptions. Also there is the fact that communications seem to take more energy nowadays, formalised over the last ten months by the use of platforms and no longer peppered with the small scale face to face socialising we enjoyed before this latest lockdown.
Many of us, I would say the majority, are experiencing some, if not all, of these feelings. Some of us will be struggling in the midst of perfect storms and some will be finding ways to dig deep and hang on.
The point of all this? Maybe to remind ourselves to think about our mental health in the context of our own world right now, that we do not need to manage alone and that it is not a sign of weakness to discuss and share. It is a sign of strength. In normal times we all know this, but somehow this pandemic fog seems to be hiding some of the givens these days.
I realise that you may all have coping advice fatigue too! How many new hobbies have we the energy for! For what it is worth this is what I'm finding helpful:
- To remind myself that, for now, my world has become smaller, I see less people, travel less far, but the people I used to see are still there and it is relatively easy to contact them if I want to. However, I also need to forgive myself when I don't want to. They will still be there when my world extends again.
- In this new small world small things can have more of an impact. Sad/bad things can feel amplified, but good things can too, if we give them a chance. With many of the normal things we use to calm ourselves out of bounds, we may need to look more closely at what those things actually do for us, what might take their place, but also what new things do we need to find a way to sooth ourselves. It dawned on me a few months ago that what I was feeling each day, after hours of virtual meetings, was sensory overload. Silent breaks between meetings and for half an hour at the end of the work day helped my senses return to normal. I noticed that choosing a book rather than a TV show, if I had been online a lot, calmed me much more quickly. You will have your own ways of calming yourself of course, but this new pressure that we are under may be keeping some of them just out of sight.
- To remind myself of what I can control, however small and to give myself permission not to worry about the things I have no control over. I don't know about you, but if I get worrying I can start thinking that I have responsibility for everything, including world peace! Perhaps it is important to remember this when we are trying to support others too. Firstly, we are only one part of their support system. If we fear for them, or we feel they are worried for themselves, there are other people who we and they can turn to for help and support. Passing on these ideas may also help them as they support others.
Seeing many of my colleagues faces, when I attended a virtual meeting the other day, reminded me that, although I don't pass these people in the corridors, or see them in the office right now, they are all still there. If I need to I can call on them I can. They are part of my resources. Thankfully, I am good at asking for help when I need it, but I know some people find that more difficult.
As I say you will have your own ways of managing, and may have considered all these ideas already, but I would encourage you to allow yourself plenty of time to have informal conversations, as well as those formal meetings that you had by the coffee machine, or the pub, as they may bring about some much needed new ideas and possible solutions.
Just saying things out loud can be a great catalyst. It would be good to think that, in these pressurised times, as well as doing that ourselves, we might encourage the more reticent to give it a try.
Ros Thomas is a BACP accredited counsellor who works both as a school staff counsellor and privately with individuals and couples. http://www.rosthomas.com/#Home