It may be hard for us to remember now, but when we first moved into lockdown, many were highly anxious about the impact it would have on us.
The rush in sales of toilet paper, pasta and rice was symptomatic of a fear that we would not be able to leave our homes to buy the most essential items. The concept of no contact with loved ones or colleagues was unfamiliar to many. Working from home in relative isolation felt alien. Some adapted easily, while others reported high levels of anxiety. Many chose to continue to live their lives as before; attending sporting events, going to pubs; even as it became clear these were risky activities. Others enthusiastically embraced the change with an endless stream of video calls, quizzes and virtual pub crawls as well as long lists of targets, projects and aspirations for completion during enforced isolation.
Yet, as we have moved into Phase 1 and look toward potential further easing in restrictions, this has not necessarily led to equal easing in our anxieties. Many of us now face new worries.
“I have felt safe in my bubble and am worried about getting sick if I leave”
“My relative is shielding and if I move out of lockdown, I may infect them “
“I am terrified of using public transport”
“How do I politely and assertively tell someone they are too close”
“How do I respond if someone asks me to give them more space”
“It is hard to read someone’s emotions when they are wearing a face mask”
Fear of alienation
“I wasn’t confident in my work life before and this has made it worse”
“What if I lose my job”
“I am still shielding so can’t do what others can do”
Covid is a traumatic event.
The psychology world has recognised the Covid pandemic as a form of trauma. It meets all the criteria: a psychological response to an event that is deeply disturbing and distressing. The perpetrator in this instance is unseen and pervasive, making the impact potentially more severe.
Many of us have lost loved ones. Others have lost livelihoods and lifestyles with perhaps more loss to come. This has led to bereavement reactions involving a rapid cycling of emotions. As we progressed and adapted to changing circumstances, our emotions fluctuated through anxiety, irritability and sadness alongside periods of calm and contentment. We may all have experienced the same emotions, just not necessarily in the same order or even at the same time.
When we are anxious, humans respond in different ways, depending on our personalities and circumstances. Some of us continually play over scenarios in our heads, often creating catastrophic consequences. Others, able to adapt relatively quickly, are less worried at the prospect of change. Or, cope by avoiding – carrying on as before, often dismissing others’ concerns or opinions. All are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances.
Often, when we experience uncomfortable emotions such as anger, sadness or fear, our first reaction is to push them away. We may believe that “giving in” to feelings is a sign of weakness or that coping means only displaying positive emotion. The full range of emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, are vital and fundamental to the human condition but, by their very nature, are sometimes hard to tolerate. We are often socialised not to show emotions or to see clear evidence of them as poor or inadequate coping.
Some of us may believe that if we “succumb” to emotions and “wallow” in them, we will be “weak”, not able return to normality, will be overpowered by them or that others may see us differently.
Many mental health and social difficulties stem from an inability to process feelings. If, in the face of adversity, we are denied the validity of our emotional reactions, either by ourselves or others, we push our feelings aside. But, similar to weeds thrown into another flowerbed or dust swept under a carpet, the emotions do not disappear. Ignored and neglected, they become a larger and more entrenched obstacle. When they resurface, as they inevitably will, they grow stronger and, potentially, more overwhelming. Denial and avoidance coping style can lead to mental health problems.
We all have different ways of coping; talking to friends or family may work for some, for others a solitary walk will be most helpful. It is good to have a range of coping mechanisms which we can utilise depending on circumstances. During lockdown, many of our usual coping resources may not be available – for example, meeting friends in a local pub. If this is our way of managing difficult emotions is not available, we are likely to experience a worsening of our mood. It is important to understand that we can still find our own unique ways of acknowledging and validating our emotions, to build a “toolbox” of coping resources. Some examples are keeping a diary, listening to music, carrying out a practical task or spending time alone to allow space to acknowledge and own these sensations.
The important message here is not to deny the emotions but acknowledge them, process them and move on with our lives.
Resilience is a topic on which psychologists regularly talk and write. One author, John Duffy has defined it as “(the) knowledge that we can handle challenges and hardships in our lives”. While much of the emphasis has been on building resilience in children, we understand that resilience is a dynamic skill and ability that continues to grow and develop throughout our lives. Most importantly, the skill is strengthened by the mistakes and errors we make.
During lockdown, many of us have established safe and predictable routines to guide our everyday lives. This helps us feel more secure by introducing a sense of control, helping to reduce anxiety and avoid low moods. But this good advice, if applied too rigidly with the associated lack of spontaneity can remove challenges; challenges which are so crucial in building and maintaining resilience.
Resilience is an emotional muscle which requires regular and gradual testing to build and maintain strength.
Tips to building resilience – learning to bend and not break
- Accept that there will be tough times and we must give ourselves permission to feel sad, anxious, irritable, bored.
- Negative emotions are as necessary and important as positive ones and need to be given house room, albeit temporarily.
- A sense of optimism is key to building resilience.
- Focus on the positives.
- Do not try to predict the future; allow yourself limited worry time but focus on the things over which you have control.
- Accept that feeling guilty about the positives in your life is a normal part of human reaction to this current trauma; we refer to this as “survivor guilt”
- Acceptance of failure and a determination to try again is a core skill in building emotional strength
- Accept what is beyond your control and focus on things you can personally influence, regardless of how small it may seem.
- Accept that difficult times are part of life; seeing them as personal and negative makes them harder to bear.
- Continue to maintain strong relationships both in home and work settings.
- Having good supportive relationships is important.
- Limit time spent with people who make you feel incompetent or unhappy.
- Practice assertiveness. We often confuse aggressiveness or passivity with assertiveness. If you find someone is too close to you or you can’t understand them, express your needs calmly, firmly and politely. Assertiveness is a skill that also requires practice.
- Make and carry out realistic plans.
- Leave your comfort zone.
- Set small challenges and carry them out with the acceptance that you may fail or find them difficult.
- Reward effort rather than success.
- When you fail, allow recovery time.
- Don’t avoid failure but see it as an opportunity to learn and a necessary part of human existence.
We have all overcome adversity in the past; practice resilience by thinking back to hard times and remembering how you overcame previous hardships.
- Look for things for which you can feel grateful.
- Reframe difficulties as opportunities e.g. I may not be able to go on holiday, but I can save up for a better one next year.
- Look for small opportunities to practice skills you may be afraid of losing, both within the workplace and in your personal life.
At some point, this trauma will be in the past and we will be able to look back not just on how hard it was, but how we coped with adversity. We can see this period as an opportunity to build resilience and strengthen our mental health.
Featured image: Forever Blowing Bubbles, Carl Campbell On Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, Paris. CC By-SA 2.0