While vaccines are bringing hope and school re-openings are on the horizon in the UK, the lack of a definitive end to the pandemic is dragging people down like never before. We bring together tips for staying afloat
Twelve months since this all began, what environmental psychologist Lee Chambers describes as ‘lockdown fatigue’ is widespread: feelings of brain fog, worsening short term memory and heightened anxiety, to name just three symptoms.
The way that these psychological stressors have stacked up over months and months prompts a physiological response. Many of us have now been in what Chamber calls a “higher arousal state” for a long time, which is negatively impacting our energy levels. “This can cause physical tiredness, muscle tension and headaches, leaving us feeling agitated and irritable,” he points out.
Piled on top of this is the inherent sadness of missing physical interaction, plus anger and frustration at a lack of control. “With many people’s sleep disrupted, our emotional regulation is even harder to keep in harmony,” Chambers adds.
None of this makes for pleasant reading but understanding how stress – a critical part of the human experience – impacts us, might help us to get a bit of perspective and be compassionate towards ourselves.
In our weekly and annual What went right? series here at Positive News, we recap the most exciting positive developments taking place around the world. In the same way that we’re amazed at how much good news there is to be found once we look for it, you might be amazed at what you’ve achieved during the past year.
Try writing down what you’re proud of or what you’ve learned about yourself since the pandemic hit. Whether it’s learning new skills, adapting to home schooling, being there for loved ones or strangers, or simply surviving – you might be surprised at what you’ve proved yourself capable of.
“You really don’t need to be super Insta mum. It’s OK that you’re not producing innovative messy play ideas every day. It’s OK to lose your temper (just apologise to your child after!) and it’s OK to be thoroughly sick of the current situation.”
The words of childcare expert and author Sarah Ockwell-Smith may be about parenting during a pandemic, but they apply to most of us in some way. Many people embraced new hobbies or mastered new skills during the first lockdown, while some even launched businesses, but for most, the desire and ability to be productive has seriously waned.
“Unhappiness lies in the dead space between our current reality and our projected ideals”, writes author Eli Goldstein, who recommends reining in your productivity goalposts. If you do nothing beyond surviving and doing the bare essentials, that’s OK.
Kiran Misra, who works for the UN, writes movingly about trying to resist the ‘side hustle culture’ and instead do (or don’t do) whatever makes you happy: “Taking space to do things that aren’t necessarily productive, or part of a pages-long to-do list, reminds us that there is more to our time on this planet than just getting things done.”
“As human beings we have phenomenal resilience because we have the brain circuitry for it,” explains psychotherapist Lina Mookerjee. “We can adapt incredibly well.”
But how do we adapt to something as emotionally disruptive as a pandemic? Mookerjee suggests making space to ask yourself some simple questions: How am I feeling? What am I thinking? – and answering candidly. By being honest with ourselves, she says, we may then be able to improve our understanding of what we need.
“When we go into fight or flight mode, we lose touch with our prefrontal cortex, which is our thinking brain,” she explains. By creating space to calmly take stock of the situation, things start to change. “You change your frame of reference with which you’re assessing the situation.”
Talking to people who share your anxieties can also help you feel less alone, says Dave Smithson from Anxiety UK. The charity offers a wide range of national support, available either face-to-face or via phone or web.
“We’re feeling a number of different griefs,” says David Kessler, one of the world’s foremost experts on grief, in an interview. “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realise things will be different. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
Whether you’re mourning the death of someone, or grieving the myriad lost experiences and opportunities, understanding the stages of grief is a good place to start, notes Kessler.
“There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: ‘This virus won’t affect us’. There’s anger: ‘You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities’. There’s bargaining: ‘OK, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right?’ There’s sadness: ‘I don’t know when this will end’. And finally there’s acceptance. ‘This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.’
“Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”
“There’s only so much bad news your brain can handle before it has a negative effect on your mood and your feelings of being able to respond to the situations you face,” says Sean Wood, CEO of Positive News. “It’s worth remembering too, that because we’re hardwired to pay attention to dangers, bad news is addictive.”
Months of rolling news coverage of the crisis, from grim statistics to endless opining about how best to tackle it, may now have taken their toll.
Wood suggests setting boundaries on bad news consumption and balancing it with journalism about what’s going right. “Positive news stories can boost your mood, connect you to progress and new possibilities, and help you feel that your actions can make a difference,” he says.
When things feel overwhelming, psychologist and author Emma Kavanagh notes the importance of seemingly minor acts of control. “If I am working, I am dressed, because it gives me a sense of control and a sense that I have gone to work and it also gives me that sense of identity,” she writes.
Nutritionist Francesca Straniero suggests eating at regular times if you can, to maintain some normality during lockdown. “A healthy and balanced diet could promote a good immune system,” she adds. Staying hydrated and taking vitamin D supplements, could also help you feel more in control of your health.
When it comes to exercise, do as much as you feel up to. Jared Blunden, a personal trainer based at PureGym in Milton Keynes, says even a few short workouts a week will be beneficial. “You can get tonnes of inspiration for workouts on Instagram or YouTube, or you can download the PureGym app, which is free to anyone in the UK,” he says. “It has a library of more than 400 home workouts and gym classes that can be done from the living room.”
“Challenge yourself to walk around the block or go up the stairs an extra time when you use them,” suggests Glenn Shelford, a personal trainer who runs getfitwithglenn.com. “Celebrate those small wins.”
Thousands of parents have spent the past year spinning plates more frantically than ever before. Worries about keeping up formal learning only add to the stress, after weeks and weeks of school have been missed.
Ockwell-Smith reminds us that learning extends beyond the textbooks. “Learning happens when you go on your walk and find a snail and talk about the shape of its shell. Learning happens when you bake a brownie and your child helps to weigh the ingredients. Learning happens with Lego and cardboard box dens. Learning happens in everyday conversations with you. Don’t underestimate your impact.”
What about the children who are spending too much time on sofas and screen? Says Ockwell-Smith: “I think we have to view lockdown through the lens of survival and meeting our basic needs first: food, warmth, shelter and love.”
And she also has words of wisdom for parents of younger children; for some, their babies and toddlers may have hardly experienced life beyond the four walls of home. “Think about all the sensory input your child gets in a regular day: the feel of warm water on their skin in the bath, the scent of a meal cooking… the sound of you singing a lullaby. Their world is so sensory rich already! You are enough.”
“From what I’ve seen with my clients, everyone is feeling smothered and overwhelmed,” says Alyza Berman, a clinical social worker and founder of a mental health treatment centre in Atlanta, US.
With fewer options for personal space and our own routines, even the best-suited couples, for example, are struggling after 12 months of on and off lockdowns. “It’s not that they don’t love each other; they just never expected to be so inseparable,” says Berman.
When it comes to relationships with your significant others, whether they are children, partners, friends or flatmates, Berman suggests putting some boundaries in place. It might even be literal: rearranging a living space so everyone has a separate area for alone time, or setting up different areas for different activities.
Boundaries can be emotional too. Supporting friends and family shouldn’t come at the expense of your own mental health, reminds Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, a psychologist, author and therapist. “Express validation, compassion and empathy for your friend’s struggles,” she says, but also recommends: “Explain why this is a challenging time for you, what you find overwhelming and how you are going to take care of yourself.”
Envisioning a happier time in the future may bring much-needed perspective: how will you look back on what is happening now and how you coped? It may be that you’ll see it as an unmitigated horror and stress, but hindsight may reveal other things, too.
Emma Kavanagh, a psychologist and author, says that there may be silver linings. “People who have survived disasters have no control over it but most will exhibit post-traumatic growth,” she says.
Even after being kept hostage in solitary confinement for five years, Terry Waite, an author and humanitarian, writes: “My life changed greatly after I came out of captivity and I thought time in captivity was a waste of time, but it was not.”
Describing the time he spent without books, natural light or companionship, Waite reflects: “I was discovering creative abilities I had that I did not know I had. This current situation may seem a waste of time but is not if you can draw on it at a later stage.”