How to cope with the “new normal”
The first in a series of six articles supporting our mental health going into winter.
We all got a taste of freedom over the summer, didn’t we? Yet, as we were warned, the spectre of Covid has not gone away. In fact, as I sit to write this, the government has just announced a series of tiered national lockdown measures for the next 6 months.
It’s all too easy to enter into a spiral of disappointment, fear and panic as we head towards Christmas and an uncertain future.
Why uncertainty is so hard to live with
Back in 2016, some groundbreaking research concluded that uncertainty is even harder to deal with than the knowledge that something bad would happen. To work out why, we need to look at how our brains work. And, given that the brain’s job is to keep you safe, as far as its concerned, uncertainty equals threat. The brain knows that avoiding threat is key to survival which is manifested in the fact most of us feel a desire to control our lives – giving us a sense of order and certainty. Unfortunately, this very survival mechanism leads to immense stress when faced with things we cannot control and this protective feature of the brain begins to do more harm than good. Our minds will search for reason where sometimes there is none – and as brains have a negative bias, that usually means a pessimistic outlook.
This great article in Psychology Today helps explain how we train our brains out of jumping to conclusions.
So it seems fitting that World Mental Health Day has just been and gone. If ever we needed to look after our collective mental health, we need to this winter. It can be overwhelming to look back on the last 6 months and what we’ve endured, before we even consider what might yet be ahead of us.
However, that’s not to say we won’t cope. Remember, we survived the first lockdown – and that’s a testament to some personal strengths that perhaps we weren’t previously aware of. Humans have a resilience beyond comprehension so a few well placed strategies can go a long way towards helping us through the rest of this difficult time
Most of us will be continuing to work from home through to next year but if we’re not careful, the solitude and these cold, dark days can take their toll on our mental fortitude. So through the autumn and winter, I’ll be blogging fortnightly with some useful resources for self-care. We’re all in this together, so let’s create a community in which I’ll share my research and knowledge, and you let me know how it works for you.
The first topic I want to talk about is the constant underlying emotion of the year…
How to cope with relentless anxiety
The level of uncertainty we’re living with breeds worry in every facet of life. As we enter the second wave of the pandemic, the country collectively feels a sense of gloom, disappointment and concern. More specifically, you may be worried about the end of furlough, about your business and whether it’s sustainable or the health of your family and loved ones.
So how do we learn to live with this sense of constant underlying worry?
The key is to focus our energies on avoiding additional negativity. That means being aware of how you think and what you do. Here are some key areas to focus on over the coming weeks:
THINK carefully and don’t let yourself catastrophise. The first thing to do is learn to accept that this is a really difficult time and anxiety is a completely normal response to a very abnormal situation. Focus on present moment awareness: acknowledge we’ve lost a lot and may lose more but that we have the skills to tolerate this stress.
We can help ourselves by adopting some very straightforward tools – the first being an increased awareness of intrusive and unhelpful thoughts. When these arise, try to notice the thought – and check it. Is this happening right now, or a future or past based concern? This awareness of our thoughts is called metacognition – a powerful tool to help anchor us in the present moment’s reality rather than straying into memory or imagination.
DO something for yourself, every day. Self-care gets a bad rap – often misunderstood as spa days or massage but it’s much simpler than that: just an attitude of kindness towards ourselves in the form of inexpensive, achievable daily choices. That includes taking care of what we eat, how we sleep and ensuring we get regular fresh air and exercise. This doesn’t have to be onerous – just mindful. Wind down before bed, make a bowl of warming soup for lunch, take a 30 minute walk around the block. Routine is an important part of this. Create a structure to your day – even if you are at home all the time. (This is something I will cover in more depth next time.) Those who are really good at this make non-negotiable appointments for self-care activities throughout the day. Believe in the importance of looking after yourself and book out time for your yoga session, a hot bath, or a quiet moment. If you don’t prioritise yourself, self-care simply won’t happen.
TRY to shelter yourself from relentless negativity. Here’s a challenge for your week that’s particularly relevant in this pandemic: try to limit your media consumption. The reason is simple – to avoid getting caught up in the persistently negative narrative. The constant stories of doom and gloom that we’re fed on a regular basis are incredibly destructive to our sense of identity, hope and enthusiasm so continuing to consume this at pace will completely overwhelm your thoughts. When you do look at the news, remember it is just one perspective (which, in itself can magnify just one part of a problem, making it appear bigger and more threatening than the whole picture may reveal) and ask yourself: is this a reputable source? Is it fact, or projection? Does this actually affect me, right now?
So, being aware of these three simple actions over the next couple of weeks should help mitigate the effects of the grinding uncertainty we’ve all been facing this year. Keep life simple. Keep focused on what’s real and what’s in front of you. Think about your inner monologue, do what’s best for your body and mind and try – just try! – to limit your media consumption. Can you manage to engage with the news just once, or twice a day? Perhaps, like some of my clients, you will choose to have news sabbaticals from time to time – periods where you simply check out of the constant narrative and focus on living just one day at a time.
Let me know how you get on and what helps you the most in the coming days. And if there’s a subject you’d like me to cover which you feel would make it easier for you adjust to that unhelpful mantra: the “new normal”; drop me a line in the comments below.