How are you doing? You may be feeling okay in yourself, or maybe you are one of the many people who are feeling challenged or stressed by the current situation. I have had my moments too, and decided to write this blog to provide some practical tools to help us deal with any stress or anxiety that might arise.
First up, we are going to look at why we might be feeling stressed right now, and then we will look at the many things we can do to navigate through this, both individually and together. (You can jump half way down the page if you just want to read about what to do!).
The majority of us have not seen anything like COVID-19 in our lifetimes, and there is a lot of uncertainty to cope with right now. It is a very unfamiliar time. Humans don’t particularly like change or uncertainty, but despite this we can actually adapt very well.
The first key thing to know is that it is normal to feel stressed about the current and evolving situation. In many ways, we will experience this crisis as we would a natural disaster. So we may feel scared, on edge and like we’re on a roller coaster of emotions.
I recently asked my Facebook page followers what they were most worried about. You might relate to some of the points made. They openly spoke about:
- Worry about family and friends getting sick, especially elderly parents, grandparents or children with health issues.
- Scarcity or lack of items at the supermarket.
- Loss of jobs or income, and managing to pay the rent and other financial commitments.
- Dealing with conflicting information in the community.
- Concern surrounding the long-term repercussions and that life may not be the same.
As a result many of us may find ourselves feeling up and down, having worrying thoughts and experiencing distress. When we feel a sense of threat to our safety or our regular life, or the wellbeing of others, we can go into the ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response. This is when our mind senses a threat and responds with adrenaline flowing through the body, causing all of the physical and mental symptoms of stress and anxiety.
You may find that you experience a range of emotions or physical sensations, which can feel very uncomfortable, even overwhelming at times. These might include:
- Shock and disbelief (denial).
- Stress, fear, worry, anxiety and difficulty relaxing.
- Overwhelmed and a sense that the world is falling apart.
- Racing negative thoughts.
- Rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating or nausea.
- Tiredness, lethargy, fatigue and sleep difficulties.
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering or thinking logically.
- Sadness or tearfulness.
- Irritability or anger.
- Feeling disconnected from others and loneliness.
Contributing to these experiences is the shake-up of our day-to-day life, routines and standard social practices due to physical distancing and spending more time at home. And importantly, what we value and our sense of identity and meaning in life may be affected.
In addition, we may feel a sense of loss too with separation from family in aged care facilities or interstate/overseas; cancelled weddings and celebrations; loss of job or independence; or loss of health. Loss means there is grief, and this also plays a part.
So what can we do to cope and look after ourselves and others? THERE ARE MANY THINGS THAT CAN HELP, and all of the tools that we are going to look at will be particularly important if you have experienced anxiety and/or depression, or any other mental health issues.
As distress can be triggered by feeling that many aspects of COVID19 are outside of our control, it is important to focus on what you can control:
- Notice and acknowledge how you feel (frightened, sad, angry, detached ..) and express your feelings through talking to others, journaling, exercise or listening to music.
- Follow the general guidelines to protect against infection (physical distancing, washing hands and staying home).
- Get access to good information from reliable sources such as The World Health Organisation (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/events-as-they-happen) or the Australian Department of Health (https://www.health.gov.au/resources/collections/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-resources).
- Set limits on watching the news, or reading the paper or social media posts that trigger anxiety.
- Organise and prepare. Have enough supplies on hand for one to two weeks, check your finances and seek assistance if need be (e.g. talking to your bank, landlord, shopping assistance, Centrelink).
- Develop routines and get back to the basics e.g. good hygiene, healthy eating, regular sunshine, exercise and good sleep.
Being in quarantine or ‘lock down’ can mean loss of freedom to go and do what you want to do, or loss of usual contact with people. For someone living on their own, this can be especially difficult. The focus may be on physical distancing, but this does not actually mean being distant from your social contacts. It is vital to stay in touch by phone, social media or video chats.
It can help to bring your mind back to the present moment on purpose as much as possible. This is mindfulness. You can be mindful in everyday activities e.g. when you are having a shower focus on the warmth of the water and the feel of it on your skin; or when you are drinking a great cup of tea or coffee, enjoy the smell and taste. Mindfulness helps us enjoy the moment, relax and let go of worry about the future!
A key measure to cope with stress is to turn the anxiety into action. Action helps us physically and mentally, and also fosters our sense of hope (hope actually comes from action).
Here are five key action tools to work on right now!
- Exercise regularly e.g. walking, running, yoga, aerobics and weight training at home.
- When stressed or anxious our breathing can become quicker and more shallow. So it can help to regularly focus on your breath – notice the air moving in and out through your nose or mouth, aim to breathe into to the base of your lungs, at a nice slow pace. Try the Smiling Mind app, free mindfulness mediations on my website (https://www.drcatehowell.com.au/product-category/audio-files/) or you tube clips like (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wdbbtgf05Ek&t=27s).
- Other relaxation techniques, meditation or self-hypnosis can also help.
- We can work with our thinking to keep things in perspective and to calm ourselves. Our minds are prone to go to the worst possible scenario, the “what ifs”, rather than focusing on more reasonable thinking. An example might be; “I am bound to get sick, I always do!” You can challenge this thought with more helpful thinking such as “I will take all the measures advised to (e.g. hand-washing, staying at home) to keep myself healthy and safe”. You can find out more about managing your thinking via online programs such as Ecouch (https://ecouch.anu.edu.au/new_users/mhl_portal/info), and Black Dog’s My Compass (https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/getting-help/self-help-tools-apps/mycompass).
- There are always some positives to find, even in adversity e.g. having more time to yourself to rest or enjoying activities that you haven’t had time to do in a while. One of the simplest ways to flip your mind into more positive thoughts is to focus on gratitude. Regularly ask yourself; “what are 3 things I am grateful for?” (e.g. sunshine today, my coffee this morning, my dog!). Or focus your mind regularly on happy memories or experiences to tap into good feelings
There are other approaches which might help, and with spending more time at home you might like to explore coping tools from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). See Russ Harris’s you tube clip and blogs about FACECOVID e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmvNCdpHUYM and https://coronadosafe.org/blog/face-covid/#.Xn2aQNMzaek.
And importantly at these times, we need to be kind and compassionate, both to ourselves and others. Be gentle with yourself as everyone is having some struggles right now. And think about how you can be kind to others during coming months! This might involve staying in touch with family and friends and checking on how they are managing, or offering assistance in various ways in the community. This can promote good feelings to and give us a sense of meaning in difficult times.
It will be good to check in on yourself regularly. Ask yourself: How am I doing? Very good, good, okay, not so good, struggling ….. And if you aren’t doing so well and need to talk to someone, please contact:
- Your GP
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Beyondblue 1300 224 636
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- Headspace 1800 650 890
- Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
- Men’s Helpline 1300 789 978
- Mindspot 1800 614 434
- 1800Respect in relation to domestic violence.
Also check out the Black Dog list of resources at https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/coronavirus-anxiety-resources. And there are some great groups being set up online focusing on kindness – you might like to have a look.
Above all, we will get through this together. Please stay in touch via my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/DrCateHowell/ and take good care and stay at home as much as you can.