Remember January? It seems an age since everyone was planning their new year’s resolutions. Imagine if we’d known then what we know now. That yearly gym subscription might have been swapped out for a Netflix or Zoom subscription. For most of us in the UK, March 23rd saw our world turned upside down. Whether you were a key worker returning to a strange and scary new workplace or one of the millions who were told to stay at home, life as we knew it changed overnight.
Given the sudden changes in our routine, many of us experienced some form of anxiety and fear; both of our restricted environment and the ever-present dangers of what might lie outside the door. For the many terrible negatives, there have also been a few positives of lockdown. The shared challenge, while keeping us physically apart, has also brought us together. With many of us finding our hectic lives on hold, we’ve had to adapt to a new reality. Whether it’s chatting to neighbours and others in our local community or learning how to get the most from online video chat, most of us have found the time to communicate more with friends and family. Some of us may even have found new friends and communities online. But for everyone who’s adapted to the lockdown, there are many people who’ve found it difficult. Online and distanced communication is good, but it’s not a replacement for face-to-face communication for many dealing with feelings of loneliness.
As the Government removes the lockdown restrictions we find ourselves emerging back into a very different world, one where even the simplest activities have changed and many of us are again anxious about what awaits us.
Coping with Change
We’re a few months down the line and having adapted to lockdown, we are now being encouraged to get back out in the world. Not in the carefree way that perhaps we’d done in the past, but in a more considered and careful manner. This is another big change when many people are still coming to terms with the last upheaval and may not be ready for more disruption.
During periods of change, it is normal for us to retreat to what feels safe, something familiar and under our control. This might be a person, a space, an object or a pet, anything meaningful to us. This entire process can feel emotionally and physically exhausting. Change can energise and excite or scare and frighten, but either way, we should be mindful of the energy required to undertake big changes in our lives. It’s not unusual to need a rest after the initial spurt of energy. It gives our brains time to catch up with our bodies, allowing us to make sense of things and consolidate what we’ve learnt and experienced. Before making any change, it’s useful to consider the amount of emotional energy involved in embarking on something different.
There are new rules, alternative ways of socialising, working, shopping and just being in the world. Our senses can feel overwhelmed as we move from one way of experiencing life in a different way, even if it is a positive experience. As we move from a small space too much larger environments with many people and different sounds, smells, textures and sights, we will need to find our own way to adjust.
Like a trip, we might stumble and free fall for a short while, it might be a difficult, painful, funny experience, but inevitably we stop and then find our equilibrium. No two shops have the same one-way system or expectation of their customers, things you might consider such as – Is there a sanitiser? Do I have to wear a mask? What time can I shop? Can I take a friend with me? These unknowns can lead us to feel anxious, and trying to work them out in the moment can feel like a sensory overload. Too much information to make sense of at one time. Even meeting friends, popping into a café for a cuppa and a chat requires planning. If we can plan for this in advance, it can make the experience much more relaxing and enjoyable, maybe even a bit of an adventure.
Everyone will move through the changes of the last few months at their own pace, and it’s important to recognise what feels right for you. Lockdown has affected people with existing mental health issues differently. Some have found an improvement in their symptoms, whilst others have found their symptoms worsening. Many people with no history of mental health issues have also struggled for the first time. Everyone is unique and trying to find their way through this.
One issue that is bound to create worries when coming into contact with more people, is the potential to become ill or even the fear of passing it on to another person. It’s in our nature to want to protect ourselves and our loved ones, but it’s also in our nature to grow and change. Finding the right balance can help to shift from feeling like the world is too big or scary to a mindset of feeling successful and in control.
Setting Your Own Pace
Everyone is experiencing a “New Normal”. Things are not as they were and may well not be for some time. The ‘New Normal’ brings to the forefront the need to manage risk. It requires us to stand on the edge of uncertainty and decide how safe we feel and whether we feel safe enough to take a risk. Just that awareness, for some, will be enough to crawl back into bed and bury themselves in the duvet.
Everyone will start from their own unique place, but however big your first step, you’ve made a start. For many, lockdown may have affected their sense of identity, what they knew about themselves. Perhaps they felt well equipped to navigate changes but then found themselves overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings that they hadn’t expected. Others may have felt they wouldn’t have coped but are now noticing it’s been a time of rest and consolidation. Getting back out into the world can feel even scarier if your sense of self and your abilities have been impacted over the last few months. How your life was and the things you valued before lockdown may no longer be the same as they were. Maybe you have new values and goals in life. Often in moments of crisis things that felt important disappear and new ones that feel more appropriate can emerge. Change can be positive too.
Considering options is important to problem-solving, however, don’t allow it to become a cycle of anxiety. Instead, bring your focus to the here and now. It is great to feel hopeful and plan things for the future, but if those thoughts are more about feeling hopeless, then returning your focus to the present can prevent needless suffering. Questions such as:
- What is happening now? – brings your attention back to your environment and place within it.
- What do I need now? – brings your attention back to your body and emotions and may encourage you to look after yourself.
- What can I accomplish now? – reinforces positives and helps to focus on practical things
If you notice that you are caught up in thoughts about the future that are causing anxiety, then notice it for simply being just that. Your brain is worrying and your body is responding to its concerns, as it is designed to do. By acknowledging what is happening in the here and now, you can be in the driving seat and can try to go in another direction. Look at your environment, interact with it, perhaps move things around, tidy, clean, garden, walk, cycle, take a bath, use your 5 senses (Touch, Smell, Hearing, Taste, Sight) to really engage with what you are doing.
Check-in with yourself. What do I need now? Are you experiencing feelings that need compassionate care and attention brought to them, or feelings that need a safe outlet perhaps through exercise or relaxation?
What can you do for yourself that might help you feel better? How can you accomplish that? Can you run a bath? Can you take a nap or a run? Can you complete a jigsaw? Can you wash? Can you speak to someone?
If you can, be gentle with yourself through this process, especially as you’re trying something new. It takes practice to stay in the here and now, but it can be an invaluable tool that you can take anywhere with you.
Noticing what worries you and breaking it down into smaller but more manageable steps is good self-care. If for example, you were planning on walking into town for the first time in 10 weeks that might seem an immense task. Can you break it into smaller, easier steps? Perhaps practice walking towards town and returning home. This would give you the opportunity to see how this part of the activity feels. It can help to build confidence in your physical ability to walk that far, to feel present in the environment, to get a sense of who’s wearing masks, how many people are about, how it feels to wear a mask. You might come across new rules, like one-way walkways or queuing systems that are popping up everywhere. Alternatively, the walk might have been too overwhelming and upsetting, in which case it’s a sign that you may need to take smaller steps. Either way, the initial exploration offers you feedback about what pace you need to be working at.
Feeling anxious or afraid can make us retreat into a safe space and this is ok, but sometimes these spaces can limit our activities and interactions with others. The longer we stay in our safe space, the greater the risk of losing sight of our ability to change. Therefore, it’s important to take small steps. For example, if you were worried about returning to work for the first time, rather than tackling the whole situation, you can break it down into smaller, more manageable steps. This will allow you to gain your confidence back and build up to your goal. e.g.:
- Contact your colleagues and talk to them.
- Visit the empty building.
- Find out about the new rules.
- Practice the trip to work.
- Work out how to wear a mask and see how it looks and feels.
Breaking situations down and working them out slowly in your own time, can make the overall task less daunting and more manageable.
Talk to people, talk to friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, counsellors, GPs, talk to people online and face to face. If you have spent a lot of time on your own or with a select few, striking up a conversation can be hard and sometimes this can be isolating. If you are then finding it difficult to reintegrate, it can feel like you are the odd one out and the only one feeling the way you do. You don’t have to tell them everything all at once if you don’t want to. Sometimes just saying hello is enough. Start with the people you trust most, then just like above, challenge yourself a little, try something that feels a bit uncomfortable but that may help you feel less alone or worried.
Expand your experiences. Aim to do something new. If you go to the park one day, go somewhere different the next time. If you wash the dishes one day, maybe hoover the next. Mix things up so you have unfamiliar experiences. If you attempt something and become overwhelmed, rest and recover. Make the task a little easier if you can and try again when you feel ready.
As you find your way out of lockdown, it might be useful to keep an eye on the Government website for changes and advice.
If you find yourself unable for whatever reason to talk to someone about how you are feeling, perhaps it would be beneficial to talk to a fully qualified counsellor who is registered with the BACP. It can be difficult when we are stuck in our heads from moment to moment to know when to ask for help, sometimes we can ignore our discomfort. Please feel free to use our short online questionnaires if you feel they might be useful in developing your awareness further. Depression Questionnaire, Anxiety Questionnaire.
At Centred Counselling we are trained to listen carefully to your experiences and hope to understand how it feels to live your life so we can help you define and reach your goals. Often it’s helpful to talk to someone professional so you don’t have to worry about burdening or worrying someone close, and so you can feel free to talk about whatever is happening. Sometimes friends can offer advice and ways to fix situations that you might find difficult, but this can become complicated if the advice doesn’t feel right for you. Counsellors rarely offer advice, instead, we prefer to help you work out a way forward that feels right for you and support you as you navigate your way through it.
You may know of someone that has developed anxiety or depression because of the lockdown, and maybe you are supporting them. The following links may be useful in identifying and continuing to help them.
Helping someone with Depression
Cover image courtesy of Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash