During the pandemic Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Linda K Berkeley is seeing people who had been managing on their own return to therapy. She is also helping an exceptional number of young people who are struggling with their current life that in no way resembles what they were led to expect being young should be like. She shares valuable tips on how we can all cope during this challenging time.
Humans have evolved to tolerate some change, but not extremes; we can cope with doing things differently but need balance. Back when we lived in caves, we evolved, as have many mammals, to be socially orientated in order to survive; if a sabre toothed tiger came to the door, it was certainly safer to have a tribe to defend you than fight for survival on your own.
We have developed cultures and traditions that let us feel part of something, feel connected, and not alone but the pandemic has dramatically changed the way we live. It is hard to make new connections and strengthen old ones with masks and social distancing, in a climate of panic fostered by news reporting styles.
Some people are in difficult circumstances and their own home may start to feel worse than prison; people who were managing their mental health, now feel overwhelmed by the pandemic; even those lucky to work and live in a loving home are struggling with lockdown.
Yet, as human beings, we also have intrinsic resilience. The UK got through the long, dark years of WWII with unimaginable courage and determination, and to this day millions of refugees manage to survive in camps around the world.
Combining that resilience with acceptance of things we cannot control will let us still be here when the pandemic is over. And it will be over. There is much hope available if we focus on it. There are now vaccines and they work. We will have the lives we prefer again.
But what about right now?
Here are my Top 12 tips to surviving the pandemic:
- Take ‘opposite action’ to what you feel like doing because feelings can be misleading. If you feel depressed and want to stay in bed all day, get up and dressed and have breakfast. If you’re too scared to start work, get started on something, anything, and work up to the more difficult things. If you are constantly busy, give yourself permission to do nothing, just be, and mindfully notice your surroundings.
- Stay connected and reconnect. Unlike the time of the plague, we now have the gift of technology. Telephones, email, Skype, Zoom, etc. Get online and talk to your friends, family and reconnect with people you have lost touch with. Or write them an old-fashioned letter and send it in the post. Just as I have discovered therapy can be highly effective using technology, you can have a meaningful conversation with someone online. You could even play cards, board games, or charades online. Watch something on TV “with” someone – you on yours, them on theirs, preferably something you can laugh at. Laughing gives us mood-boosting natural chemicals, refocuses our attention, and sharing a laugh with someone else is even better.
- Tell someone you love them. We do not do this often enough. Sometimes, we do not tell people just how important they are in our lives until it is too late. Do this today.
- Limit the amount of news you watch or listen to. Understandably, we want to know what is going on, but sometimes we get too much information. This can ramp up anxiety dramatically. Equally, do not spread fake news: if you read something on social media, research it, and consider the source, before you pass it on.
- Do something for someone else. Is there an elderly person or someone who is a single parent with several small children near you who cannot go out shopping? Maybe offer to get their groceries. Join a phone line project that is making calls to vulnerable and lonely people. Spot a need someone has and get involved with helping.
- Be kind to yourself (and others). We have no rules, experience, or role models to turn to, no one to ask – how do I do this? We are all making things up as we go along. You may be feeling lost, confused, anxious, sad, and worried. So is everyone else. These are all understandable human emotions. Allow yourself these feelings, have compassion and patience for your own struggles. Do not try to push away your difficult feelings or force yourself to “think positive”. Denying the reality of your current experience is not a helpful coping mechanism. All emotions are OK, even the tough ones, and trying to suppress them and replace them with “positive thinking” is an impossible and unhealthy task.
- Dress up on Saturday nights. Wear make-up, do your nails, put on a suit, shave, moisturise, and use aftershave. Whatever you would normally do for a special occasion.
- Go for a walk/exercise and breath. Exercise takes our focus away from worries and naturally gives us the “feel good” hormones and neurotransmitters that medication (or self-medication) tries to replace. Make if fun by singing as loud as you can and dancing around your kitchen. Being in nature is also very calming and grounding. And taking long, slow breaths helps reduce stress.
- Start a positive data log. This can be in a notebook, a photo album, anything. Write down things you are thankful and grateful for. Write down or use a picture to illustrate good things that have happened to you amid all this. Write about people you value and who value you. Write down things you have done for others and they have done for you. Write about good things that have happened to you or because of you at any time in your life. The positive data soon begins to build a picture that reminds you not to throw out beautiful things with the rubbish.
- Hobbies: Anything you enjoy doing, do some of it. Baking, learning a new skill, collecting, knitting, sewing, woodworking, working on a vehicle – anything. You may notice a feeling of accomplishment and respite from worry. Doing nothing can let us engage with worry (about the future) and rumination (thinking about the past), alerting that part of the brain that focuses on threat to send us more adrenaline and cortisol, increasing anxiety.
- Go easy on the booze and avoid illicit substances. The short-term fix is not worth the long-term problem. Alcohol is a depressant – if you are feeling down, the hangover will come with more feelings of regret, sadness, and negative self-talk. The crash after using illicit substances will be worse than ever.
- If you are religious, take part in an online service. It will be different to being physically in a place of worship, but it will allow you to feel connected to others and your own spirituality.
If you feel overwhelmed by your thoughts and emotions, please get help:
- Talk to someone. Anyone. Your family or a friend.
- Make an appointment with your GP. Yes, the NHS are busy, but you may feel you need help. Mental health is just as important as physical health.
- Call the Samaritans on 116 123 – this is a freephone number: no charge. Or email them: firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Shout Crisis Text Line: For support in a crisis, text Shout to 85258. They can help with anything that feels like a crisis to you.
- If you are victimised by domestic abuse, contact Berkshire Women’s Aid at http://www.berkshirewomensaid.org.uk/ or call them on 0118 950 4003. You can call the West Berkshire Domestic Abuse Service: 0800 731 0055 (Helpline); 02088 251 897 (Refuge referrals & enquiries); both numbers are Monday – Friday, 10 am to 7 pm.
- If you are having thoughts of harming yourself in any way or know someone who is, please call 999, get to your local A&E, or call your local mental health crisis team.
- Please feel free to contact me to discuss how you might benefit from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at this time. I offer sessions on Zoom, Skype and telephone.
Linda K Berkeley