Work is never-ending, your children need teaching, you’re worried about your loved ones’ health as the COVID-19 death toll continues to climb. Pandemic overload is alive and real.
The flip-flopping of announcements and drip-feeding of information might be something we’ve come to expect, but it still hurts. If you feel like you’re teetering on the edge right now, you’re not alone.
“Depression is becoming the normal way of being as we continue to be disconnected and limited in what we can do,” says Dee Johnson, a therapist based in the United Kingdom. “We are getting sadder as we miss those hugs and physical contact with our loved ones, friends and colleagues – it is so hard not to be able to embrace.”
Some of us are lonely, some are overwhelmed with work and childcare, some of us are grieving the loss of a loved one – perhaps even more than one. People are also angry – angry at the virus, at how the government has handled this pandemic, about the jobs they’ve lost or the lack of support they’ve received.
It’s unsurprising we feel this way. “Anger is a fear-driven emotion, and we have been living in a hyper vigilant state, looking for the danger and threat all the time, so it was inevitable our tolerance levels will have dropped,” Johnson says.
We’re stressed by the pandemic, fatigued by the uncertainty of it all and our fuse has burned down to the point where you can barely see it. We’re overloaded – mentally, physically, emotionally. It’s a lot. So what can you do to help ease the load?
First of all, be proud you’ve come this far.
We don’t give ourselves enough credit for getting through what has been a hellish year. “Being able to say you did your bit, by following the rules and doing what was asked – albeit frustrating and terrible at times – is something to be really proud about,” Johnson says.
“As a psychotherapist, these COVID times have made me reflect on the words of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust prisoner survivor, who reflected that suffering is inevitable in life, but it’s how we approach suffering that can make a difference to our experience of it. Through this suffering, take a note of what great things you have discovered about yourself.”
This could be that you tolerated discomfort more than you thought, learned a new skill, got rid of toxic people or behaviors, or even learned to ask for help.
Don’t think about tomorrow.
This something therapists are eager for people to adopt: think about today – and that’s it. “This is a strategy commonly used by people who have daily internal battles – such as in addiction, anxiety, depression,” Johnson says.
It may not come naturally at first, but being focused on what you need to do today – as opposed to imagining what is going to happen next week or next month – can diminish the sense of doom and helplessness you might feel.
Therapists often recommend planning ahead in some capacity to give us something to look forward to, so how does this fit with taking it a day at a time?
“We do need to think ahead to plan things, but that is not the same as then projecting how you will feel,” Johnson says. Ruminating can see us focus on the “what if’s’”– what if I can’t go on a vacation for the next five years, what if someone I love gets really sick with COVID – and it’s your imagination running wild.
The more you emotionally invest in these “what if’s,” your internal emotional state has no perception this is your imagination running wild and will react as if it’s occurring now. This could bring on panic attacks or feelings of anger.
A useful exercise is to spend two minutes observing your environment. Describe what you can see, as well as what you can hear, smell and feel. “This helps shut down the stress response and grounds you into the present,” Johnson says.
Forget “getting back to normal.”
Johnson doesn’t believe it’s helpful to keep referring to “when we get back to normal.” It sounds pretty scary, but it makes sense.
“The majority of clients I see now find this an almost torturous phrase, as if it’s a fantasy that will never happen,” she says. “Equally the phrase ‘these unprecedented times’ is really grating people, it’s been so long it does not feel unprecedented anymore. So stopping saying this can help with coping with the now. Just ask yourself ‘what do I need to do today?’ and stick to that.”
Focus on what you’ve got – and what you can change.
When you have a thousand plates spinning in your life, it can be easy to forget the smaller stuff that’s going on right in front of us. Johnson recommends focusing on what you have got – from the small everyday things to the big stuff.
“Try not to focus on what you cannot and are not permitted to do,” she suggests. “Hanging on to the restrictions just makes this journey harder. Put your energy and focus into the things you can change, improve and control instead of using all that energy up on something you cannot.”
Keep the doomscrolling to a minimum.
An obvious trap many of us are guilty of falling into during this pandemic is doomscrolling – when you scroll through your social media feed and take a turn into the land of COVID-19 death stories and terrifying data.
“Limit and manage what you read on social media,” Johnson suggests. “We can, in desperation to find some information that will give us hope, spend too much time scrolling through the news and what the latest theories are (conspiracy or otherwise).”
“Doing this will keep you in a state of hyper-vigilance, being constantly exposed to fear and anger-led information,” she continues. “Instead, try to engage more in creative, fun, humorous actions and activities – all of these are good mood-improving things.”
Be kind to yourself – and others.
Do three small self-care things a day that help your physical and mental health. This could be a walk, an energetic dance around your bedroom or simply getting washed and dressed. If you can’t go out, watch or do something that makes you laugh, speak to people who make you feel good, try a new recipe and quit the negative self-talk.
Doing acts of kindness for others can also give you a boost. Send someone you love some flowers or a book you loved reading, check in on a neighbor, or write someone a letter.
Speak to someone.
This year has been overwhelmingly hard and you might not be able to cope by simply following tips in an article. If this is the case, speak to your doctor and they should be able to refer you to a therapist. You can also try tapping into some free or low-cost mental health resources.
The rise in mental health complications this past year is “immense,” Johnson says. If you’re struggling, know you’re not on your own with this. “There is no need to feel shame and getting help is a massive self-care step.”
This post originally appeared in HuffPost UK.
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