Field notes on my personal coping strategies during the early weeks of CV-19.
I have jotted down a few of my 'field notes' on what I’ve found to be helpful over the past few weeks. I’m not recommending them but just sharing in case you may find a few of these ideas helpful. I am writing this not as a psychologist, but as a person finding the disruption of this whole experience very trying.
1. Keeping Notes. Whether we like the idea or not, we are in the middle of a significant historical event that has upended our lives and which will probably have a ripple effect on our lives for many years to come. I find that keeping a diary most days, no matter how brief, is a way of checking in with myself and allows me to look back at how I’ve adjusted and adapted to this new, inescapably real, but unwanted strangeness.
2. Lower the bar. In the first week of the lockdown, we were told that this was a golden opportunity to write a novel or a book of poems, and that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, so why don’t we do something similar? Actually, I like this humorous article on what he may have actually done during the Plague because it resonates with my sense of low CV-19 achievement
3. Lower the bar yet even further now. Continuing with the theme of achievement, I deliberately set the bar very low. I always find pressure inhibiting, and so giving myself permission not to do something productive usually has a paradoxically positive effect. I’m focussing on small things that give me a sense of pleasure and/or satisfaction, even if they might seem trivial or frivolous to someone else. This is really not a time to give a hoot about what other might think of you. https://www.stylist.co.uk/life/coronavirus-how-to-look-after-mental-health-self-isolation-tips-self-care/366930
4. Grief. The one emotion that I avoided for the first two weeks was allowing myself to feel sad. I tend to be an emotional perfectionist, and my American ‘can do’ spirit meant that ‘I’ve got this!’ was my morning mantra, until I started waking up with a lot of somatic symptoms in my stomach, my throat, and my chest. I started to experience health anxiety about my usually well controlled asthma and had moments where I felt as though I couldn’t breathe at all. I realised that I was pushing down a lot of emotions to do with missing our daughters at Easter, fear, anger, and generally just a lot of sadness about this whole global tragedy that is relentlessly unfolding before us. I felt like I needed to cry but my stoic self wouldn’t let me. I decided to plunge into the sadness, using some meditation techniques about staying with my feelings and allowing them to surface, and I went into my daughter’s bedrooms and sat on their beds, inhaling their scent and missing them painfully. Far from being overwhelmed with grief, I now find this brief exercise comforting and it helps me feel connected to them in their absence. It also led to me feeling gratitude that, although we can’t all be together, we can still reach out to each other and soften the longing.
5. Breathing matters more than we think. When I’m tense, I tend to hold my breath, and it’s a lifelong habit that is hard to kick. CV-19 anxiety has made this even worse, and some days my chest can feel like an inflexible barrel that resists movement. I decided to return to a brief meditation practice (most days, not every day) focussing on breathing. It also requires me to sit still for a while and do nothing but focus on what I am experiencing mentally, emotionally, and physically in the moment. Breathing has had a knock on effect on my sleep, digestion, and general ability to hold it together when I get the waves of feeling overwhelmed which seems to be a universal feature of Coronavirus Land. This is my favourite meditation, https://www.tarabrach.com/meditation-coming-home-breath/ by Tara Brach. There are lots of meditation and mindfulness practices and I know that many people hate it or it makes them feel worse, which I totally understand. It can be an enjoyable exercise to find out what other practices you find soothing. Sometimes curling up under a blanket is the best thing in the world right now.
6. Rituals can provide emotional anchors. Structure helps, but let’s cut ourselves some slack right now. Small rituals, though, can be soothing, and I like to set out a few things to do each day that allow me to touch base with myself in a very immediate way. Lighting a candle while I work, rubbing a scented stress rollerball in my hands and closing my eyes and inhaling it, doing a few stretches when I get up or before I sit down, taking my time over making a pot of tea, watching the birds on the bird feeder, observing how peaceful our pets are as they sleep through this awful time, all provide a momentary space in the present that rinses my mind of the inevitable news and worry that the day will bring. This book describes the rituals of a range of authors, philosophers, and creators, and is fascinating to ramble through https://masoncurrey.com/daily-rituals
7. Self-reflection and connection. Immersion in an activity that pulls our mind into a deeper and more meaningful world is probably what gives a lot of us a sense of growth during this time. I’m not writing a novel, but I’m reading a lot, I’m keeping a very minimal (3-5 sentences, max) journal, and I’m connecting with those I love in a different and deeper way than usual. Appreciating the struggle that others are going through really pulls me out of myself and reminds me how we are sharing this novel and scary experience. Being kind, and noticing kindness, is the antidote to feeling afraid, and I hope it becomes the most important thing that we learn and retain after this cloud of awfulness has lifted.
8. Not waving but drowning? Don’t be afraid to send out an SOS flare. Acknowledging when we need extra support can be critical. Sometimes we can’t really pull ourselves out from underneath the waves of constant stress and uncertainty. It’s actually very bad for our mental health, and if we have pre-existing mental health conditions this can be a tipping point that may lead to exacerbations, flare ups and even trigger conditions that had lay dormant for years. It’s vital to talk to someone if our emotional and/or physical state is continuing to stop us from functioning and we feel the waves are closing over us.
9. Thanks for reading this if you’ve gotten this far. We are here for each other.
Dr Annie Hickox
Consultant Clinical Psychologist
16th April, 2020