Offaly psychologists issue new advice on coping with emotional impact of Covid-19

"It is perfectly normal to feel distress and a wide range of challenging emotions at a time like this."

Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty

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Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty

Offaly psychologists issue new advice on coping with emotional impact of Covid-19

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson, clinical psychologists

Tullamore and Midland Tribune positive psychology columnists Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty have issued new advice on how to cope with the emotional impact of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Tullamore-based clinical psychologists write: “We are all going through a tough time at the moment. The coronavirus pandemic has transformed our lives in the past few weeks and we are all having to adapt rapidly to this new unwelcome reality. Our day to day lives and routines have changed dramatically over a very short time.

“All of this unwelcome change takes its toll emotionally and many people are finding themselves on an emotional rollercoaster, experiencing feelings of anxiety, sadness, grief, fear, anger, irritability, low motivation and so on. It is perfectly normal to feel distress and a wide range of challenging emotions at a time like this.

“As psychologists we are hearing people criticise themselves because they feel they 'should' be doing certain things like decluttering their homes as they have more time available, yet they are struggling with disheartened feelings and low motivation to take on new tasks. This is normal. Some people are comparing themselves negatively to others who they perceive are using this lockdown time well by doing online courses and learning new skills. An important message to convey here is that each one of us will cope emotionally in our own unique manner with the huge challenges that this pandemic has brought and we need to respect our individual differences. So if you are the type of person who copes best by being busy and you are currently painting and decorating your house while also taking an online course in Japanese, that is perfectly ok. However, that style of coping is just not for everyone.

“For many people, taking life a little more slowly while at home will give them the opportunity to process the feelings of fear and loss that the pandemic has prompted. Keeping head above water by eating, sleeping, getting some exercise and braving the supermarket for groceries (if not cocooning) is challenging enough at the present time. It is worth noting that the emotional impact of the current crisis will vary depending on individual circumstances. For many, there is the financial strain of the loss of a job and reduced income, while others are finding working at home very challenging and feel the loss of a structured work environment. Many are concerned about the wellbeing of family members and are feeling a sense of loneliness because of not being able to visit and spend time with loved ones.

“As psychologists we are also hearing people describing feeling guilty on a number of fronts. Many people who are spending more time at home will recognise patterns of comfort eating, which is eating for emotional rather than nutritional reasons. Indeed we have previously written about this topic in this column as it is such a common pattern. At present, many of us are feeling intermittently bored, frustrated and upset so it is small wonder that we are turning to the fridge for brief allieviation of these feelings. It may not be the healthiest or most functional coping strategy, but psychologically it is important that we do not beat ourselves up for being human at this very challenging time. In fact, studies show that when we can be more compassionate and understanding towards ourselves we can reduce comfort eating. Being more mindful also helps. We can do this by bringing our attention to what we are doing as we are doing it and perhaps asking ourselves a question such as: 'Do I really need a biscuit or would a chat with a friend be more helpful to me right now?'

“Parents are also feeling guilty at times about behaving irritably with their children, who are all at home from school and playschool at present. Most parents are experiencing stress at the moment centring around work and financial concerns, concerns about homeschooling, health and much more. So it is natural that at times we will behave irritably or even unreasonably as stress does not bring out the best in any of us. We would recommend to parents to simply apologise to the kids for irritable snappy behaviour, rather than immersing in guilt, which is not productive. Then of course, take a little time out and focus on increasing activities which can reduce your stress levels such as having a relaxing bath or going for a brisk walk.

“Overall, it is reasonable to expect that we will all experience uncomfortable and difficult emotions as we navigate our way through the Covid-19 crisis. The following are some tips drawn from psychological research in the area of mindful self-compassion, which are known to be helpful in managing difficult emotions -

1) Accept your emotions. Remember, feelings are just feelings, they are not 'good' or 'bad' but rather serve as a barometer for what is happening for us. None are unacceptable. Emotions are more likely to become destructive when we resist or deny them.

2) Identify where you sense emotion in your body. Emotions are part mind and part body. Anxiety may be felt as unease in the tummy, sadness as a lump in the throat or tightness in the chest.

3) Label the emotion you feel e.g. that’s sadness, that’s disappointment. Labelling emotions helps calm the amygdala, which is part of the threat-centre of the brain.

4) Realise the impermanence of emotions. Even the very strong, overwhelming emotions will pass. A mindful meditation that we really like, which helps guide us in managing difficult emotions is called Soften, Soothe, Allow. (recordings of this can be found on Youtube).

“The current crisis is challenging us all to take care of ourselves physically as well as mentally and emotionally. Much of the time, the days where we struggle emotionally, will be followed by brighter days where we feel we are coping better. However, if you feel overwhelmed and this seems to last more than a few days, it is worth remembering that there is help and support out there. The HSE’s website (hse.ie) provides information on many resources and supports that are available. Many clinicians (ourselves included) are continuing to provide confidential one-to-one counselling and therapy using phone or online platforms. It is a very difficult time but we will get through it together.”


Imelda Ferguson and Julie O’Flaherty are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland www.psychologicalsociety.ie (Find A Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.