Tullamore and Midland Tribune positive psychology columnists Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson
IT is now over two months weeks since the reality of Covid-19 really started to impact us. Bemused children suddenly being told to clear out their lockers, airports practically shutting down, people rushing to the supermarket to buy provisions. Within another two weeks the pubs had shut and people were advised not to travel beyond 2km unless for essential work and medical appointments (and food shopping!).
For many of us adults the big change has meant working from home. For ourselves in clinical practice working from home prior to March 2020 usually meant paperwork, admin, reports and accounts.
In recent weeks, many psychologists, some GPs, and many of the allied health professionals such as physiotherapists are conducting sessions remotely with their patients.
Modern technology has facilitated this in a way that 15 years ago would not have seemed possible. Day to day this means that we are spending considerable periods of time on our phones, using online platforms such as WhatsApp, Zoom and Skype.
So what does this mean for our mental health? In the past decade researchers have examined the impact of screens and technology.
Surprisingly research is not as clearcut as one might assume. One large scale study in the US conducted with 2 to 17-year-olds found that screen time was associated with adverse impact such as more distractibility, less self control, less emotional regulation.
The same study found that the older subjects who spent the most time in front of screens were significantly more likely to experience a negative impact on their mental health, such as depression. More moderate users also experienced an adverse effect.
However there were no differences between non-users and children who reported low use of screens. Another large-scale American study has not found such conclusive negative effects and that any adverse effects were transient and negligible. It is no doubt a complex issue and one which is further complicated by the considerable amount of change and development in young people as they grow and mature.
From the adult perspective this change to screen time and away from face-to-face contact has its own pros and cons. Many people find working from home relaxing and enjoy not having to commute or even to dress for work. Others find that they are having to work harder to connect with people remotely.
When the technology works it is wonderful, but how many of us have grappled with downloading software and apps and relying on sometimes patchy internet? Joining a meeting online can cause a different kind of stress that you would not have to deal with if you were sitting across from someone in an office meeting room.
We are sensory beings; in our communication with others we often rely on touch and even smell when we are connecting. As psychologists we know that probably the most important factor in therapy is the human connection you make in the room with the client. In our experience, while this is still possible it is probably harder to achieve virtually or remotely.
Another issue with remote access is the sense of always being available. If you work outside the home, you are hopefully lucky enough to leave your workload behind you for the day when you leave.
However, the boundaries can get blurred when you work and live in the same location. It can be more tempting to check emails or to work on something later on in the evening.
Even socially this can be an issue. In the absence of pubs, clubs, restaurants and similar venues people have found very creative ways of keeping in touch with friends and family over the past two months – online quizzes at the weekends with friends and a few drinks and nibbles from the comfort of your own home is certainly not something we would have heard about a few months ago.
But, when you feel overwhelmed and tired it may be harder to turn down this kind of online connection than it would have been to say no to actually going out to meet someone.
We would recommend boundaries and routine for remote working and screen usage. That means keeping to the daily workday schedule. Taking your morning coffee and lunch breaks. Being disciplined enough to clock on and off as usual.
Working with screens can cause physical tension – muscular tightness if posture is off, eye strain and so on. We would suggest regular screen breaks at least on the hour. Just get up and move around your home office (aka kitchen, bedroom etc). Shrug the shoulders up to the ears, hold for a count of seven and drop them down. And repeat. We carry a lot of tension in this part of the body and it can lead to neck ache and headaches.
Take regular deep belly breaths – inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of two and exhale for a count of six – to help you relax. The longer exhale and the deeper inbreath help trigger our parasympathetic nervous systems, that is our ability to rest and digest.
And as always prioritising your self-care. If any of you are juggling your work life with home-schooling or looking after elderly family you really need to carve out a little slice of time for yourselves. Take that walk, look out the window, listen to the birds, meditate.
We do not know how long it will be until life returns to pre-Covid-19. So whatever else changes, the importance of looking after our mental wellbeing remains the same.
Imelda Ferguson and Julie O’Flaherty are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. They write a fortnightly column for the Tullamore and Midland Tribune. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year – when there isn't a lockdown. 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.