Minding mental health crucial in 'new normal'

"Remember, thoughts are just thoughts, they are passing mental events."

Imelda Ferguson & Julie O'Flaherty

Reporter:

Imelda Ferguson & Julie O'Flaherty

Minding mental health crucial in 'new normal'

Chartered clinical psychologists Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson

BACK in March, it came as a shock when the country went into lockdown because of the spread of the coronavirus.

Schools and colleges and many places of employment closed. We were asked to stay at home except for essential reasons. We had to adapt rapidly to this new way of living. Now, thankfully because of suppression of the virus, we are emerging from lockdown in a phased manner. This gradual emergence from lockdown brings with it a new set of challenges and uncertainties. Many people are wondering what life after lockdown will look like. How will schools and colleges function with social distancing? Will businesses be viable with ongoing social distancing? After a few months spent primarily at home without direct contact with extended family and friends, many people feel somewhat nervous about returning to previously normal activities such as meeting with others and shopping.

It is hardly surprising that at this important time, we are hearing that many people are feeling stressed and anxious. Those who previously experienced anxiety and a tendency to overthink and worry may be experiencing a spike in their anxiety and stress levels. Some people are experiencing anxiety for the first time, prompted by the uncertainty and rapid life-changing events of recent months. It has never been more important to take active steps to mind our mental health. Our poor brains have been overtaxed since March as we absorb lots of information about this unprecedented pandemic and adapt to the so-called 'new normal'. Below are a number of psychological tips which aim to support positive mental health and wellbeing as we navigate the current stage of the pandemic.

Take It At Your Pace

By now, some people have been getting together with family and friends within the 20km (or county) permitted limits and are becoming familiar with shopping while wearing a mask and social distancing. Others remain tentative about re-engaging socially and may feel they have lost some confidence because of living in such a restricted manner for quite some time. This variation is completely normal. We would encourage people to emerge from lockdown at the pace which is comfortable for them. Emerging from lockdown is not a race. For some, slowly rebuilding confidence at a gentle pace is the way to go. This might mean initially going shopping at quieter times when there are no queues, or maybe even postponing clothes shopping for another few weeks. Resist pressure from others to get together until you feel ready to do this. It is perfectly ok to just visit one relative in the first few weeks if that feels comfortable. In our clinical practices, where we have resumed face-to-face appointments, we are noticing that a significant proportion of clients currently prefer to continue with remote sessions by Zoom or other electronic means and we are more than happy to facilitate this.

Manage Stress by Taking Care of Your Body

When we are stressed, the nervous system is in 'threat' mode and it releases a complex mix of chemicals including adrenaline and cortisol. Over time, this may result in muscle tension and pain, disturbed sleep, increased worry and anxiety, irritability and so on. There are a number of physical activities which help counteract this and help reduce stress and tension. Getting regular aerobic exercise such as a brisk walk helps burn off the harmful stress chemicals and increases production of serotonin and endorphins which support positive mood. Eating regularly during the day and keeping well hydrated is also important. It is also hugely beneficial to practise an activity which engages the relaxation response. We often recommend progressive muscular relaxation, which we described in detail in this column last month. Deep abdominal breathing helps the nervous system switch off the stress response. Many people also find that meditating regularly helps reduce stress.

Slow Down and H.A.L.T.

When we feel stressed or anxious, it can often feel as though our thoughts 'speed up'. Invariably these racing, repetitive thoughts are negative and anxiety-provoking. When we become preoccupied by anxious thoughts, we can often lose sight of basic principles of self-care and this actually makes the stress cycle worse. We really like the acronym H.A.L.T. which reminds us to pay attention to the basic needs of Hunger, Anger, Loneliness and Tiredness, all of which may be overlooked when we feel stressed or anxious. As obvious as it sounds, when we are hungry we need to eat. When we are angry, we need to acknowledge the feeling and check out what unmet need is causing our anger. When we are lonely, we need to connect, either in person or by phone or online. When we are tired, we need to rest.

Reduce the Worry and Manage Anxious Thinking

A very common experience during all stages of the pandemic has been the tendency to worry about the future. Will my health and/or my family’s health be ok? Will I recover financially from the loss of income? What if life doesn’t return to normal for a long time? When we are faced with threat or uncertainty, it is very common that our minds become negatively future-focussed as we try to predict and control what happens next (which of course we can’t). Worrying does not help us cope. We like the metaphor that worrying is a bit like constantly pouring water into a bucket which has a large hole in its base. You can keep doing it, but the outcome will remain the same (empty bucket). However you will end up with a pain in your arm (or sleepless nights from constant worry). So, when we remind ourselves that worrying is really not useful, we can focus on positive strategies to reduce the amount of time we spend worrying.

Regularly practising physical relaxation helps to reduce worry, as the brain relaxes when the body is relaxed. Try to notice when you are worrying about the future and covid related matters. Say to yourself “That’s just worrying”. Naming it in this matter creates a little distance between you and the thought. Remember that thoughts are just thoughts, they are passing mental events. Imagine your anxious thoughts floating away from you, like leaves in a stream or clouds in the sky. Gently bring attention away from the worrying thought and focus on your breathing or on a distracting activity.

Go Easy On Yourself, You Are Going Through a Tough Time

Mental health experts worldwide have been writing about how a very significant proportion of the population are likely to experience increased stress and anxiety as a direct result of the pandemic and its knock-on effects. This has been and continues to be a tough time for all of us. Yet as psychologists, we are hearing people criticising themselves for how stressed they feel and expecting too much of themselves. Let’s give ourselves a break here. A little self-kindness, compassion and understanding goes a long way when it comes to getting through a stressful time. We are human and when life is tough we struggle. So, by treating ourselves with kindness and compassion, we help ourselves weather the storm, which like all storms, will pass. If the stress becomes overwhelming or you are really struggling to cope, the compassionate thing to do may be to reach out for help.

There are many resources available. HSE.ie and gov.ie have listings of useful supports. Also, many mental health professionals (ourselves included) are continuing to provide confidential counselling and therapy both face-to-face and using online platforms. We are all going through an unprecendentedly difficult time, but by taking care of ourselves both physically and mentally, we will get through it.

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.