In the coming weeks we might all be able to start returning to pre-COVID-19 activities. But how do we feel about that? Are we anxious about possibly exposing ourselves to risks we don't fully understand? We have been told ‘staying home = being safe’ and because our brain is good at making associations, we might easily find ourselves thinking ‘going out = unsafe’. This could understandably lead to a level of fear and anxiety. But how might this fear hinder us?
Fear stops us from doing things. Simple. At times this keeps us alive. Fear of falling to our death keeps us away from the cliff edges. Fear of burning ourselves stops us reaching into the firepit to rescue the marshmallow that has fallen off the stick. But sometimes our thoughts tell our brain that the danger is bigger than it really is. But we get the same ‘Don’t do it’ message from our brain and so we avoid it. We might think ‘the spider will eat me’, so our brain says, ‘Well don’t go in the shed then’. We then get a lovely, comfy sense of relief at not having had to face that fear. But this is like rewarding a child for not doing homework they believed was too hard, and they feared they would fail.
- Pupil: ‘Sir, I’ve not done my homework because it was too hard.’
- Teacher: ‘Well done, by not doing it you did not fail, here’s a star sticker for not failing’.
Do you see how this pans out? We learn that the ‘not doing’ is the solution to the fear. But this keeps us very stuck and the fear untested.
Susan Jeffers wrote a book called ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’, it’s a great book, I recommend reading the whole thing, but if nothing else read the title. It is crucial to acknowledge that we must feel some fear to overcome anxieties. We cannot simply say to our brain, ‘Don’t listen to my thought about the spider eating me, this isn’t true, you live in England you wally’ and then expect to be able to trot into the shed with no anxiety or trepidation. The brain is our survival, risk assessing machine. Put it into a situation that might be dangerous, and it will respond by prepping our bodies to deal with the threat. Fight and flight fuelled by adrenaline kicks in, the heart beats faster, palms get sweaty. You know the feeling. But we can work on gently showing our brain that we are ok, that some of our fears are out of proportion. We can re-educate it. Start by recognising the fear and what a more rational thought about the situation might be. Then devise a plan to face the fear in a step by step way. With each step our brain will learn that the fear response is not needed in that situation and we’ll then be ready to take the next step. You can use the sheet linked at the bottom of the blog as a template to set out your fear facing steps. I can now go into my shed, I still don’t like spiders but I’ve learnt I can be ok near them and my brain has stopped sending the ‘don’t go in there’ message and has stopped triggering adrenaline and fight and flight whenever I see one. But it took a while.
We might feel fear about getting back to activities we have stopped doing because of COVID- 19. Some things might take longer for us to be allowed to do and we shouldn’t go against government advice and rules. But once we are given the all clear to do things such as using buses, going to work, going to school, simply being out of the house more and all those things we used to do with no thought of danger, we might feel some fear. But not returning to activities we have been told we can do and want to do is not the answer. Be kind to yourself while your brain unlearns the fear and relearns ‘this is ok’. Take it a step at a time. Don’t jump in at the deep end if that feels too scary. And reward yourself for facing the fear, give yourself a pat on the back, or maybe even a star sticker. (Picture by daniel-thiele and stephane-mingot from unsplash)
It sounds simplistic to say that being actively grateful for what we have can make us more content, but it is true. Humans are built to survive and as such we’re geared up to notice problems so we can fix them, rather than notice what is working well. Being grateful takes work, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally.
When lockdown first loomed I became aware that I was dwelling on what I was going to miss, what I and the people I loved were not going to have or be able to do. There was a creeping disbelief of ‘REALLY?! You really want us to stay at home!!’. I doubted government strategy. I dwelled on the negative. But we can shift away from this. Focusing and fixating on external factors that we have no control over is the route to misery and worry.
Once we’ve let go of this, we can better accept that lockdown is our new temporary reality. Letting go of a struggle with things that are outside of our control builds acceptance and with acceptance comes the seed of gratitude. Unlike a plant, which starts with a small seed that grows bigger, gratitude is like a Russian doll, going from big to small. The big momma Russian doll, that you can always see, is gratitude for things that are staring us in the face. For me this was: I love and like the people I live with, my house is secure, even if there is less disposable income I know I will be able to feed and clothe my children. I am lucky. Noticing this, saying it out loud to friends on Zoom calls, saying it to my husband, all made me feel more settled, more content with this enforced change to my way of life. Actively noticing and acknowledging what we are grateful for is a fertiliser for gratitude growth.
As time has gone on, I’ve become increasingly aware, consciously and unconsciously, of working through the Russian doll. Conscious efforts to be more grateful triggers the brain to do it more, gratitude becomes a habit. My list is long; family, friends, my health, the garden, the corner shop (that was just about to shut but decided to stay open to support the community through this time and has always had flour, milk and tinned tomatoes), the sunshine, the fact I love the smell of Pledge. I could go on. Everyone’s list will be different, but we will all have one. For me today’s small things have been the fact that the thumb holes on my running top are where my thumbs are, at 5” 10 thumb holes on sport clothes are normally used to look at my watch through. And my breakfast, we got a supermarket delivery 2 days ago, I know…amazing…we got a delivery…I was and am grateful for that, but getting the shop was a big momma Russian doll of gratitude. The smaller inner doll of gratitude was that they had substituted the bread and I was given a bread I would never have chosen and it was lovely– it is the best thing since slice bread, and it is sliced bread, mind blowing. It will change my life for the better, even if just a tiny bit. Rather than focus on not getting the bread I ordered I shifted to being grateful for my new discovery. Without COVID-19 and lockdown I would not have discovered this.
The act of active gratitude is something we can all work on during lockdown. Focusing your attention on what you DO have, on what you CAN do rather than fixating on loss or things outside your control is psychologically healthier. Try writing down or saying out loud what you are grateful for, the big stuff and the small things. When you notice yourself feeling bad and dwelling on what you are missing, acknowledge that, remind yourself you will most probably get back to these things and that it is ok to miss them and then shift your focus to something you can be thankful for right here, right now.
Well these are truly exceptional times. It does not matter where in the world you are reading this, things have changed. We are hearing so much in the media about how isolation and COVID-19 are going to have a detrimental effect on our mental health. It is undoubtedly challenging, to say the least. Worries are amplified, routines disrupted, social connections severed and uncertainty is the new norm. For many it may have a lasting financial impact and people will lose loved ones. But can we find ways to grow from this? Our worlds are shrinking, but can we find space to expand and grow? I am by no means wishing to gloss over the difficulties or bury my head in the sand and pretend this is not happening or that it will not have some negative consequences for me and the people I love, but we hear enough about the hardship and I want to talk about growth.
Every day in my work as a psychotherapist I work with trauma and difficulty, either real trauma that has happened to people, or the internal trauma of living with mental health troubles. And every day I work with people to help them grow. To accept and acknowledge the difficulties but work towards making the best of life and be their best selves. People who have lived through trauma can and do recover and grow. In fact, we know that some people who live through trauma actually experience post-trauma growth, a lightbulb moment that makes you shift for the better. A disruption to our norm forces us to reappraise. People who have had near death experiences often shift to living more in the moment and making every day count. After a diagnosis of a life limiting condition people write bucket-lists and set about making the most of life. Even in the absence of trauma sudden changes make us reappraise, those of you who are parents may have experienced this when your child-free lives were uprooted by the arrival of a new human being, you cope with things on 2 hours sleep that you would have never dreamt possible, priorities changes overnight and you adapt. Can we work at making positive change from lock down and COVID-19.
So, whilst very much holding in my mind the difficult times we are living through, I am going to write about growth. I am going to pivot away from being fixated by the trauma and being stuck with thinking about the difficulties, losses and sadness and shift to looking at the growth, light and gratitude. Each time I write I will focus on an area for growth that you may want to join me in working on, or that may inspire you to set your own area for growth. My next post will be about growth in our gratitude.
Don’t forget you might find it hard to do this alone and that’s ok. If you have people you can lean on, lean on them and ask for help. Alternatively, you might want help from outside of your network. NHS mental health services are still taking referrals and working remotely by phone or video link. You can self-refer to most NHS therapy services, for under 18’s you need CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and people over 18 need their local IAPT (Improved Access to Psychological Therapies). All of these can be found with a Google search for your local area. Lots of private therapists, like myself, are also working using video link. There are also support lines such as Samaritan (telephone: 116 123) and Childline (telephone: 0800 1111).