Coping with Lockdown; Tips from a Health Psychologist
As we keep hearing, “we are currently dealing with an unprecedented time in history”. As a result we are all having to navigate unfamiliar terrain.
Here are some evidence-based tips to help make the journey a little smoother.
- Focus on what you can control
In a time where so much is out of our control (such as our usual freedoms being taken away and the uncertainty of the future) it is important to focus on the things we can control whilst attempting to acknowledge and let go of what we can’t.
- Remind yourself that this will pass
It is particularly challenging given that the timeframe is uncertain. It is easy to feel as though “no end is in sight”. It is important to remind yourself that this situation, particularly self-isolation is temporary.
- Nourish your body
As we all know, if the body is not nourished it does not function well.
- Moving your body
A significant part of nourishing our body involves getting it moving. Physical activity doesn’t have to be structured exercise it can range from household chores to dancing in your pyjamas to your favourite tune. Get creative! Keeping active helps to keep you healthy, energised, happier and less stressed. It can also help to make you feel empowered and in control. If you move your body in some way on a daily basis, it will help you to cope with the challenges currently facing you
- Eating well
What we eat directly impacts our physical and mental health. The trouble is that when we are tired, stressed, bored & down we tend to go for foods that give us pleasure, energy and distraction. Many of us have particular foods that provide us comfort and these are what we turn to. Often these comfort foods are high caloric foods such as ultra-processed foods (companies have been very clever in making processed foods super tasty - Google the term “bliss point + food”) or sugary foods which give us a quick boost in mood and energy. Unfortunately, these foods do not tend to nourish the body. Instead they are associated with a range of health issues and result in an extreme energy crash after you have consumed them. Eating unprocessed “whole foods” will help to sustain your energy and keep your body healthy for the long term. Interesting fact: You may have heard of serotonin also known as the “happy hormone”. An estimated 90% of our serotonin receptors are actually located in our gut which helps to explain why what we eat impacts our mood so much.
- Keeping hydrated
Keep a drink bottle handy which will enable you to keep track of how much you are drinking during the day. If plain water isn’t as desirable to you, adding a wedge of lime or lemon can help or even a few slices of your favourite fruit. Humans are not particularly good at distinguishing between when we are thirsty, hungry or tired. If you are heading to the kitchen for a snack, drink a large glass of water to see how you feel. It can also help to include drinking water as part of your daily schedule e.g. the moment you wake up before your cup of coffee, at breakfast, morning tea, lunch etc.
Meditation has been linked to variety of benefits such as reduced stress, healthy blood pressure and enhanced sleep. There are some great resources such as www.headspace.com to help you get started.
- Go outside daily
If possible spend time outside, connect with nature, breathe in fresh air and bathe yourself in sunshine (sensibly and safely of course). If going outside is not possible, open the windows and doors and find a sunny spot inside. Sensible sun exposure has been associated with a variety of health benefits ranging from improved mood to enhanced sleep. How long you can safely spend in the sun will depend on where you are in the world and individual risk.
- Plan your days to include Enjoyment, Achievement, Connection (ACE)
As people, we tend to find comfort in predictability and routine. Begin your days in the usual way you would, e.g. showering getting out of your pyjamas etc. Schedule your days to include activities that give you a sense of enjoyment, achievement and connection with others in order to boost your mood, sense of satisfaction & control, and ultimately your ability to cope. These activities have been shown to alter our brain chemistry. Achievement is known to increase Dopamine (the pleasure and reward chemical), enjoyable activities increase Serotonin (known as the happy chemical), & connecting with others increases Oxytocin (the love hormone). These activities can be simple or more elaborate. What you do will depend on a variety of factors and sometimes the key will be to reframe what you are able to do. You may, for example, only have the energy to unload the dishwasher rather than delve into a large project, or text message a family member rather than partake in a group conference video call. That is OK. Be kind to yourself. You can always note things down for another day. It is also helpful to chunk your time into whatever seems manageable to you, particularly when we are unaware of how long our current situation will go on for. This will help to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.
- Do the things you know uplift you and perhaps try something new
Wear your favourite outfits that give you joy, have a dress up day, listen to your favourite music, dance, sing, do yoga, be creative. Write down all of the things that lift your spirit. If the constraints of self-isolation mean you can’t do certain things try and modify them or note them down to do after the lockdown is lifted. Researchers have found that listening to music and partaking in creative activities in particular can have significant stress relieving effects. Pop on your favourite tune and grab the kids paints… get creating!
- Use your values to guide you and set goals
Think about what is really important to you. In other words what gives your life meaning and purpose. Use your values to guide you when you plan your days and weeks ahead. Values are not goals (which have an end point) they instead act as an internal compass to guide you through life. For example, one of your values may be to help others. In order to action this value you may organise groceries for a family in need or provide a listening ear to someone who is struggling. Another value may be “being a loving partner”. A goal may be to do something that you know your partner would appreciate at some point during the week.
- Practice daily gratitude (great to do with kids)
Performing simple acts of giving thanks can have a positive impact on our health and happiness. It can also help to keep things in perspective. Here are some ideas
- List five things you are grateful for everyday.
- Write about a person in your life that you’re especially grateful for and why.
- Acts of kindness (great to do with kids)
Helping others is a great way of uplifting your mood and contributing to society simultaneously. Sit down and brainstorm ways you can help others, particularly those who are vulnerable & acting in service.
- Limit your time spent focusing on COVID-19
Whilst it is important to keep up to date with the latest information, particularly around what we need to do in order to keep ourselves, our families and others safe, it is important to limit our time spent focusing on COVID-19. We are being bombarded with information that can often be scary and overwhelming. In addition a lot of the information is not necessarily factual. It is important to give yourself respite from thinking about it in order to reduce your levels of stress and make things more manageable. To give you a break positive distraction can be particularly useful such as watching your favourite movie.
- Self compassion, kindness and mindfulness
As in any crisis, it is perfectly normal to feel a range of negative emotions. Many may be experiencing anxiety/fear due to safety concerns, the uncertainty of what is to come and concern for loved ones who are vulnerable. Some may be feeling sadness due to dramatic changes in their reality. Feelings of frustration may also be arising, particularly with kids being home, out of routine themselves experiencing a range of emotions. This is where the importance of self-compassion and kindness comes in. It is important to acknowledge and validate those feelings that are emerging. Research has shown that when we label our emotions, our body becomes less stressed biologically. Same goes for providing ourselves with compassion and kindness in times of difficulty. For example “I am feeling anxious about my grandfather being elderly and by himself and that is really difficult”. Giving yourself a moment to have a warm cup of tea/doing something that soothes you can be really helpful when these feelings arise. Asking these questions “What do I feel” “What do I need?” “What can I do?”
- Being patient
A big part of this is being patient with yourself and others, particularly your children. Expect that your children may find it challenging to identify and express their emotions and as a consequence be more demanding and seek attachment more than normal. If you find yourself getting worked up, pause & take a deep breath so that you can respond rather than react. It is important to focus on nurturing relationships and creating a safe and secure space for your children. (Be especially aware of talking about COVID-19 if your children can hear. Talking about anything alarming may make them fearful). Spend time allowing your child to express their emotions in their own way as each child is different. Some children may be able to verbalise more easily whereas others may find creative activities such as drawing or playing more helpful.
- Mindfulness & connecting with nature
Mindfulness refers to paying attention in the present moment without judgement (mindfulness can be in the form of more structured meditation or more brief daily techniques). Mindfulness can be a great tool, particularly in times where things are out of our control. Connecting with nature can also be incredibly nourishing and it can work very well to combine the two. For example lying on the grass, looking up at the clouds and noticing them passing by. Mindful eating - Mindfulness can be a fabulous way of moderating calories and getting the most pleasure out of your favourite treats. Mindfully eating dark chocolate is my personal favourite. Grounding techniques - To calm down quickly, using the five senses touch, taste, smell, vision & sound can be a great way of refocusing attention to the present moment when one is feeling overwhelmed. One example of this is the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, a great one to teach your kids to use when they feel stressed.
- Acknowledging your own strengths and the strengths of others
Part of being kind to oneself is acknowledging what you are doing well rather than what you are not. Leave the persistent self-critic at the front door. Constantly criticising oneself has been shown to activate the body’s stress response and can make it difficult to cope with challenges that arise.
Acknowledging workers who are putting themselves on the line for us during this time is also of great importance and helps connect us with humanity.
- Time alone/Escape plans
Schedule in time for each member of the household to have space to themselves. Some may need more time than others. Either way every person needs a place they can retreat to, particularly if they are feeling overwhelmed or just need time to replenish energy. For children it can work well to spend time with them creating a special safe space for them to go to. Cosy enclosed spaces often work well such as a tent created with sheets and pillows with their favourite soft toys. Identifying a light-hearted code word for family members to use when they are feeling overwhelmed can also work well, particularly for those who find it difficult to communicate.
- Plan things to look forward to both in the short term and post self-isolation
The anticipation of having something to look forward to can provide us with the motivation and persistence to keep us going through difficult times. The process of planning something enjoyable can also work as a useful distraction.
- Seek help if you need it
It can be helpful to write down a list of people in your life who can provide you with support if you need it. Your support people may be those in your inner circle such as family and friends, or those in the wider community and professional support services. If you are not coping or are concerned reach out for help, you are not alone. If in doubt, contact your GP and they will be able to refer you to support services that are currently operating.
22. Focusing on the good
It can be really helpful to try and focus on the hopeful stories and acts of good that are happening all around the world at the moment, particularly as we are constantly being bombarded with negative stimuli. There is a saying that the brain is like Velcro when it comes to negative experiences but Teflon with positive ones. Focusing on the positive things that are happening to you and around the world can be helpful to keep things in balance and to nurture hope.
23. Find the opportunity
Think of how this time could in some way be an opportunity for you on a deeper level personally and for humanity. What can we learn from this? How can we grow? How can we be empowered from this experience to improve our world for generations to come? (Of course this is certainly easier to think about when you are feeling reasonably calm so firstly focus on strategies to reduce your levels of distress/boosting your mood if you are feeling overwhelmed).
We have an opportunity to connect with humanity, perhaps in a way we never have done before. You are not alone. We are all in this together.
Author: Haley Stevenson-Wright, Registered Health Psychologist, Mother.