With the COVID-19 outbreak forcing millions to self-isolate across the globe, it’s no wonder anxiety and stress levels are on the rise. It’s impossible to turn on the TV without seeing news about the pandemics, and it’s impossible to know the future. Many of us don’t know how to take care of ourselves in such an unusual situation. So, what do we do? How can we stay mentally healthy with everything going on?
We ask Dr Christina Moutsou, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Writer, for tips and methods for managing anxiety and stress levels during COVID-19:
Are you currently working and how has social distancing affected your way of working?
I am lucky in that most of my practice as a therapist is based at home, where I have a separate consulting room and that a number of my sessions with clients were already online before the lockdown. So, in terms of my work with some of my clients, nothing changed. Having said that, there was definitely a sense of loss in having to convert to online work with other clients. I also found, especially in the first two weeks of lockdown, that there was a lot of emotional turbulence. Many of my clients had to make quick decisions about where to be in lockdown and with whom. It brought up difficult dilemmas for them in terms of their identity and their close relationships. It is also not easy to be in lockdown alone for an indefinite period of time, and I think for my clients who either chose to or had to be alone during the crisis, there were some intense feelings of depression and anxiety to grapple with.
In your opinion, how can we best cope mentally with some of the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak?
I think it is particularly important during this difficult period of crisis to stay in touch with our feelings, but at the same time, not to let them take over in a way that debilitates us. This is not an easy balance. I found some of the stories of death and devastation around us hard to come to terms with. There are many ‘experts’ out there, advising us to make the best out of the situation, telling us there is a higher purpose in what is happening and that it is actually ‘good’ for us. They are telling us in more than one way not to listen to our feelings. This is in a way not surprising when there is such a threat to our survival around and we are therefore unconsciously guided by fear. But I think chances are that dismissing our feelings is likely to make us even more anxious, depressed and isolated in the long run.
Our friends, neighbours and family members are anxious. How can we help?
Reaching out and being kind can make a big difference. I think it is also crucial to be mindful of the fact that some people may be feeling hugely isolated or may be facing situations of domestic disaster. I am part of an online group where there were repeated boastful messages from certain members about how blissful it was to be spending time with their partner and family until another member confessed that her husband had violent outbursts of anger and he had now deserted the family. I think in situations where we are all feeling vulnerable, it may be tempting to be defensive and tell others how easy we find it or how lucky we are. But we just don’t know how this may affect those who are struggling. Fake glamour projected on social media can be particularly dangerous for mental health right now.
Many social support networks are now available. Are there any you would recommend?
I think groups can be tricky during the lockdown for the above reasons unless there is somebody facilitating the group and all members feel safe. Of course, groups can make us feel like we still belong to society, but some people may use groups to hide or intimidate others. I find the sense of community though can be moving and uplifting. I resisted participating in the clapping for the National Health Service for a while, as I had a certain degree of political discomfort about it. However when we decided to participate as a family, it was incredibly moving to witness everyone standing in front of their house and joining in, conveying that we are all in it together. I would also say that there is a lot of support and help out there for mental health at the moment and much volunteer initiative as well, so for anyone who is struggling, it is important to know that help is available!
5 Tips to Help You Stay Mentally Healthy
Each of us have different needs and will be facing different demons during the crisis, but below are the strategies that I found helpful:
1. Keep a daily record
I kept a daily diary of the days in lockdown. I found this really helped me identify what was going on for me and process it. I noticed that familiar dysfunctional patterns from the past surfaced during this period of crisis. Even if you don’t find it easy to write or to engage in any other creative activity in order to process your feelings, having some quiet time alone every day, may help you identify what is going on for you before the feelings take over in an unhelpful way.
2. Focus on the present
Sometimes, getting in touch with difficult feelings can be overwhelming nonetheless. This is especially so under conditions of deprivation. Anxiety is a particularly debilitating experience as there is intense preoccupation with catastrophic future scenarios. If you experience intense anxious thoughts, it can help to focus on what is happening in the here and now and how you can manage that rather than project some disaster into the future. I found that having good routines everyday helped me contain my feelings. Whenever I stayed in bed for longer than I needed to when I was not working, it made my day much harder to manage.
3. Be kind to yourself
Equally, it is important to be kind to oneself when the going is tough. I have a tendency to push myself too much sometimes, yet I found it was harder to concentrate and to accomplish goals under these strange conditions. So, I think accepting that we may not be able to function fully when there is so much chaos and uncertainty around us is also important.
4. Work on your relationships
Relationships are hugely important to all of us. I think the lockdown has been a shock factor for many relationships. It really threw light, sometimes violently, to our true feelings about certain relationships and friendships. It can be hellish to be locked in with somebody we don’t want to be close to or to miss people we cannot physically access during the lockdown. For those of us who are lucky to be sharing space with those we do want to be with, nurturing the relationship is even more important under these strenuous conditions. This always involves some quality time together, but also, having private space away from each other, which should be possible even when living in a confined space. I was moved by how some of my clients came to complicated arrangements with their partners in order to ensure privacy for their session with me. Feeling like their partner respected their private space made them feel safe and even closer to them.
5. Stay connected
Reaching out. There have been times during the lockdown when I have felt isolated. Some of these times, people came to my mind who I was worried about or I felt that they had not been in touch. What I found invariably was that reaching out made a huge positive difference to my mood. When we reach out to the people who matter to us, we reconnect with them and we discover they keep us in mind too. Having said that, it is also important to respect others’ privacy and some of the various online group chats can at times feel overwhelming and intrusive.
Dr Christina Moutsou is a psychotherapist who has been practising since 1999. On top of her traditional papers, she publishes fiction and creative non-fiction. Want to learn more about Dr Moutsou and her work? Check out her website: https://www.space-for-thinking.co.uk/ and click here to follow her on facebook.