The arrival of lockdown number three has surely come as a surprise to absolutely no-one. Whatever your view may have been on the politics of the pandemic, the one thing that simply can’t be denied is the seismic upward shift in hospital admissions.
By the second week of December anyone with even half an eye on the rapidly growing trend could have foreseen the inevitable evaporation of the de-restricted Christmas we had been promised.
As sure as night follows day, and just 24 hours after the Prime Minister’s December 18th proclamation that it would be ‘cruel’ to renege on that promise, so Christmas was cancelled.
Likewise, his statement that he was absolutely certain schools were safe, were followed a few days later, with a sense of inevitability that would have seemed a masterclass in political comic timing were it not for its dire consequences, with an announcement that schools had to close.
My point here is not to score points on the policies and politics per se, but rather to make the altogether different point that with every misstep, every change of direction, every error of judgement, every broken promise, the mental health of ordinary people takes another despairing step toward, or into, the abyss.
This third lockdown cuts more of the threads that tether us to our own sanity. Lockdown means more loneliness, more fear, more anxiety, more stress, more helplessness, more erosion of the freedoms that define who, what and how we are.
By playing fast and loose with promises it can’t possibly guarantee it can honour – presumably in an effort to placate us or perhaps make us more inclined to be compliant – the Government forces us into one of the four human survival defences we adopt when we’re faced with any threat:
In normal times, fight, flight, freeze fawn are vital in helping us to fight back, escape, stop or calm a situation – but chronic or repetitive stress like we’ve experienced this year means we risk getting ‘stuck’ in any one of those states.
And the result can be catastrophic for our mental wellbeing:
Fight breeds anger, rage and hostility
Flight sends us into panic, anxiety and sleeplessness
Freeze triggers shock, lethargy and depression
Fawn leaves us powerlessness, desperately trying to please and placate by saying yes when we mean no
What, then, are the best ways to support ourselves in this lockdown and those which, I’m sorry to say, will undoubtedly follow?
Ideally, the best response is to develop a big ‘window of tolerance’, the place within us where our nervous system is at rest and where we feel cool, calm, collected and connected.
From here we sleep well, digest well, rest well and make better decisions. That sounds great, right? But dealing with 2020 and everything it hurled at us has left us emotionally and physically exhausted.
Where do we find the energy required to do it all over again?
Being aware of how you’re responding to the triggers allows you to identify which trauma/stress response you’re experiencing – and this in turn allows you to self-care accordingly.
Fight: you feel angry, stressed and agitated. It’s time to step away from potential triggers like social media, Whatsapp and the news. Your instinct in Fight is to respond and fight immediately, but unless it’s a real emergency the best thing you can do is step away give yourself 24 hours before responding to anything.
It’s likely you’ll see and interpret things differently when you’ve calmed down, and as a result you’ll ‘respond’ differently. As I’m always fond of saying: before you do something, do nothing.
Flight: You feel anxious, panicky and restless. Flight tells us ‘do something immediately’, but – again – the most important thing to do when in this mode is remind yourself not to make any decisions. One example of a mass episode of flight mode activation from the first lockdown was the panic-buying of essentials like flour, pasta, disinfectant and loo roll.
It’s better to soothe yourself in ways that are non-destructive – a bottle of vodka might ‘soothe’ you in the moment, but it won’t be helpful to you the following day, nor will it solve the long-term issue.
Talk to someone who can help ‘talk you down’ and remind yourself that ‘this, too, shall pass’. Because it will. It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass
Freeze: we go into freeze when we have spent too long in fight or flight. It’s the ‘adrenalin dump’ that comes after a big shock. We may also feel depressed, unmotivated, bored and numb.
Exiting freeze requires nurture: compassion, time to process, gentle goal-setting once you’re out of shock, baby steps, and a lot of self-care.
Fawn: a feeling of powerlessness. We can address this through self-care by watching videos of assertive people, learning how to set boundaries, empowering ourselves through movement – dancing or exercising are brilliant for this – and by reminding ourselves that we have the same rights as others.
When you can’t co-regulate you need to self-regulate
Co-regulation is about managing our emotions through connection with others, whether that’s ranting to a friend, getting a hug off a family member or crying on a support group member’s shoulder.
For many people, lockdown has removed the option for us to practise self-care in this way. Zoom may allow us to communicate, but it’s not the same and it doesn’t carry the same healing power.
Hugging someone for longer than 20 seconds releases oxytocin, which plays a critical role in social bonding. This means we need to find other ways to self-regulate our own emotions and writing down how you feel, moving and listening to your body and asking yourself what you need are all good ways of doing this.
Ask yourself positive questions
The brain is your best friend and your worst enemy.
Ask it a negative question, such as Why am I such a loser? and it will give you a whole list of reasons why you are definitely, absolutely a loser.
Ask it a positive question such as What can I do to support myself today? and it gives it an opportunity to be creative and come up with solutions.
A great way to do this is to start your day by asking What do I need today? Listening to the answer and acting on it takes practice, but your mind will lead you to better places if you start asking it the right questions
You are what you consume
This isn’t just about what you eat, it goes for news and social media noise as well. As addictive as all that can be, just step away from the phone for a while. Set boundaries for yourself around what you allow yourself to be exposed to each day. There is a lot of anger and a lot of fear present out there, so protect yourself.
Set up support
Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of lockdown. As humans we get distressed when we lose connection to other people, so start setting up a trusted support circle now, ahead of time. If you don’t have the support of family then set up with like-minded friends.
And if your social circle can’t support you, then consider joining an online support group where you can learn techniques to support yourself and join with people experiencing similar feelings. There are also many fantastic helplines to call when despair hits.
Release your anger in healthy ways – it’s normal to feel angry right now, but rather than lashing out at your partner or others who don’t share your views on social media, release it healthily from your body by punching a pillow.
Yes, I know – it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? And you may feel a bit ridiculous when you first do it, but the release is massively cathartic. You can also ‘complete the stress cycle’ by shaking out your body when you notice a build-up of adrenalin, upset or shock – animals and toddlers do this instinctively, and for a reason – it works!
It’s easier to treat ourselves well when we feel good, it’s harder when we don’t – but it’s when we don’t feel good that we need self-care most.
We all have to find our own version of self-care that works for us – spending time in nature, taking long baths, making really healthy delicious food, reading comforting books, watching films and doing something creative are all popular ways of practising self-care.
Numbing out on endless TV, junk food and booze-hounding is an instant reaction to the shock of a lockdown and entirely understandable – but as a long-term coping strategy it’s corrosive to your wellbeing and spirit.
When you can’t go out, go in
Meditation and mindfulness are great practices to allow you to come back to and centre yourself. They help to ease you back into your ‘window of tolerance’ and take a break from the incessant white noise of the world.
We each get through lockdowns in different ways and we would always encourage you to treat yourself to as many self-care and wellbeing practices as possible. But sometimes we just need to ‘get through it’ in any way we can and it’s vital to leave self-judgement at the door.
Who cares if someone else gets through a second lockdown with a new business and 6 new languages under their belt and you spent most of it under a duvet? Ditch the compare and despair lockdown competition and give yourself credit that you are doing the best you can.
Help others –
If – and only if – we have the capacity, supporting others in whatever way you can will help you to feel connected and purposeful during a period when we may feel emotionally adrift. But … you must look after your first. Remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Deep breath work
The 4-7-8 breathing technique, also known as ‘relaxing breath’, involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds, this breathing pattern helps reduce anxiety and can also be really useful at night for easing you into sleep
Have a cup of tea with your feelings
This is one of my favourite techniques. Many of us are scared to really feel our feelings because we think we will get consumed by them and stay stuck there, so we spend hours in various distractions trying to ignore them.
It might seem like a good coping strategy, but the reality is that they simply fester and eventually come back stronger. A lovely technique is to spend a few minutes in the morning just sitting with how you feel and a cup of tea. Build this up bit by bit – by being with our feelings and allowing them to just be there they are less likely to build up into rage, panic or another overwhelming state
Laugh and cry
Yes, things are devastating right now, so let yourself cry when you need to, let yourself rage on a pillow when you need to … but also you must let yourself laugh, too. 2020 has been a horror show – but one thing we can all agree on is that it has served up the best memes ever!
Develop your inner parent
Lockdown is a time when it’s important to be the parent who loves you unconditionally. We all have an inner critic – the insistent little voice that criticises everything you do, erodes your self-esteem and self-worth and generally gives you a hard time for being you.
Some of us have much harsher inner critics than others – depending on what you have gone through in life, the general rule is the more trauma or adverse experiences you have encountered the stronger this will be.
In self-parenting we create a different, more measured and mature presence that is capable of loving all of you for what you are.
It is the loving voice that heals the inner wounded child and we develop it by recognising the difference between what we want and what is good for us.
By doing that we can then begin to nurture ourselves as a parent might – aligning that calm and guiding voice with our best interests.
In the end, we are humans who are currently living an existence that is alien to us as a species of animal that thrives in a tribe. So, it’s okay to be kind. Self-care isn’t selfish. A duvet day can be a healing day – as long as a duvet day doesn’t become your everyday.
Give yourself a break. Your mental health will thank you for it.