From the Psychologist’s Desk – Sailing the Corona Waters

Schools, colleges and universities are shut, most people are working from home, multiple countries are in lockdown, only essential services are working. The world as we knew it two months ago has changed drastically, thanks to the COVID-19 virus. Everyone is concerned – for their safety, for their loved ones, for the future. Uncertainty and ambiguity have never been more prominent, globally, during my lifetime. In the middle of all this, if you feel overwhelmed or anxious or numb or tired and if your body and mind are thinking and doing things they’ve never thought or done before, it’s ok. You’re allowed to feel everything you are feeling, and you’re not alone. More importantly, let yourself to feel the things you are feeling and try dealing with them rather than pushing them away.

While the rest of the world is in quarantine and my feed is filled with work from home (WFH) posts, I still do have to go in to work as a psychologist with children and adolescents (and their families), and WFH occasionally (as I have for the last year or so) for my PhD. This post is my attempt at putting my experiences in the form of 10 things you can do to cope better in these difficult times.

This is a canvas I made last week. Even something so simple can have a calming effect and give your mind space and time to process what it is feeling.
  • What are You Feeling and When?

Before you can come up with solutions, you need to know what is making things worse? Pay attention to your moods and your body’s reactions to different situations. When are you more tensed? Are there situations and moments where you are relaxed? Are you unable to stop thinking about Covid-19 and its impact? Is this because of the stimulus you are surrounded by at the moment? Is the change in structure making you less efficient? Do you have extra work as a result of the unprecedented changes? Is it the lack of knowledge that is making you insecure?

Sadness, fear, anger play essential roles in our life. They warn us and give us the ability to change things. Don’t lock them away; give them room to talk to you.

  • The Overwhelming amount of News and Input

Do not go down a news reading rabbit hole, if it causes anxiety. Stick to a timeslot every day and restrict the number of articles you read. Ideally, just get the overview from a primetime news slot or over the radio, and google very specifically for articles that provide you only with the information you are looking for. To ensure a restful sleep and hopefully calmer dreams, try not to consume any news or discuss it with other people a few hours before you go to bed.

If there are people (or WhatsApp groups) in your daily life that overload you with information and how it’s ruining everything, draw some boundaries for yourself. You can start by saying how you feel that it’s too much for you and you’d like some space. Try suggesting alternate topics of conversation or activities. If none of this works, you could consider restricting your interaction or removing yourself from the environment.

  • The Constant Anxiety of ‘What can I do to stop this?’

Most governments and health agencies are communicating really well. There are very clear directives on how to act and what to do (the Robert-Koch Institute is doing a fantastic job). Inform yourself from the correct sources, put rituals in place to follow these and then tell yourself that you are responsibly doing everything you could. E.g., you could connect washing hands to your jacket or shoes. That way, you ensure you are washing your hands every time you leave home and return, or go to any place that requires you to remove your jacket (e.g. a doctor’s visit). If it helps, you could hang affirmations over your sink, like ‘I am keeping myself and others safe’. You could also say these affirmations to yourself when you get out and ensure you are walking 2 meters away from other people, or when you sneeze into your elbow, or when you use disinfectants. This way, your fear is continuously being told that you are doing everything you can for you and the people around you.

If you have children at home, inform them too. There are some amazing videos out there, in multiple languages, explaining the current scenario in age-appropriate language. Make sure to talk to them about how we can take care and prevent things from getting worse, rather than tell them to be scared of some super-virus out there. Tell them how they can be a superhero by washing their hands and practising social distancing.

  • The Overwhelming Loss of Structure

When we are secure in our structure, we can tolerate pretty high levels of ambiguity, insecurity and uncertainty within it. If we no longer have a structure in our day, we can quickly lose the one in our minds. Students go to school/college/university, employees go to work, some of us have classes we take outside these commitments, or maybe go to the gym or a book club at the same time every week. Now that this structure is gone, you need to make a new one. For yourself and any people dependent on you. This is your responsibility and requires you to be disciplined.

You now need to work extra hard to still get out of bed, brush and shower, even though no one will know if you went to your virtual workplace with bad breath. You need to have substitutes for your colleagues and the coffee break talks. The best way to do this is by making yourself accountable to someone, even if it isn’t your boss/company. Create a virtual workspace for your team and tell people there what you plan to do the next day. If you can’t have an online team, join a twitter challenge and check-in there. Twitter can be a great way to have remote colleagues and keep yourself accountable on a very public platform. If you join a private or public group, it can also be inspirational to see other people talk about what they accomplished that day. I’ve had study and accountability partners for a large part of last year – they, not the colleagues I would have met if I went to work, are the reason I have two articles in publishing!

  • Getting Work Done at Home

Nothing triggers imposter syndrome like being stuck with your thoughts and having the liberty to evaluate your work every day.

Here are some reality checks for you. An 8-hour workday doesn’t actually mean 8 hours of completely concentrated work. Cut yourself some slack and set realistic goals every day. If you can’t reach your goals three days a week, they are not realistic. Laundry and Netflix are real distractions. Don’t fight them, work with them. Do the things you feel like doing in work breaks and pauses. Kids will need your attention (there will be pooping, fighting and crying). Pets will walk over your keyboard. DHL will ring the bell. If you have children with school work, you may also need to help out with homeschooling. The phone will not only ring for business calls but also because of concerned family and friends. Factor all this in when setting your goals.

Write down 1-2 work goals you have every day, and put a reward next to it. It’s not easy working from home, especially with a family. You are doing everything you can. You deserve that glass of wine and a bubble bath even if it seems like the world is crashing down around you.

  • Running out of Coping Strategies

We have been talking about feelings, emotions and anxieties. I’m sure most of you have ways to cope with them, but you may or may not be able to practice these right now, or the coping techniques till date may not suffice with the mounting intensity of what all of us are feeling these days. Here is an excellent opportunity to add a technique to your bag of copings.

Ideally, it’s nice to learn something physical that lets you channel everything you are feeling, and something that lets you deal with what you are experiencing and make sense of it. Examples of the former are easy to do indoor exercises like Yoga, Pilates or dancing. Examples of the latter include journaling, art, poetry writing. You could also use these as a distraction when it gets too overwhelming, or take up a project that calms you down – reorganize the bookshelf, clear out clutter, learn a knitting pattern.

You could also start a project that gives you hope and helps you plan for a time when all this is over. E.g., you could start writing a family recipe book (you’re stuck with them anyway!). That way, you could invite friends over, after this crazy time subsides, for a lunch of the traditional stew your mother makes and the chocolate pizza your kids invented.

  • Social Media Posts and FOMO!

Right now, a lot of people are posting about what they are doing at home. Someone is catching up on reading, someone is learning a new art, someone is doing an online course, someone is offering an online course, every app you’ve ever wanted is offering discounts. Even Netflix seems to have a surge of new shows. Since I have to work, I am experiencing the fear of missing out on all the marvellous offers out there. If you feel this way too, remember – you can do anything (although restricted), but certainly not everything. Think about what your goals in life are at this point. If you are working at home with 2 kids, you may be overworked and not actually have the free time to do everything advertised. If so, join conversations about what other parents are doing, who may or may not be your peers. Set your work and ‘learning to cope’ goals and stick to those.

  • How to Give and Receive Social Support?

Talk to friends and loved ones. We need each other.

If you are anxious, you can talk about it. Maybe it helps. If this is getting overwhelming because all everyone can talk about right now is the Corona Virus, try breaking the cycle consciously. Reach out to friends and propose talking about non-corona related positive/funny things for 20 minutes. What are you currently reading/watching? What series is binge-worthy? Spring is here – what would you like to plant this year? Exchange recipes. Share fashion tips. Discuss your dream house. Inspire others to try that wonderful dance tutorial you really love. Have videocall appointments to paint together. Remember there are still babies doing cute things, dogs licking your faces and cats giving you sass – talk about it.

  • When Everything Else Fails

Get help. Even if you never considered it till this point, keep the helpline numbers in your country handy. There is no shame in reaching out. People are working tirelessly, so we do not get into a collective corona depression or become a society run by panic. Tell your GP how you feel and ask him for some ways you and your loved ones could get help if need be.

  • “What Else Can I Do?”

A good way to feel like you are ‘doing something’ about everything you hear is to go out and provide support to those who need it. If you do not feel at-risk, but just helpless, consider volunteering. A lot of organizations are looking for volunteers. Ask around.

I saw a note outside my workplace, stuck on a pole, from someone living alone and currently WFH, offering rides to supermarkets and pharmacies for people in ‘at-risk’ groups. You don’t need to go too far. Right now, it’s not just people who are at risk of getting the virus who are vulnerable. If you have neighbours in caregiver roles, know individuals with any kinds of disabilities, individuals prone to mental health problems, offer to check-in or help with basic stuff. Ask people how they are doing. Tell them how you are doing. Let’s help each other out.

In summary, ask yourself how you are doing and give your emotions space to manifest themselves. Understand them and take the steps needed to feel better. Restrict the amount of sadness/anxiety-causing stimuli and make conscious space for calming thoughts and feelings. Make realistic plans for yourself, use affirmations, reward yourself and engage in healthy coping strategies. Focus on creating a supportive community environment for you, your family, friends, loved ones, neighbours and all the people you come in contact with in person or virtually.

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